Our 2021 Research Headlines
December 20, 2021-- From research into new ways to detect and preventCOVID-19, to new treatments for heart conditions and technology to combat natural disasters and climate change, it has been a busy year at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering. Here is a snapshot of research that made headlines this year, thanks to the dedicated work of our faculty, graduate and undergraduate student researchers, research and administrative staff, and campus and community partners. Delve deeper in press coverage in 2021 on our press coverage page.
Niema Moshiri, a computer science teaching professor, was part of a UC San Diego team that used genetic sequencing to show that SARS COV-2 circulated in China as early as October 2019. The study received both national and international coverage, including CNN, the South China Morning Post and Yahoo News.
A new tool for monitoring COVID-19 may one day be right under your nose. Researchers at UC San Diego are developing a color-changing test strip that can be stuck on a mask and used to detect SARS-CoV-2 in a person’s breath or saliva. The project is aimed at providing simple, affordable and reliable surveillance for COVID-19 infections that can be done daily and easily implemented in resource-poor settings. See news coverage in LA Times, Wall Street Journal, San Diego Union Tribune, Telemundo and ABC 10News.
Rapid COVID-19 tests are on the rise to deliver results faster to more people, and scientists need an easy, foolproof way to know that these tests work correctly and the results can be trusted. Nanoparticles that pass detection as the novel coronavirus could be just the ticket. Such coronavirus-like nanoparticles, developed by nanoengineers at UC San Diego, would serve as something called a positive control for COVID-19 tests.
Nanoengineers at UC San Diego have developed COVID-19 vaccine candidates that can take the heat. Their key ingredients? Viruses from plants or bacteria. In mice, the vaccine candidates triggered high production of neutralizing antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. If they prove to be safe and effective in people, the vaccines could be a big game changer for global distribution efforts, including those in rural areas or resource-poor communities. See news coverage in Fast Company.
A gene therapy for chronic pain could offer a safer, non-addictive alternative to opioids. By temporarily repressing a gene involved in sensing pain, the treatment increased pain tolerance in mice, lowered their sensitivity to pain and provided months of pain relief without causing numbness – and without permanently altering the genome. See news coverage in Science Magazine, Nature, C&EN, Medium (Future Human) and Gizmodo.
Bioengineers and physicians developed a bio-inspired hydrogel that forms a barrier to keep heart tissue from adhering to surrounding tissue after surgery. The team tested the hydrogel in rodents and conducted a pilot study on porcine hearts, with promising results. The work was covered in New Atlas and other outlets.
UC San Diego engineers developed a soft, stretchy ultrasound patch that can be worn on the skin to monitor blood flow through vessels deep inside the body. Such a device can make it easier to detect cardiovascular problems, like blockages in the arteries that could lead to strokes or heart attacks. See news coverage in Physics World and Yahoo! News.
How do different parts of the brain communicate with each other during learning and memory formation? A study by researchers at UC San Diego takes a first step at answering this fundamental neuroscience question, thanks to a neural implant that monitors multiple brain regions at the same time.
Natural disasters and climate change
As California reacts to a record-breaking fire season, a backcountry observation network has reached a milestone of installing more than 610 cameras across the state. The cameras are part of the ALERTWildfire camera network, built by UC San Diego, the University of Nevada, Reno and the University of Oregon. The network has become a vital firefighting tool helping first responders confirm and monitor wildfires from ignition through containment. Structural engineering professor Falko Kuester plays a key role in the system’s data collection and visualization.
The UC San Diego shake table, the world’s largest outdoor earthquake simulator, is almost done with a $16.3 million upgrade. When the work is complete, the table will go from one dimension to three–or from one degree of freedom to three. The upgraded facility will be better able to replicate complex earthquake motions and will reopen in summer 2022 by putting to the test a full-scale, 10-story timber building. The upgrade work has been covered by the American Society of Civil Engineers, among others.
Research into solid-state, silicon-based batteries took a significant step with a paper led by nanoengineering professor Shirley Meng, in collaboration with LG Energy Solutions, and published in Science. The work was broadly covered, including in Business Korea, Engadget and Yahoo! News.
Cybersecurity and wireless communications
Deian Stefan and his research group have been hard at work making web browsers safer. A tool they designed in collaboration with Mozilla and UT Austin is now part of the latest version of Firefox. The story received broad coverage, including in The Verge and Engadget. Stefan’s team also developed tools that are part of the security-focused Brave browser. https://jacobsschool.ucsd.edu/news/release?id=3364 The team received a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation, in conjunction with UT Austin.
A new technology developed by electrical engineers at UC San Diego might one day allow more people to have access to 5G connectivity that provides ultra-fast download speeds along with widespread, reliable coverage—all at the same time. See news coverage in Hackster and Interesting Engineering.
Robots for good
Roboticists led by computer science professor Laurel Riek built a navigation system that will allow robots to better negotiate busy clinical environments in general and emergency departments more specifically. The researchers have also developed a dataset of open source videos to help train robotic navigation systems in the future. The work was featured in PC Mag and United.AI.
Roboticists led by professor Michael Tolley and PhD student Dylan Drotman developed a robot that doesn’t need electronics to function, and uses air pressure instead. The robot was quite popular with media outlets as well as YouTubers, including the Veritasium YouTube channel, which has 11 million subscribers. The video has more than 3.8 million views. Other outlets included IEEE Spectrum, CNet and MSN News.
Wearables and more
A new wearable device turns the sweat and press of a fingertip into a source of power for small electronics and sensors. This sweat-fueled device is the first to generate power even while the wearer is asleep—no exercise or movement required. See news coverage in Science Magazine, Nature, CNET, New Scientist, ABC 10News and Ars Technica.
It is possible to re-create a bird’s song by reading only its brain activity, shows a first proof-of-concept study from the University of California San Diego. The study is an early step toward building vocal prostheses for humans who have lost the ability to speak. See news coverage in Salon, Miami Herald, BBC Science Focus and Psychology Today.
How do pelicans manage to glide above the waves? And why? Researchers in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography found an answer by modeling how the birds, the wind and the ocean interact. Their work was featured in The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.
Jacobs School of Engineering
Jacobs School of Engineering
Jacobs School of Engineering