September 2011 Archives

Profs. Fred Martin (Computer Science) and Michelle Scribner-MacLean (Graduate School of Education) were guests at the Fifth Annual River Day, hosted by Congresswomen Niki Tsongas on September 15, 2011.

Martin and Scribner-MacLean joined Rep. Tsongas on the banks of the Concord River to describe their new four-year, $1.3M NSF award to create an internet-based platform, dubbed iSENSE, which will engage students in data-intensive science inquiry. Working with a number of school systems in the Merrimack Valley, Martin and Scribner-MacLean will support teachers in integrating the internet-based technology into their science instruction. Machine Science Inc., of Cambridge, MA, is a grant partner, and will involve schools in the Boston area in project work.

The grant also includes a partnership with the Tsongas Industrial History Center and the National Park Service. Martin and Scribner-MacLean will work with staff at these two institutions to develop a new version of their River As A Classroom field trip, which brings middle- and high-school students onto the Merrimack River to study water quality. Students and teachers who participate in the new river-based field trip will use the project’s “iSENSE” technology to record, visualize, and discuss river water quality measurements.

At the River Day event, Martin and Scribner-MacLean had the opportunity to present their work to the Lock Masters, a Lowell-based volunteer group who operates the centuries-old canal locks system in the city, and high school students from the Spindle City Corp, who volunteer their service for beautification projects in the city.


(L-R) Prof. Fred Martin, U.S. Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, and Prof. Michelle Scribner-MacLean on the banks of the Concord River behind the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center. For more information about Martin and Scribner-MacLean’s new science education award, see this story.
Physics doctoral student Andrew Balchunas presented new work, Optical Spectroscopy of Candidate X-ray Binaries in the Starburst IC 10 at the American Astronomical Society’s High Energy Astrophysics Division (HEAD) meeting in Newport, RI on September 7, 2011. Balchunas worked with Dr. Silas Laycock of the Physics and Applied Physics Department, and undergraduates Rigel Cappallo and Kate Oram, who are co-authors on the study.

The poster reported on the optical spectra of 25 stars that are associated with X-ray emission seen by the Chandra X-ray Observatory (which is an orbiting observatory operated by NASA). Although ranking among the most luminous stars in existence, the stars lie in a galaxy 2 million light years away in the constellation Cassiopeia. Consequently the stars studied are about 15 million times fainter than the limit of human vision. Collecting enough of their distant light to disperse into a spectrum was a job for Chandra’s giant 8-meter Gemini telescope.

By measuring the doppler shift of spectral lines in each star, Laycock and Balchunas were able to prove that most of the X-ray stars lie in the galaxy IC10, which is rushing towards our own Milky Way at 340 km/s. (No cause for alarm, 2 million lightyears is a very very long way away!) At this huge distance, the only objects luminous enough to be visible in X-rays are X-ray Binaries (XRBs).

When one member of binary star system goes supernova, the survivor can suddenly find itself with a black hole or neutron star for a partner. The companion continues shedding material in a stellar wind (as all stars including our Sun, do to varying extent), and some of this matter gets dragged onto the compact object by gravity. As the gas spirals into the strong gravitational field, it is heated to millions of degrees by friction, releasing huge amounts of energy across the electromagnetic spectrum, but mostly in X-rays.

The X-ray binary phenomenon is dramatic, but very short-lived, which presents an intriguing way to probe the evolution of stars and galaxies. Laycock’s team is studying this particular galaxy because it contains the youngest and most massive stars. The basic idea is to discover how its XRBs differ from those in other older galaxies. For example, is there a higher rate of black hole binaries, or, are more massive stars involved, are their orbits tighter?

In addition to presenting the UMass Lowell astronomy group’s poster, Balchunas listened to talks by leading astronomers, and had the pleasure of meeting the author of the textbook he is studying in Dr. Laycock's Astronomy & Astrophysics I course this semester. “The highlight was probably hearing the latest cosmology findings on the dark-energy driven expansion of the universe, from supernova studies,” said Balchunas.

Gemini optical spectrum of one suspected X-ray binary. It is a hot, luminous supergiant shedding gas that likely fuels the neutron star or black hole companion. The emission lines are evidence of a powerful outflow. The inset shows the line is doppler shifted by about 340 km/s, placing it in the starburst galaxy.

Gemini image of Starburst IC10 galaxy with positions of X-ray stars marked.
On September 2, 2011, JiSun Im successfully defended her doctoral dissertation in the Department of Chemistry, entitled “Chemiresistors based on thiol-functionalized gold nanoparticles, metal oxides, and their composites for the detection of toxic chemicals.”

Dr. Im’s research was conducted under the supervision of Professor James Whitten. With funding from the Army Research Laboratory, her work focused on developing chemical sensing materials for the detection of toxic chemicals, including volatile organic compounds, explosives, and nerve agents.

During her five-year graduate career at UMass Lowell, Im spearheaded the development of a portable prototype sensor system, nicknamed the “Mini-Mutt.” This instrument uses nano-particles and electrically conducting polymers to detect and identify chemical vapors. A video story about the Mini-Mutt is presently online at

Dr. Im has accepted a postdoctoral research position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Dr. JiSun Im (left) and Dr. James Whitten (Professor and Chair, Department of Chemistry)

Prof. Jesse Heines (Computer Science) is the leader of a multi-departmental UMass Lowell team that has been awarded $450K from the National Science Foundation for their project, Computational Thinking through Computing and Music. Profs. Gena Greher and Alex Ruthmann (both of UMass Lowell’s Music Department) are co-PIs on the award.

In “Performamatics,” an earlier NSF project led by Heines, a number of partnerships between computing and the arts were created.  As part of this work, Heines, Greher, and Ruthmann developed an interdisciplinary undergraduate course, Sound Thinking, which has been offered at UMass Lowell for each of the last three years.

Building on this work, the new award focuses on ways to engage both computing, music, and students of other disciplines in “computational thinking,” an emerging idea in computer science education.

In the new project, the faculty team will leverage the natural relationship between music and computing to teach computational thinking concepts across the undergraduate curriculum, including both introductory general education courses, and discipline-specific music and computing courses at more advanced levels.

The team will also lead workshops to share their approaches with undergraduate faculty across the United States.

For more, please see UMass Lowell's eNews article, New Curriculum Combines Computing and Music, and the project web site,

Heines_160x200.jpg Gena_Greher_opt_200.jpg Ruthmann-opt200.jpg
(L-R) Profs. Jesse Heines (Computer Science), Gena Greher (Music), and Alex Ruthmann (Music).

The College’s “Summer Co-ops in Sciences” (SCOOPS) program supported seven students in research positions working in Computer Science, Biology, Marine Sciences, and Physics.

  • Erik Castine worked with Prof. Byung Kim (Computer Science) on bioinformatics and genetic analysis.  Working in the Python language, Erik wrote an algorithm to count up the number of times each codon occurs in a specific DNA sequence.
  • Michael Stowell and Jeremy Poulin worked with Prof. Fred Martin (Computer Science) on Android mobile phone technologies.  They developed and submitted an entry to the City of Boston's challenge to algorithmically identify pot-holes from data sets collected on Android phones. (They'll find out later this fall whether their entry was selected for a cash prize.)
  • Meghan Burke worked with Prof. Michael Graves (Biology) on projects involving eukaryotic green algae. She learned how to dissect freshwater snails in order to isolate a symbiotic ciliate that lives inside the snail, and helped Prof. Graves’ group prepare an algae growth medium and inoculate and maintain the algae cultures.
  • Dominic Scarano worked with Prof. Robert Gamache (School of Marine Sciences). He helped create a database of all measured collision-broadened line shape parameters for carbon dioxide. The database will be used to test theoretical calculations, and for the reduction of data from satellite missions, such as GOSAT (The Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite), OCO (Orbiting Carbon Observatory), IASI (Infrared Atmospheric Sounding Interferometer).
  • Joe Beagly and Trevor-Max Smith worked with Gregg Parker (Physics). They worked at the particle accelerator facility, and assisted full-time students on a number of projects, including the Radiation Safety Group, which performed actual sampling and testing.
In addition to the professional experience in research labs, students also got to know the University and campus life, and made friends.  As Erik Castine described it, “I made friends here, I met the staff, and I got used to dorm life with my roommates Joe and Trevor. I honestly don’t feel like an incoming freshman any more. I feel like the summer program was basically a semester. I can’t imagine anything that could’ve helped me more than taking this program, and I can’t wait for the school year to start."
College of Sciences 2011 SCOOPS students. L-R (back row) Dominic Scarano, Trevor-Max Smith, Erik Castine, Michael Stowell; (front row) Joseph Beagly, Meghan Burke, and Jeremy Poulin.
Prof. Xinwen Fu of Computer Science was awarded a grant entitled “Membership Inference in a Differentially Private World and Beyond” from NSF’s Trustworthy Computing program. The award is a great boost to the security program of the Computer Science Department and will strengthen its national status in related fields.

The award funds a three-year research agenda among three universities—George Washington University, Towson University, and the University of Massachusetts Lowell. The overall award totals $495K and UMass Lowell’s share is $166K.

The objective of the research project is to systematically understand, evaluate and contribute to the problem of membership inference in aggregate data publishing, which is a generic, novel, and dangerous privacy threat in a wide variety of real-world applications.

The central idea to be developed for addressing the problem of membership inference is an information-theoretic model of privacy disclosure as a noisy communication channel. Based on the channel coding theory and the recent advance in multi-input multi-output (MIMO) communication channels, the research will study novel techniques for membership inference and explores the corresponding privacy-preserving mechanisms.

The outcome of this research has broader impacts on the nation’s higher education system and high-tech industries. The prospect of sensitive membership information disclosure techniques and privacy-preserving techniques can help the providers of aggregated data publishing, including national health organizations, Internet security service providers, and others to secure their published data.

Prof. Fu is a member of the Computer Science department’s Center for Network and Information Security (CNIS). His research focuses on network security and privacy, network and computer forensics, and distributed systems.

Prof. Xinwen Fu (Computer Science)
Prof. James Propp of the Mathematical Sciences Department has been awarded the 2011–2012 Chancellor’s Professorship in Mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley.

Propp will teach a graduate course in the mathematics department while conducting research at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI). His course will focus on recent advances in the theory of random surfaces and the theory of random aggregation. Many of the researchers who contributed to this work will also be in residence at MSRI, and he is excited at the prospect of serving as a liaison between those visiting researchers and the Berkeley graduate students taking his course.

Prof. Propp also plans to organize and host an evening presentation open to the public, showcasing the visual beauty of this branch of mathematics.

Propp says he fell in love with Berkeley (the university and the city) when he did his graduate work there in the 1980s, and says he is delighted that the Math Department has invited him to return in such an honored capacity. He noted that “my kids are really excited that they'll get to go to the Exploratorium again next year.”

Prof. James Propp (Mathematical Sciences)


This image, created by Brown University mathematician Rick Kenyon, shows a random tiling of a hexagon by rhombuses in three orientations. In the 1990s, Propp and his collaborators proved the “arctic circle theorem” for these tilings, showing that if one randomizes such a tiling, the tiles in the six corners tend to align with one another while the tiles in the middle do not; the boundary between aligned and non-aligned subregions becomes increasingly circular as the size of the hexagon is increased.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from September 2011 listed from newest to oldest.

August 2011 is the previous archive.

November 2011 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Subscribe to feed Subscribe to this blog's feed