Some of the greatest innovations of our time started out with the riskiest ideas. But risky ideas often go unfunded—until someone is brave enough to trust in the researcher’s dreams.
Alumnus Philip Dowd (B.S. MSE '63) and his wife Marsha have given generously to Carnegie Mellon University throughout the years, encouraging an enormous number of Carnegie Mellon affiliates in the pursuit of their visions. The Dowds’ generous gifts have funded several Carnegie Mellon endeavors, including the establishment of a teaching fellowship, a professorship, and a new conference room on campus.
Just one of the many meaningful contributions the Dowds have made to the university is the Dowd Engineering Seed Fund for Graduate Student Fellowships: an endowment created in 2001 to fund cutting-edge doctoral research in engineering at Carnegie Mellon.
Each year, the Dowd Fellowship supports multiple Ph.D. students through a year of doctoral expenses. Research projects supported are so new that insufficient intellectual property exists for them to be funded by government agencies and foundations, and thus must garner funding from elsewhere. Targeted in particular at doctoral candidates working with young faculty, Philip and Marsha Dowd established this fellowship to incubate “high-risk, high-reward” projects: the seeds sown for an orchard of cutting-edge research careers.
Here are four of the Ph.D. students whose research projects were funded by the Dowd Fellowship in 2015 and 2016.
Lili Ehrlich (MechE) – 2015
Predicting cooling and rewarming rates for the successful cryopreservation of a human kidney
18,000 kidneys are transplanted each year in the United States alone. The time window between kidney donation and recipient transplantation is just 24 to 48 hours, using traditional hypothermic storage methods. Cryopreservation, or the preservation of organs at extremely low temperatures for later use, has been explored as a promising approach to extend this time window, but many hurdles still stand in the way of reducing cryopreservation technology to practice. For example, the recovery of an organ from cryogenic storage is contingent upon the ability to control ice formation during cooling and subsequent rewarming, where crystallization is known to be the cornerstone of cell injury in cryogenic temperatures.
2015 Dowd Fellow Lili Ehrlich, a Ph.D. student in MechE, is working with Professors Jonathan Malen and Yoed Rabin to identify the ideal cooling and warming rates to maximize human kidneys recovery from cryogenic storage. By developing a thermal model of the human kidney and measuring its key thermal properties, Ehrlich aims to create thermal engineering tools to facilitate the development of robust cryopreservation technologies.
Carl Malings (CEE) – 2016
Surface Heat Assessment for Developed Environments (SHADE)
Cities, in general, tend to have hotter temperatures than rural areas. This is due to the abundance of urban infrastructures made of materials that absorb heat (for example, concrete, steel, and asphalt) and the lack of gardens, parks, and green space. This phenomenon, known as the urban heat island (UHI) effect, when combined with the high population densities in cities means that during heat waves, temperatures can spike to incredibly high heats and can cause major health crises such as heat stroke and death.
2016 Dowd Fellow Carl Malings, a Ph.D. student in CEE advised by Assistant Professor Matteo Pozzi, is collaborating with researchers at Carnegie Mellon and Princeton University to develop probabilistic models for urban temperatures, with the aim of being able to predict heat spikes before they occur. These models, if successful, will provide enough warning to city residents to prepare for disaster and prevent future injury.
Diane Nelson (BME) – 2015
Pulmonary drug delivery via perfluorocarbon emulsion
When treating respiratory diseases, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and cystic fibrosis (CF), doctors often prescribe treatments that require patients to inhale a drug deeply for even distribution throughout the lungs. However, for patients with chronic lung disease, lung functionality lessens over time, and eventually, aerosol drug delivery can be hindered by poor ventilation and buildup of mucus. In emergency situations where patients with COPD or CF have sudden and temporary worsening of their disease states, the normal means of treatment—intubation and mechanical ventilation—can make treatment of infections nearly impossible, making the chance of survival extremely low.
2015 Dowd Fellow Diane Nelson and her advisor, Associate Professor Keith Cook, are developing a different approach to treating lung disease: delivering drugs by filling the lungs with high-oxygen liquids, known as liquid perfluorocarbons (PFCs). Perfluorocarbons (PFCs) are chemically and biologically non-toxic liquids that are capable of dissolving high amounts of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Though intuitively one might think flooding the lungs with any liquid would result in drowning, the high amounts of oxygen in PFCs enhance gas exchange—and drugs delivered via PFCs can reach target areas without relying on airflow for distribution. Nelson and Cook hope to increase patient survival during these emergency scenarios by using this method to bypass the difficulties in inhalation.
Praveen Venkatesh (ECE) – 2016
Fundamental limits, algorithms, and experiments to validate the utility of high-density EEG in clinical and neuroscientific settings
In order to diagnose brain disorders, doctors will often place electrodes on the patient’s scalp to record abnormal brain signals. Though this electrode placement technique, known as electroencephalography (EEG), is commonly used for rudimentary diagnostics, it is widely believed to be incapable of obtaining the high resolution needed for more specialized brain imaging.
2016 Dowd Fellow Praveen Venkatesh, however, is challenging the limits of EEG technology. With the advising of Assistant Professor Pulkit Grover, Venkatesh’s Ph.D. work will be to further EEG’s capabilities and reestablish EEG’s potential for specialized brain diagnostics. If successful, Venkatesh’s research will have a significant impact on how brain injuries are diagnosed in the future—invasive brain imaging could become non-invasive, for the good of all.
All of these doctoral candidates are pursuing a rigorous study of ideas that, at a different institution, might be considered too new or too risky to fund. But Philip and Marsha Dowd see the issue at hand: that young researchers must have the opportunity to pursue the ideas that could change the world.
And they have every faith that the graduate students they fund can accomplish their world-changing ambitions.
“When we mingle with the fellows, we stop worrying about the future of our country, of our culture, of our planet,” say the Dowds. “These kids are going to solve all our problems, and that’s all there is to it.”