New SCI Director

National Science Foundation and Office of Science and Technology (OSTP) veteran, professor Manish Parashar, a distinguished professor of computer science at Rutgers University, will become the new director of the U’s Scientific Computing Imaging Institute (SCI) on Jan. 1, 2021.

“We are thrilled to have a leader like professor Parashar take the helm at the Institute,” said Dan Reed, senior vice president for Academic Affairs. “He brings an unparalleled depth and breadth of experience in cyberinfrastructure and computer and computational science that will advance SCI as it continues to innovate, grow and build research collaborations across the entire University of Utah campus.”

SCI is a campus research center where over 185 faculty, staff, and students – most from the U’s College of Engineering – work together to shape the future of advanced computing. Since its founding, more than 100 undergraduates and 400 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows have worked on SCI research projects.

“I also want to acknowledge the tremendous contributions of Professor Chris Johnson, SCI’s founding director,” Reed said. “Chris built SCI into an internationally recognized center of excellence in scientific computing, imaging, and visualization.”

Over more than two decades, the SCI Institute has established itself as a recognized leader in visualization, scientific and biomedical computing and image analysis. Computer Science Rankings places the university at No. 2 in visualization work internationally.

“SCI has established itself as a pioneer and an international leader in computational and data-enabled science and engineering research and education—from developing new methods and technologies for data-driven scientific exploration to pioneering new structures for multidisciplinary research,” Parashar said. “ SCI is well poised to take on a leadership role in this scientific revolution.

“I look forward to working with the outstanding faculty, staff and students at SCI to a future of even greater achievements and transformative impact on science and society.”

Parashar is currently on loan to the National Science Foundation (NSF) and office director of its Office of Advanced Cyberinfrastructure, and he leads the NSF’s strategic vision for a National Cyberinfrastructure Ecosystem for 21st Century Science and Engineering. He also is on detail to the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)  and currently serves as assistant director for Strategic Computing. Parashar co-led the committee that developed the National Strategic Computing Update on the future of computing. At OSTP, Parashar is leading the development of the national strategic plan for the Future Advanced Computing Ecosystem. He will continue his role at NSF, spending time each week at the university, until the end of his temporary NSF appointment.

He replaces interim SCI Director Mike Kirby, who will continue to lead the university’s Informatics Initiative (UI2).

Dan Reed Talks About the Internet

Remember when a friend was someone you regularly met in person? When SPAM was just a food product? When fishing was done with the pole? When a party line wasn’t something you said at a social event? The internet has brought huge changes in how our social interactions occur, information (and disinformation) is shared, and business is conducted.

Dan A. Reed, the U’s senior vice president for academic affairs, discusses how the internet was created, introduces some of the colorful characters who helped create it, and reflects on some of the social, technical, and economic challenges ahead. Click the video below to see his talk to the University of Utah’s Alumni Association about this fascinating subject.

Reed is the senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Utah. Previously, he was vice president for research and economic development, chair in computational science and bioinformatics, and professor of computer science at the University of Iowa. He also served as Microsoft’s corporate vice president for technology policy and extreme computing, where he helped shape Microsoft’s long-term vision for technology innovations in cloud computing and the company’s policy engagement with governments and institutions worldwide.

Before joining Microsoft, he was the founding director of the renaissance computing institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he also served as chancellor’s eminent professor and vice chancellor for information technology. Prior to that, he was Gutgsell professor and head of the department of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

Social Disparities in Air Pollution

The air pollution in Salt Lake County, Utah, varies over the year, and at times it is the worst in the United States. The geography traps winter inversions and summertime smog throughout the Salt Lake Valley, but underserved neighborhoods—and their schools—experience the highest concentrations. Previous research has shown pollution disparities using annual averages of PM 2.5 levels, the tiny breathable particles that can damage lungs just hours after exposure. Children are especially at risk and experience more than just health effects; exposure to PM 2.5 affects school attendance and academic success.

A new study utilized a community-university partnership of nearly 200 PM 2.5 sensors through the University of Utah’s Air Quality and U (AQ&U) network. U researchers explored social disparities in air pollution in greater detail than ever before, and their findings reveal persistent social inequalities in Salt Lake County. The paper posted online ahead of publication in the journal Environmental Research. College of Engineering faculty from the School of Computing, chemical engineering, electrical and computer engineering and the Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute were involved in the study.

Locations of the 174 public schools included in the study and the PM2.5 sensors.

The researchers analyzed PM 2.5 levels at 174 public schools in Salt Lake County under three different scenarios: relatively clean, moderate inversion and major inversion days. Schools with predominately minority students were disproportionally exposed to worse air quality under all scenarios. Charter schools and schools serving students from low-income households were disproportionally exposed when PM 2.5 was relatively good or moderate. The findings speak to the need for policies that protect school-aged children from environmental harm.

“The persistence of these injustices—from the pretty clean, but health-harming levels all the way up to the horrific air days—at schools serving racial/ethnic minority kids is unacceptable,” said Sara Grineski, U professor of sociology and environmental studies and senior author of the paper.

The authors expected social disparities on bad air days but were surprised that they persisted on clean air days when PM 2.5 levels are still higher than recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“What makes this project so novel is the community-U partnership that gave us access to this larger network of sensors and helped provide a detailed study. If we had relied on the Utah Department of Air Quality, we’d only have had two monitors and would have missed the nuanced variability,” said Casey Mullen, a doctoral student at the U and lead author of the study.

A higher-resolution snapshot

The evolution of PM2.5 concentrations throughout Salt Lake County during a pollution event (not included in the study). The west side of the county has persistently higher concentrations under all scenarios.

The worst PM2.5 episodes occur during the winter when cold air settles into the Salt Lake Valley and high-pressure weather systems act as a lid that seals in particulate matter from vehicle exhaust, wood-burning fires and emission from industrial facilities. Locals refer to these periods as inversions, which can last from a few days to a few weeks. The lowest elevations experience high concentrations of PM 2.5 for the longest time, impacting the residential communities disproportionately. The study compared the PM 2.5 levels at 174 public schools in 10-minute increments over two-day periods during each of three events: a major winter inversion (poor air quality), a moderate winter inversion (moderate air quality) and a relatively clean, fall day (good air quality). The extensive AQ&U network made up of 190 PM 2.5 sensors is extremely sensitive—each sensor collects PM 2.5 concentrations every second, then uploads the 60-second to a database that the public can access through the U’s AQ&U website.

The researchers broke down 174 Salt Lake County public schools with respect to race/ethnicity, economic status and student age. They also distinguished among school types: Title I Status (schools serving majority low-income households), charter school and alternative or special education school. The average student body was 31% Hispanic, 15% non-Hispanic minority and 54% white and about 45% of the schools were Title I eligible. Just over half of the schools were primary schools, about 16% were charter schools and about 5% were alternative or special education schools.

During relatively clean air days, racial/ethnic minority students were disproportionally exposed to high concentrations. At the school level, a 21% increase in the proportion of Hispanic students was associated with a 12% increase in concentration of PM 2.5. Charter schools were exposed to 20% higher concentrations of PM 2.5 than non-charter schools. During a moderate air quality day, charter, Title I schools and schools with greater proportions of minority students were exposed to higher concentrations of PM 2.5. During bad air quality days, exposure concentrations were higher for schools with larger proportions of minority students.

“No one has yet looked at school type in terms of environmental justice. Charter schools are a new variable that intrigued us,” said Mullen. “It’s starting to build on some other story that—why did we find these inequities in charter and Title I schools?”

Mean 10-min PM2.5 levels for each 48-hour scenario at the Salt Lake County schools during a clean, moderate winter persistent air pool (PCAP, inversion) and major PCAP event. The bigger the blue dot, the higher the concentration of PM2.5 particles. In all three scenarios, the lowest PM2.5 concentrations were on the south and east side of the study area along the bench where elevation ascends from the valley floor.

Looking forward

This paper is one of many collaborations using the newly established AQ&U network.

“This is the first publication from such a diverse cross-disciplinary partnership arising from AQ&U, although we anticipate this is the first of many,” said Kerry Kelly, assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and co-author of the study. “We are enthusiastic about ongoing partnerships—to understand the effect of pollution microclimates on asthma exacerbations; to predict the severity of wildfire smoke plumes; and to engage student researchers and community partners in understanding the effect of sound walls on air quality.”

The air quality sensors and the network were built by Kelly; Wei Xing of the U’s School of Computing; Ross Whitaker and Miriah Meyer of the U’s School of Computing and the Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute (SCI); Tofigh Sayahi of the U’s Department of Chemical Engineering; Tom Becnel and Pierre-Emmanuel Gaillardon of the U’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; and Pascal Goffin of SCI, all of whom also co-authored the study.

In future studies, the researchers hope to fill in even more gaps in the sensors to get a better picture of the social inequalities in Salt Lake County and in other areas, especially with regards to school-aged children.

“I see research like this continuing to build a wall of evidence that we have to do better in the way in which we regulate pollution exposure in the U.S. and worldwide,” said Grineski. “Evidence on top of evidence points to us having to do a better job of protecting people, especially kids, from pollution.”

Timothy Collins of the U’s Department of Geography also co-authored the study.

R&D 100 Award Recipients

A team of researchers from the University of Utah’s School of Computing and Idaho National Laboratory received the prestigious 2019 “R&D 100 Award” from R&D World magazine for their development of a system for Wireless radio Frequency signal Identification and protocol Reverse Engineering, or WiFIRE.

The team comprises of U School of Computing professor Sneha Kumar Kasera and his doctoral students, Christopher Becker and Aniqua Baset, along with Kurt Derr and Sam Ramirez from the Idaho National Laboratory.

WiFIRE involves the use of software-defined radios as well as new software that can continuously monitor wireless spectrum. In real-time, it can identify multiple types of signals, trace them and report if any are from authorized or unauthorized wireless users.

This technology can help industries prevent data theft by detecting unlawful data movement or the presence of devices on the network that do not belong. It can then alert system operators, block unwanted data transmission, even start data or video recordings that can later be used in an investigation.

“WiFIRE meets the long-coveted ability of monitoring and understanding the surrounding wireless environment in defense/military settings as well as modern infrastructures and industrial facilities,” Kasera said. “For example, nuclear power plants could use the technology to monitor wireless transmissions in real-time to prevent illegal data theft or disruption of service.”

The R&D 100 Awards are given to 100 products in six categories: Analytical/Test, IT/Electrical, Mechanical/Materials, Other, Process/Prototyping, and Software/Services.

“This awards program is so well recognized across the R&D community. Being named as one of the R&D 100 is an incredible honor,” said Paul J. Heney, vice president and editorial director for R&D World. “These 100 winning products and technologies are the disruptors that will change industries and make the world a better place in the coming years.”

The R&D 100 Awards will be presented during a banquet December 5 at the San Mateo Marriott near San Francisco.

Wi-Fi with Longer Range

Former University of Utah School of Computing graduate student, Phil Lundrigan, has created a software-based protocol that greatly extends the range of Wi-Fi signals. With it, devices such as Wi-Fi routers could extend their range by as much as 67 meters.

Lundrigan’s research, advised and co-authored by U School of Computing professor Sneha Kasera and electrical and computer engineering adjunct professor Neal Patwari (now at Washington University in St. Louis), was presented Oct. 22 at the ACM MobiCom Conference 2019, the 25th International Conference on Mobile Computing and Networking.

Lundrigan is currently an assistant professor of computer engineering at Brigham Young University.

Here is a BYU press release about the research.

A group of researchers led by a Brigham Young University computer engineering professor has created a protocol that significantly extends the distance a Wi-Fi-enabled device can send and receive signals.

The engineering innovation requires no new hardware to enhance the signal range for “internet of things” devices, like a door sensor or motion detector, but can extend the distance these devices can be installed from a Wi-Fi access point by more than 60 meters, according to test results.

“That’s the really cool thing about this technology: it’s all done in software,” said Phil Lundrigan, assistant professor of computer engineering at BYU. “In theory, we could install this on almost any Wi-Fi-enabled device with a simple software update.”

The new protocol is called On-Off Noise Power Communication and is programmed right on top of the existing Wi-Fi protocol using the same hardware. While Wi-Fi requires speeds of at least one megabit per second (1 Mbps) to maintain a signal, the “ONPC” protocol Lundrigan and his co-authors created can maintain a signal on as low as 1 bit per second — one millionth of the data speed required by Wi-Fi.

To do so, Lundrigan, Neal Patwari of Washington University (in St. Louis) and Sneha Kasera of the University of Utah adjusted the transmitter in a Wi-Fi-enabled device to send wireless noise in addition to data. They programmed into the Wi-Fi sensor a series of 1s and 0s, essentially turning the signal on and off in a specific pattern. The Wi-Fi router was able to distinguish this pattern from the surrounding wireless noise (from computers, televisions and cell phones) and therefore know that the sensor was still transmitting something, even if the data wasn’t being received.

“If the access point (router) hears this code, it says, ‘OK, I know the sensor is still alive and trying to reach me, it’s just out of range,'” Patwari said. “It’s basically sending one bit of information that says it’s alive.”

But according to Lundrigran, one bit of information is sufficient for many Wi-Fi enabled devices that simply need an on/off message, such as a garage door sensor, an air quality monitor or even a sprinkler system. During their research, the authors successfully implemented their ONPC protocol, along with a cleverly named application to manage the protocol (“Stayin’ Alive”), ultimately extending the range of an off-the-shelf device 67 meters beyond the range of standard Wi-Fi.

The researchers made clear to point out that their ONPC protocol is not meant to replace Wi-Fi or even long-range wireless protocols like LoRa, but is meant to supplement Wi-Fi. Specifically, only when Stayin’ Alive detects that the Wi-Fi device has lost its connection, it starts transmitting data using ONPC.

That being said, authors believe the innovation could make LoRa even longer range or be used on top of other wireless technologies. “We can send and receive data regardless of what Wi-Fi is doing; all we need is the ability to transmit energy and then receive noise measurements,” Lundrigan said. “We could apply this to cellular or Bluetooth as well.

The research was presented on October 22 at the International Conference on Mobile Computing and Networking in Los Cabos, Mexico.