Research Challenges

The Vest Scholarships offer applicants who are passionate about addressing one of the NAE Grand Challenges for Engineering the opportunity to further their research at a leading US engineering institution.

Click below to learn more about the Grand Challenges and related research opportunities at participating host institutions.

1. Make solar energy economical

A critical challenge during our lifetime is the need to develop sources of energy which are sustainable and to do so at very large scales. This Grand Challenge encompasses making solar energy more economical, but goes well beyond that--asking for a wholescale change in our energy infrastructure. Meeting this Grand Challenge promises to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and improve our environment.

Scholarship opportunities available at the following schools:

California Institute of Technology

The Division of Engineering and Applied Science at Caltech is at the forefront of the quest to make sustainable energy a practical reality. Researchers at the Resnick Sustainability Institute, for example, encompass disciplines ranging from material science, to computer science. Their research projects include: 

  • Fuel Cells: development of high performance composite cathode for solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) application
  • Solar Photovoltaic (PV): thin film solar cell coatings for integrated light trapping, passivation and mechanical robustness
  • Thermoelectrics: phase equilibria and microstructural studies of thermoelectrically important Co-Sb-Ga system
  • CO2 Sequestration/Porous Media: simulation/design/synthesis of nanocomposites for CO2 capture and conversion at elevated temperature
  • Biofuels: novel cellulases by SCHEMA recombination
  • Smart Grid: uncertainty mitigation for renewable energy integration 

Caltech's Division of Engineering & Applied Science (EAS) brings together professors, postdocs, and graduate students to work at the edges of fundamental science to invent the technologies of the future. EAS researchers collaborate with colleagues in all the academic divisions at Caltech. Among its 76 faculty members the EAS Division has 6 National Medal of Science recipients, 2 National Medal of Technology recipients, 33 National Academy of Engineering members, 10 National Academy of Science members, and 17 members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. EAS is also home to several Institute-wide research centers including the Resnick Sustainability Institute, Joint Department of Energy Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, and the Information Science and Technology initiative. Through its close association with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, it also drives forward the fundamental science of space and earth exploration.

Learn more: eas.caltech.edu

Duke University

Research projects in solar energy at Duke University tend to focus on innovative materials and techniques that could rival the traditional silicon-based photovoltaic panels that dominate the solar industry today. From computationally designing new materials with desirable properties atom-by-atom to replacing expensive or toxic metals with abundant, low-cost options, Duke engineers are constantly trying to engineer the next disruptive technology in the energy market. With ties to the Nicolas School of the Environment and the Duke Energy Initiative, collaborations reach across business, engineering, environment, law, policy, and the arts and sciences to educate tomorrow’s energy innovators, develop new solutions through research, and improve energy decisions by engaging business and government leaders. 

Specific research topics include:

  • Improving efficiencies, operational stability, safety concerns and cost barriers of perovskites and chalcogenides to replace silicon in solar panels 
  • Designing organic-based, multi-spectral solar cells using thin films created through resonant-infrared matrix-assisted pulsed laser evaporation (RIR-MAPLE) 
  • Concentrating sunlight to generate power in in fault-tolerant solar thermal energy collectors and integrating such systems with distributed power generation 
  • Understanding interfacial transport phenomena and thermodynamics at the micro- and nanoscale in photovoltaics and novel sustainable energy conversion technologies 
  • Producing massive amounts of hydrogen through photoelectrochemical water splitting using water-oxidizing photoanodes 
  • Computational insights that help overcome materials science challenges for solar energy harvesting, based on first-principles materials simulations from the atomic scale on upwards

Duke University is ranked among the top 10 research universities in the United States by U.S.News & World Report. Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering is the fastest-rising of top-tier engineering schools.

Learn more: pratt.duke.edu

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) School of Engineering

Comprising an exceptional community of students, scholars, researchers, educators and engineering practitioners, the MIT School of Engineering has as its mission to educate the next generation of engineering leaders, to create new engineering and scientific knowledge and to serve society.

Affiliated with the school and an institute-wide endeavor, the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), is a collaborative network that involves faculty and researchers from across the campus. MITEI's research program focuses on:

  • Transformational technologies to develop alternative energy sources that can supplement and displace fossil fuels, including the economic, management, social science and policy dimensions needed for this transformation—including the MIT Solar Energy Research Center, one of MITEI’s eight Low-Carbon Energy Centers; 
  • Innovative technologies and underlying policy analysis that will improve how we produce, distribute and consume conventional energy;
  • Global systems to meet energy and environmental challenges through a multidisciplinary systems approach that integrates policy design and technology development; and
  • Tools to enable innovation, transformation and simulation of global energy systems through strategic basic research

Learn more: mitei.mit.edu and engineering.mit.edu

North Carolina State University College of Engineering

As the lead institution on the National Science Foundation (NSF) Engineering Research Center (ERC) for Future Renewable Electric Energy Distribution and Management (FREEDM) Systems, the College of Engineering at NC State University is at the forefront of research on green energy and smart grid technology. The FREEDM team is developing an “Energy Internet” that will transform energy production and delivery and incorporate dispersed energy sources into the national energy grid.

FREEDM is achieving major advances in smart grid and green energy technologies. In 2011, the MIT Technology Review named FREEDM’s smart solid-state transformers among the world’s 10 most important emerging technologies. FREEDM’s headquarters is its own test bed, as the center is powered by a one-megawatt green energy micro-grid that integrates a 40-kilowatt rooftop solar array, demonstrating next-generation solar integration onto the electric utility grid.

Researchers at the center are currently working under a $9 million grant to develop “plug and play” technology for residential solar power that will not only improve solar panel efficiency and simplify installation but also reduce overall cost to consumers, making solar energy more accessible for everyone. Other research includes developing novel solar energy harvesting materials, new highly efficient photovoltaic arrays, and innovative energy storage systems.

Most of NC State University’s College of Engineering, including the FREEDM Systems Center, is located on the innovative Centennial Campus, a collaborative environment where students and faculty work alongside industry and government researchers to facilitate advances in technology. FREEDM is one of two prestigious NSF ERCs headquartered at NC State, the only university in the nation currently leading two ERCs.

Learn more: freedm.ncsu.edu

University of Minnesota College of Science & Engineering

The University of Minnesota (UMN) is one of the largest universities in the United States with leading engineering programs. The University’s College of Science and Engineering provides an interdisciplinary collaborative environment for Vest Scholars to conduct research that will enable widespread use of solar energy. Research cuts across traditional boundaries between chemistry, physics and engineering and brings together researchers from different departments to solve challenging problems in the following areas:

  • The use of solar systems to heat water, to warm and cool buildings, and to provide heat for industry and agriculture
  • Solar-to-electric energy conversion using organic, inorganic and hybrid thin film solar cells
  • Synthesis of photovoltaic materials comprised of abundant, nontoxic and inexpensive elements
  • Photocatalysis

Learn more: cse.umn.edu

2. Provide energy from fusion

Human-engineered fusion has already been demonstrated on a small scale. The Grand Challenge of providing energy from fusion involves scaling up the process to commercial proportions, in an efficient, economical, and environmentally benign way.

Scholarship opportunities available at the following schools:

North Carolina State University College of Engineering

Fusion energy research has various directions in the Department of Nuclear Engineering at NC State University. Research related to fusion reactors has a focus on fusion engineering for first-wall problems and plasma-facing components, heating and current drive, plasma fueling systems, surface coatings and deposition of special materials for high heat flux protection, and computational plasma physics.

The high-heat flux studies focus on the erosion of materials under intense transient and steady-state heat flux and during abnormal events such as hard disruptions. Small experiments that can simulate typical conditions provide a wide-range of studies on materials behavior under intense high heat fluxes. Electrothermal plasma sources are used for such studies in addition to the computational studies of surface melting and ablation. Studies on materials deposition, sputtering and implantation are strong research components in providing special coatings for the interior components of fusion reactors as protective layers against heat flux and neutron interactions.

Heating and current drive research is focusing on RF injection into plasma as means by which energy transfer from the waves to the plasma is the heating mechanism for plasma ions. This is also associated with the need for deep and shallow fueling of the fusion fuel. In deep fueling, frozen deuterium or deuterium/tritium can be injected into the core of the reactor at sufficiently high speeds in excess of several kilometers per second to reach the core before the fuel ablates and falls apart. Plasma injection system, such as electrothermal sources, are part of the fusion engineering studies to provide the deep fueling complimented by the strong computational studies of pellet injection and associated diagnostics.

NC State University has a pioneering history in the field of Nuclear Engineering. The university’s first nuclear reactor, which began operation in 1953, was the first public nuclear reactor ever constructed. The university is one of only a few US universities that continues to support a research reactor on its campus. The highly ranked, internationally recognized Nuclear Engineering program at NC State continues to push the boundaries of nuclear energy research.

Learn more: engr.ncsu.edu

3. Develop carbon sequestration methods

Carbon dioxide emissions have been implicated as a prime contributor to global warming. In this Grand Challenge area, engineers are working on ways to capture the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels and store it safely away from the atmosphere—such as burying it deep underground or beneath the ocean.

Scholarship opportunities available at the following schools:

Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) Armour College of Engineering

Climate change, which has been associated with the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide (CO2), is regarded as one of the key environmental issues in the 21st century. One of the major sources of carbon dioxide emissions is the fossil fuel-based (especially coal-based) power plants. Presently, in the United States, coal is the major source used in power generation sector and most of the CO2 emissions result from coal combustion. According to Energy Information Administration (EIA), more than 1 billion tons of coal were consumed by the U.S. power generation sector in 2008 and accounted for about 50 percent of total U.S. electricity generation. Therefore, a promising and economically feasible technology for CO2 capture and sequestration is needed, such as solid sorbent based processes. However, these processes, at their current state, are not ready for implementation in coal-based power plants. One of the challenges in the way of deploying these novel technologies is the fact that these technologies for the CO2 capture are still in the lab or bench scales and, to be successfully scaled-up, a powerful tool, i.e. computational fluid dynamics (CFD), is needed to fill the gap between lab/bench scale and large scales needed for demonstration.

The main objectives of the carbon capture and sequestration efforts of IIT engineering faculty and researchers at the IIT Wagner Institute for Sustainable Energy Research (WISER) are:

a) to develop a tool for simulations and design of a regenerative process for CO2 removal using solid sorbents--namely, a two-way coupled Computational Fluid Dynamics-Population Balance Model (CFD-PBM) along with an efficient numerical solution method based on the “Finite size domain Complete set of trial functions Method of Moment” (FCMOM).

b) to develop CFD based model for CO2 sequestration in porous media of the different underground formations and reservoirs.

Learn more:  iit.edu/engineering

West Virginia University Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources

Carbon capture, utilization and sequestration efforts at the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources at West Virginia University include development of steady-state and dynamic models of sorbent-based and solvent-based CO2 capture processes.

These are being developed under the auspices of the United States Department of Energy’s Carbon Capture Simulation Initiative. Uncertainties due to input, output and model-form are being quantified. Researchers at WVU are working with DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Other research themes include:

  • Application of artificial intelligence and data mining techniques for modeling of geologic sequestration of carbon dioxide
  • Development of low-cost solid and membrane based adsorbents
  • Numerical modeling
  • Field monitoring of CO2 injection during geological sequestration

Learn more: statler.wvu.edu

4. Manage the nitrogen cycle

Through modern agricultural practices and burning fuels, humans have doubled the amount of fixed nitrogen in the environment over the levels present during pre-industrial times--worsening the greenhouse effect, reducing the protective ozone layer, adding to smog, contributing to acid rain and contaminating drinking water. Engineers can help restore balance to the nitrogen cycle and contribute to sustainable development with better fertilization technologies and by capturing and recycling waste.

Scholarship opportunities available at the following schools:

Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) Armour College of Engineering

Anthropogenic sources of nitrogen have dramatically altered the normal nitrogen cycle, leading to a range of potential problems such as accelerated eutrophication, drinking water contamination, ozone layer depletion, increased acid rain, and smog formation. Effective nitrogen management requires a comprehensive look into the complex network that makes up the nitrogen cycle including issues such as nitrification; denitrification; kinetics; process development; microbiology/molecular biology of nitrogen transformations; novel nitrogen treatment pathways; nitrous oxide emissions; urban runoff sources of nitrogen; non-point source nitrogen pollution control; and occurrence, measurement, fate, and treatment of organic nitrogen in wastewater and surface waters.

At IIT, examples of specific research efforts related to managing the nitrogen cycle include:

  • Novel and sustainable biotechnological pathways for nitrogen pollution control in water resources
  • Processes to reduce greenhouse nitrogen emissions from wastewater and waste treatment
  • Fate and control of recalcitrant and biodegradable organic nitrogen forms in surface waters
  • Technologies to reduce nitrogen inputs from urban and agricultural stormwater runoff

Learn more:  iit.edu/engineering

5. Provide access to clean water

About 1 out of every 6 people living today do not have adequate access to water, and more than double that number lack basic sanitation, for which water is needed. In some countries, half the population does not have access to safe drinking water. The Grand Challenge of providing access to clean water seeks engineers to develop feasible, affordable methods of improving the distribution and safety of the world’s water supply.

Scholarship opportunities available at the following schools:

Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering

Duke engineers focus on a variety of problems affecting access to clean water, from understanding and ameliorating water contamination to elucidating the dynamics of water systems. Many of our engineers have joint appointments in Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, creating an environment rich for cross-fertilization of ideas and innovative research.

Research areas include:

  • Developing biosensors to detect pathogens and contaminants in water
  • Designing sustainable systems for water and wastewater treatment
  • Analyzing the environmental impact of nanomaterials in aquatic systems
  • Engineering novel processes for remediation of contaminated water in developing countries
  • Investigating surface hydrology and boundary layer meteorology, semi-arid vegetation dynamics and hydroclimatic controls for infectious disease
  • Understanding and predicting the complex dynamics of the terrestrial water cycle 

Duke University is ranked among the top 10 research universities in the United States by U.S.News & World Report. Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering is the fastest-rising of top-tier engineering schools.

Learn more: pratt.duke.edu

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) School of Engineering

Comprising an exceptional community of students, scholars, researchers, educators and engineering practitioners, the MIT School of Engineering has as its mission to educate the next generation of engineering leaders, to create new engineering and scientific knowledge and to serve society.

The Parsons Laboratory for Environmental Science and Engineering in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering has a long history of highly respected water and environmental research. From its inception as a hydrodynamics laboratory in the 1950s, the lab has evolved into a multidisciplinary research center focused primarily on natural waters and the environment.

Some of MIT's research specific efforts in clean water include: 

  • Desalination by advanced membranes and by thermal and solar power;
  • Applications of nanotechnology to solar and thermoelectric energy conversion;
  • Design and manufacturing of solar power systems and desalination systems;
  • Advanced sensors for leak detection in water distribution networks; and
  • Technologies for carbon capture.

Learn more: cee.mit.edu, global.mit.edu/research/research-areas/water and engineering.mit.edu

West Virginia University Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources

Research efforts at the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources at West Virginia University include but are not limited to:

  • Water treatment
  • Hazardous waste and emerging contaminants remediation
  • Bacterial source tracking of contaminants in water, surface hydrology
  • Multi-phase flow in vadose and saturated zones
  • Nonpoint source pollution
  • Development of technologies to deal with wastewater resulting from acid mine drainage, as well as hydraulic fracturing and other industrial processes

In addition, researchers at WVU are also investigating the role of large-scale hydro-climatological processes on outbreak of water-related diseases and prediction of these diseases. Development of nano/bio sensors for detection/monitoring of contaminants is also an area of active research.

Learn more: statler.wvu.edu

6. Restore and improve urban infrastructure

From water and sewer systems to road and rail networks to the national power and natural gas grids, urban infrastructures are vital to civilization as we know it. Yet infrastructures in American and in countries are aging and failing, and often funding has been insufficient for repairs and replacement. Engineers who take on this Grand Challenge seek to introduce the smart design and advanced materials that can improve transportation and energy, water, and waste systems, and also create more sustainable urban environments.

Scholarship opportunities available at the following schools:

Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) Armour College of Engineering

Urban infrastructure systems are a diverse group of networks including transportation, water resources, communication, power distribution, and lighting. Continuous, reliable operation of these systems, often taken for granted on a day-to-day basis, can be especially critical during natural disasters or other emergencies. Key issues in urban infrastructure engineering involve (1) the interconnectivity of systems and dependence of networks on each other for uninterrupted operations; (2) network control and management; (3) health monitoring as a way to offer a permanent tool for condition assessment; and (4) implementation of modern state-of-the-art repair techniques that take advantage of recent developments in materials engineering and recycled materials.

The Armour College of Engineering at Illinois Institute of Technology offers research opportunities related to many aspects of urban infrastructure system design, monitoring, and reconstruction. These opportunities are often multidisciplinary efforts several engineering programs and call on non-engineering disciplines such as architecture, environmental management, and law. Furthermore, because IIT is located in the major metropolitan area of Chicago, Illinois, there are opportunities to collaborate with local governments.

Examples of research topics include:

  • Infrastructure system health monitoring, such as a Perfect Power microgrid system
  • New technologies using materials for repair and reconstruction
  • Design to enhance security and to address homeland security concerns
  • Green design technologies using energy conservation and recycled materials
  • The Galvin Center for Electricity Innovation is working to build new advanced energy laboratories that will allow researchers to evaluate Smart Grid systems
  • Water distribution system design, monitoring, and management
  • System reliability and control management
  • Planning for emergency evacuation and preparedness including network studies to meet evacuation demands
  • Water reclamation systems design and operation
  • Transportation network safety
  • A University-Industry Consortium for Wind Energy Research, Education, and Workforce Development, created to study wind integration into the grid

Learn more: iit.edu/engineering

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) School of Engineering

Comprising an exceptional community of students, scholars, researchers, educators and engineering practitioners, the MIT School of Engineering has as its mission to educate the next generation of engineering leaders, to create new engineering and scientific knowledge and to serve society.

Interdisciplinary research is common at MIT, and faculty members in the Department of Civil and Engineering, in particular, are active in research centers and ventures with colleagues from MIT's other schools and with other institutions.

Research efforts in urban infrastructure include coordinated efforts to provide access to the goods, services, and opportunities that enable human development while preserving and restoring the environment in a socially and economically equitable manner. The main components of this research address:  

  • The future of urban architecture and city planning;
  • The materials, building technologies, and systems related to modern urban settings;
  • Accessibility and economic impacts in the developing world; 
  • Modernization, renewal, and behavioral changes in the developed world 
  • Environmental impacts (energy, emissions, noise); 
  • System efficiency and congestion; and 
  • Safety.

Learn more: cee.mit.edu/research, idss.mit.edu/research/application-domains/urbanization/, and engineering.mit.edu

North Carolina State University College of Engineering

At NC State University, faculty in the Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering (CCEE) work to restore, sustain and improve our urban infrastructure.  We are experts in the design, construction, management and maintenance of many aspects of society's infrastructure including roads, buildings, levees, bridges, transportation systems, drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities, coastal systems and water resources.  Our faculty are involved in cutting-edge research to improve the sustainability of our infrastructure and to protect the environment.  Whether it is long-lasting asphalt, concrete that better insulates a building from ambient temperatures, or protecting human health and the environment, CCEE graduate students have great opportunities to work on projects for the betterment of society.

Learn more: ccee.ncsu.edu/research

West Virginia University Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources

Researchers in the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources at West Virginia University are involved in many areas concerning the development of novel composites and other materials for a sustainable infrastructure. The Center for Integration of Composites into Infrastructure is a National Science Foundation-funded industry/university cooperative research center focused on ushering applications of fiber-based and other composites in both civil and military infrastructures.

Other themes related to restoration and improvement of urban infrastructure include:

  • Advanced analysis and field evaluation of structural components
  • Bridge substructures
  • Geotechnical engineering, including unsaturated soil mechanics and energy geotechnics
  • Geoenvironmental engineering
  • Construction planning
  • Construction safety
  • Advanced technologies for transportation systems
  • Uncertainty in transportation networks

WVU researchers are also engaged in the areas of sustainable construction techniques and infrastructure planning, as well as pavement design, materials and management systems.

Learn more: statler.wvu.edu

7. Advance health informatics

Advancing health informatics encompasses issues ranging from collecting health and environmental data to managing data security to engineering new systems for health care delivery and disease management. By meeting this Grand Challenge, human health will improve and the health costs will slow their meteoric rise.

Scholarship opportunities available at the following schools:

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) School of Engineering

Comprising an exceptional community of students, scholars, researchers, educators and engineering practitioners, the MIT School of Engineering has as its mission to educate the next generation of engineering leaders, to create new engineering and scientific knowledge and to serve society.

Much of MIT’s efforts in health informatics are coordinated through the Institute for Medical Engineering & Science (IMES). IMES brings together MIT’s strengths in engineering, basic science, innovation and entrepreneurship with clinical practice and research by developing strategic partnerships with collaborating Boston-area hospitals and biotech and medical device companies.

Further, one of the research thrusts of the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS) is applying new analytical methods to the area of health, such as improving the management of healthcare systems, predictive analytics for hospitals and clinical decision making, and using continuous patient monitoring to improve decision making–whether in developing new therapeutic treatments or managing chronic diseases

Learn more: imes.mit.edu, idss.mit.edu, and engineering.mit.edu

North Carolina State University College of Engineering

As the lead institution on the National Science Foundation Nanosystems Engineering Research Center for Advanced Self-Powered Systems of Integrated Sensors and Technologies (ASSIST), NC State University’s College of Engineering is at the forefront of research in health informatics and health and environmental monitoring devices

ASSIST researchers are developing nano-enabled energy harvesting and storage devices and sensors to create innovative, battery-free, body-powered, and wearable health and environmental monitoring systems. The center’s mission is to transform global health informatics, electronics, and biomedical engineering industries by developing enabling nanotechnologies for energy harvesting, battery-free energy storage, and ultra-low-power computation and communication, integrated with physiological and ambient nanosensors and biocompatible materials, to empower personal environmental health monitoring and emergency response.

Researchers in NC State’s Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering are leaders in the emerging field of health systems engineering, where healthcare is defined as an interconnected system and the focus is on health care delivery and medical decision-making. Faculty in our Department of Computer Science work closely with healthcare IT companies to shape the future of healthcare IT and ensure that patient data remains secure.

In addition to the ASSIST Center, the College is home to other highly respected research centers and laboratories in this area, including:

  • Center of Excellence in Cloud Computing
  • Center of Excellence in Information Assurance Research
  • Institute for Advanced Analytics
  • Cyber Defense Laboratory
  • National Security Administration Science of Security Lablet

Most of NC State University’s College of Engineering, including the ASSIST Center, is located on the innovative Centennial Campus, a collaborative environment where students and faculty to work alongside industry and government researchers to facilitate advances in technology. ASSIST is one of two prestigious NSF ERCs headquartered at NC State, the only university currently leading two ERCs.

Learn more: assist.ncsu.edu

University of Minnesota College of Science & Engineering

The University of Minnesota (UMN) is one of the largest universities in the United States with leading engineering programs and a world-class Medical School. Faculty in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering collaborate with Medical School faculty to advance the field of bioinformatics for health-related applications. Machine learning, bioinformatics and signal processing approaches are exploited to identify features and patterns that can be identified as biomarkers. Biomarkers are tracked before and after therapy to understand effectiveness of drugs.

Examples of current projects include:

  • Seizure Prediction and Detection—EEG signals are analyzed to predict and detect seizures in epileptic patients.
  • Mental Disorder—Biomarkers are extracted from MEG and functional magnetic resonance imaging. These markers are tracked before and after therapy to understand effectiveness of a certain drug. Current studies include schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder and pediatric obsessive compulsive disorder.
  • Retinopathy—Fundus and optical coherence tomography (OCT) images are analyzed by using signal processing and machine learning approaches for identifying retinopathy.
  • Donor Selection for National Marrow Donor Program—Advanced machine-learning approaches are applied for donor selection for national marrow donor program.
  • Prediction of Survival—Advanced machine-learning approaches are applied to model and predict survival rate of cancer patients two years after treatment and effectiveness of treatment. Applications include: cancer patients treated with hematopoietic cell transplantation (HCT), and patients with with uterine or ovarian carcinosarcomas.

Learn more: cse.umn.edu

8. Engineer better medicines

The Grand Challenge of engineering better medicines calls for developing new therapeutic systems that use genetic information, sense small changes in the body, assess new drugs, and deliver vaccines. This Grand Challenge also proposes to capture the potential of the genomics era to develop robust personalized medicine in order to improve treatment, lower health care costs, and increase access.

Scholarship opportunities available at the following schools:

Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering

Duke is an internationally recognized leader in biomedical engineering, with a graduate program ranked among the top five in the United States. Faculty and students collaborate extensively with scientists and physicians at nearby Duke University Medical Center, one of the nation’s top-10 academic medical centers and largest biomedical research enterprises, as well as with researchers across the university. Our highly interdisciplinary environment provides unique opportunities to pursue the development of better therapeutic systems with a view from laboratory bench to bedside. Among our robust research activities are:

  • Using genetics to develop better medicines and improve drug delivery
  • Developing nanofeatured drug delivery vehicles
  • Creating stimuli-responsive biomaterials
  • Building personalized/point-of-care diagnostics
  • Fighting drug-resistant infection 

Duke University is ranked among the top 10 research universities in the United States by U.S.News & World Report. Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering is the fastest-rising of top-tier engineering schools.

Learn more: pratt.duke.edu

Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) Armour College of Engineering

Armour College of Engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology is focused on addressing issues of high relevance and global impact in the area of engineering health. Armour works closely with the Pritzker Institute of Biomedical Science and Engineering to foster and enhance engineering research activities on the IIT campus and to foster relationships with outside medical institutions and government laboratories. Researchers at IIT approach the challenging of engineering better medicines through:

  • Design and evaluation of tissue and cellular engineering strategies for applications in regenerative medicine
  • Computational and experimental investigation into understanding and treatment of vascular disease
  • Development of new imaging modalities and techniques for acquisition, processing and analysis of medical images
  • Application of engineering techniques to the understanding and treatment of diabetes and complications of diabetes
  • Interdisciplinary research into basic science, neural engineering and clinical approaches to understanding and control over the nervous system
  • Investigation of the role of technology on health researchers, research institutions, patients, pharmaceutical companies, and the public health community in collaboration with IIT’s Kent School of Law

Learn more:  iit.edu/engineering

University of Minnesota College of Science & Engineering

The University of Minnesota (UMN) is one of the largest universities in the United States with leading engineering programs, including the chemical engineering program that is ranked fourth in the nation. The University’s College of Science and Engineering is just a block away from collaborators in the world-class Medical School and the College of Veterinary Medicine. Facilities shared by these entities include a world-class imaging center, characterization facility, a supercomputing center, a biotechnology institute and a brand new nanotechnology cleanroom (including nanomaterials and biomaterials labs).  The University is also a short distance from the top three cardiovascular device companies and the Mayo Clinic. 

Projects available for Vest Scholars related to engineering better medicines include:

  • Magnetic nanowires for specific antibody multiplexing of cellular assays
  • Nanomechanical characterization of cells, including new methods for inducing specific cell death in sarcomas
  • Self-assembly of artificial tissues using functionalized nanowire scaffolding
  • Big data in the development of antibiotics
  • Cellbots for active drug delivery

Learn more: cse.umn.edu

University of Washington College of Engineering

With the inauguration of the Molecular Engineering and Sciences (MolES) Institute, the College of Engineering at the University of Washington (UW) is leading the way to bring fresh approaches and ideas to societal grand challenges such as the development of personalized medicine through novel medical therapeutics and diagnostics. Our collaborations with the UW Medical School (ranked first among public medical schools in federal research funding and second among all medical schools) include the development of engineering tools (in systems biology) to allow us to understand how the complex interactions of genes and proteins run the cells, tissues and organs of the body.

The Genome Era, with its genomics, proteomics, and bioinformatics, has already delivered a remarkable treasure trove of complex biological information surrounding disease. In some initial guiding examples, this information has been transformational in enabling us to match therapies to individual genetic factors. Many challenges remain, however, in broadly translating this genome information into new therapeutics, diagnostics and individualized medicines. Cross-disciplinary innovations in (bio)molecular engineering, drug delivery systems, molecular imaging, and molecular diagnostics are needed to fully capture the potential of the genome era and to develop robust personalized medicine.

The collaborative efforts with researchers in the sciences and medicine make the UW College of Engineering a perfect place to pursue research such as the design of molecular-level approaches for personalized diagnostics and treatment, and thus, to engineer better medicines.

Learn more: engr.washington.edu

9. Reverse-engineer the brain

By learning more about how the brain works, researchers can uncover new approaches to engineering artificial intelligence and repairing human brain and neurological disorders. This Grand Challenge topic at the intersection of engineering and neuroscience promises great advances in health care, manufacturing and communication.

Scholarship opportunities available at the following schools:

North Carolina State University College of Engineering

The Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering at NC State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) is a transformative, inter-institutional department. One of the research areas in the department is neural engineering and neurorehabilitation. There is a strong focus on development of bi-directional neural-machine interface for bionic limbs, neuromodulation of central and peripheral nervous systems for enhanced human learning, and development of novel therapeutic technologies, such as neural interfaces, wearable robotics, and virtual reality, for neurorehabilitation. The core group of faculty in this area collaborates with neuroscientists on both NC State and UNC campuses, investigators at the Biomedical Research Imaging Center (BRIC) at UNC, scientists and engineers at the NSF ASSIST Engineering Research Center, clinicians in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and the Department of Neurology at UNC, and physical therapists at UNC. 

Learn more:

University of Minnesota College of Science & Engineering

The University of Minnesota (UMN) is a leader in neural engineering. The University’s Center for Neuroengineering is an interdisciplinary center to bridge neuroscience and engineering. There is a strong focus on mapping changes in the nervous system, identifying changes in neural codes and developing closed-loop therapies for neuromodulation for treatment of Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and tinnitus. Faculty at UMN study these diseases over a range of scales, from the cellular scale experiments, to in-vivo animal models, to pre-clinical trials.

UMN has received a National Science Foundation training grant specifically for developing the next generation of neuromodulation therapies. Vest Scholars will participate in a vibrant community with weekly seminars and career development programs.

The University of Minnesota also is a unique environment for brain research.

  • The University’s College of Science and Engineering, Department of Neuroscience, and Medical School are all located with a two-block radius. 
  • UMN is home to the Center for Magnetic Resonance Research, one of the top imaging facilities in the world. 
  • The UMN campus is at the heart of the second largest biomedical industry in the United States.

Learn more: cse.umn.edu

University of Southern California (USC) Viterbi School of Engineering

The USC Viterbi School of Engineering is a pioneer in cross-disciplinary research and is currently uniting the power of both neuroscience and engineering to unleash limitless possibilities for health reform and cognitive communication. 

  • Biomimetic MicroElectronic Systems (BMES) Engineering Research Center: Developing biomimetic devices and prostheses; reverse-engineering parts of the brain
  • Biomedical Simulations Resource (BMSR): Using computational engineering tools to solve biomedical phenomena
  • Center for Genomic and Phenomic Studies in Autism: Survey and build world’s largest database of genetic, physical and behavioral profiles of children with autism
  • Resource Center for Medical Ultrasonic Transducer Technology: Developing new UV imaging technologies for disease detection and treatment
  • Center for Health Informatics (CHI): Creating a global computing platform for the exchange of health information
  • Biomedical Informatics Research Network (BIRN): Facilitating biomedical data-sharing
  • The BioRC project employs analog computations to emulate neural structures, supported by the use of nanotechnology, with structures a few nanometers in dimension, with the future capability of controlled assembly and use

The USC Viterbi School of Engineering extends the frontiers of engineering knowledge and develops practices for a sustainable and secure global future by stimulating and encouraging innovative research and partnerships among its scholars, educators, and students. More than a third of USC Viterbi’s 180 faculty members are fellows in their respective professional societies, including 19 faculty members elected to the National Academy of Engineering. Present and past members of the faculty have included 57 winners of Presidential Young Investigator and CAREER awards, and 13 winners of PECASE Early Career awards. USC Viterbi’s graduate program in engineering is consistently ranked among the top engineering schools internationally. Its online engineering program was recently named the top engineering program in the nation. The school is home to leading-edge research centers including the Information Sciences Institute (ISI) and two National Science Foundation-funded Engineering Research Centers, the Integrated Media Systems Center and the Biomimetic MicroElectric Systems Center.

Learn more: viterbi.usc.edu

10. Prevent nuclear terror

From the beginnings of the nuclear age, the materials suitable for making a weapon capable of tremendous destruction have been accumulating around the world. Engineers can play a key role in global nuclear security by helping to address technical and systems challenges involved in securing nuclear materials, detecting nuclear materials, rendering a potential device harmless, emergency response, cleanup, and public communication after a nuclear explosion, and identifying the perpetrators.

Scholarship opportunities available at the following schools:

North Carolina State University College of Engineering

North Carolina State University’s College of Engineering conducts research and development (R&D) to support the international nuclear security missions of

  • Nuclear nonproliferation and safeguards
  • Nuclear counterterrorism and emergency response
  • Nuclear event consequence management and forensics

The Nuclear Engineering Department at NC State conducts both basic and applied R&D in

  • Sensors and data acquisition systems for the detection and measurement of ionizing radiation
  • Advanced radiation measurement analysis methods
  • Numerical radiation transport simulation methods and applications

to enable the detection, identification, location, and characterization of special nuclear material (SNM) and other hazardous radioactive materials.  Ongoing research at NC State includes development of passive and active neutron and gamma imaging systems, inverse analysis of neutron time-correlation and gamma spectroscopy signatures of SNM, and forensic analysis of nuclear materials and nuclear fallout.

In addition, NC State’s research into technical methods to combat the threat of nuclear terrorism is complemented by its partnership with the Triangle Institute of Security Studies (TISS) Energy and Security Initiative (ESI).  ESI is composed of experts in the technical and policy issues surrounding the interplay of international security and energy resources.  TISS is a consortium of scholars from University of North Carolina (UNC), Duke University, and NC State, and its members include faculty and researchers from engineering, public policy, and political science disciplines.

NC State University has a pioneering history in the field of Nuclear Engineering. The university’s first nuclear reactor, which began operation in 1953, was the first public nuclear reactor ever constructed in the world. The university is one of only a few US universities that continue to support a research active reactor on its campus. The highly ranked, internationally recognized Nuclear Engineering program at NC State continues to push the boundaries of nuclear energy research.

Learn more: engr.ncsu.edu

11. Secure cyberspace

The Grand Challenge of securing cyberspace recognizes that, as more and more of our lives depend on information processing and the underlying infrastructure, issues such as reliability, security, and privacy play an ever-larger role. Backpatching existing systems is less and less acceptable. Instead, guaranteed performance and assured information authenticity, for example, need to be considered from the ground up. 

Scholarship opportunities available at the following schools:

California Institute of Technology

Caltech's Institute-wide Information Science and Technology Initiative within the Division of Engineering and Applied Science brings together scientists and engineers to address these and many other challenges.

Ongoing work considers such issues as:

  • Greening of data centers through smart allocation of resources
  • Design of markets to be fair and capable of producing optimal solutions
  • Quantum computing and quantum cryptography to overcome computational challenges and guarantee secure communications
  • Optimization algorithms for very high dimensional data sets to extract subtle patterns
  • Anonymization of medical record databases while maintaining the ability to extract disease patterns
  • Coding for large distributed networks

Caltech's Division of Engineering & Applied Science (EAS) brings together professors, postdocs, and graduate students to work at the edges of fundamental science to invent the technologies of the future. EAS researchers collaborate with colleagues in all the academic divisions at Caltech. Among its 76 faculty members the EAS Division has 6 National Medal of Science recipients, 2 National Medal of Technology recipients, 33 National Academy of Engineering members, 10 National Academy of Science members, and 17 members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. EAS is also home to several Institute wide research centers including the Resnick Sustainability Institute, Joint Department of Energy Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, and the Information Science and Technology initiative. Through its close association with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, it also drives forward the fundamental science of space and earth exploration.

Learn more: eas.caltech.edu

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) School of Engineering

Comprising an exceptional community of students, scholars, researchers, educators and engineering practitioners, the MIT School of Engineering has as its mission to educate the next generation of engineering leaders, to create new engineering and scientific knowledge and to serve society.

Recognizing the importance of a more integrated approach to combating data breaches and security failures, in 2015 MIT publicly launched three new MIT research efforts aimed at addressing the technical, regulatory and managerial aspects of cyber security. The three efforts—Cybersecurity@CSAIL (Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory), the MIT Cybersecurity and Internet Policy Research Initiative and MIT Sloan’s Interdisciplinary Consortium for Improving Critical Infrastructure Cyber security (IC)3—are intended to provide a cohesive, cross-disciplinary strategy to tackling the complex challenges involved in keeping our digital information safe.

In addition, interdisciplinary research in the Department of Civil and Engineering explores topics such as cyber security analysis and resilient control design for infrastructure systems.

Learn more: csailcybersecurity.csail.mit.edu, ic3.mit.edu, http://cee.mit.edu, and engineering.mit.edu

University of Southern California (USC) Viterbi School of Engineering

Although technology unleashes incredible opportunities for positive global innovation, it can also empower cyber-terrorists to pose serious threats to national security. The USC Viterbi School of Engineering is a world leader in cyberspace research featuring a plethora of groundbreaking projects that find ways to protect our digital assets from harm.

The USC Viterbi School of Engineering extends the frontiers of engineering knowledge and develops practices for a sustainable and secure global future by stimulating and encouraging innovative research and partnerships among its scholars, educators, and students. More than a third of USC Viterbi’s 180 faculty members are fellows in their respective professional societies, including 19 faculty members elected to the National Academy of Engineering. Present and past members of the faculty have included 57 winners of Presidential Young Investigator and CAREER awards, and 13 winners of PECASE Early Career awards. USC Viterbi’s graduate program in engineering is consistently ranked among the top engineering schools internationally. Its online engineering program was recently named the top engineering program in the nation. The school is home to leading-edge research centers including the Information Sciences Institute (ISI) and two National Science Foundation-funded Engineering Research Centers, the Integrated Media Systems Center and the Biomimetic MicroElectric Systems Center.

West Virginia University Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources

Researchers in the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources at West Virginia University are involved in research related to cyber security, with a focus on enhancing cybersecurity through biometrics-related research as well as identity management technologies.

The Statler College is part of the Center for Identification Technology Research (CITeR), which is a National Science Foundation-funded industry/university cooperative research center focused on biometrics.

Specific research projects include:

  • Analysis of fingerprint images
  • Neural net fingerprint matching
  • Image and video processing
  • Computer vision
  • Smart cards
  • Hyperspectral imaging

Another area of interest is data mining, with a focus on internet security; challenges include malware detection and phishing website detection.

Learn more: statler.wvu.edu

12. Enhance virtual reality

Virtual reality offers a tremendous array of potential uses, from training to treatment to industrial design and entertainment. To advance the capabilities of virtual reality to fully and effectively simulate reality, engineers need to overcome significant hurdles—from creating lifelike visual displays to reproducing sensations of sound, touch and motion.

Scholarship opportunities available at the following schools:

University of Southern California (USC) Viterbi School of Engineering

From creating holographs of holocaust survivors to designing all-immersive video games that facilitate military training, the USC Viterbi School of Engineering is a world leader in employing virtual solutions to tackle real-life challenges.

The USC Viterbi School of Engineering extends the frontiers of engineering knowledge and develops practices for a sustainable and secure global future by stimulating and encouraging innovative research and partnerships among its scholars, educators, and students. More than a third of USC Viterbi’s 180 faculty members are fellows in their respective professional societies, including 19 faculty members elected to the National Academy of Engineering. Present and past members of the faculty have included 57 winners of Presidential Young Investigator and CAREER awards, and 13 winners of PECASE Early Career awards. USC Viterbi’s graduate program in engineering is consistently ranked among the top engineering schools internationally. Its online engineering program was recently named the top engineering program in the nation. The school is home to leading-edge research centers including the Information Sciences Institute (ISI) and two National Science Foundation-funded Engineering Research Centers, the Integrated Media Systems Center and the Biomimetic MicroElectric Systems Center.

13. Advance personalized learning

Throughout the educational system, teaching has traditionally followed a one-size-fits-all approach to learning, with a single set of instructions provided identically to everybody in a given class, regardless of differences in aptitude or interest. Given the diversity of individual preferences, and the complexity of each human brain, developing teaching methods that optimize learning is a major challenge for the software engineers of the future. Engineers who address the Grand Challenge in personalized learning will help individualize instruction based on learning styles, speeds, and interests to make learning more reliable.

Scholarship opportunities available at the following schools:

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) School of Engineering

Comprising an exceptional community of students, scholars, researchers, educators and engineering practitioners, the MIT School of Engineering has as its mission to educate the next generation of engineering leaders, to create new engineering and scientific knowledge and to serve society.

MIT has a long history of pedagogical boldness balanced with deep introspection, dating from its earliest educational innovation: the merger of lofty intellect with hands-on experimentation.

Today, MIT is extending this mens et manus (mind and hand) approach to digital learning, uniquely combining digital tools with individualized teaching, research-driven methodology, an ethos for open sharing, and the in-person magic of MIT — for students at MIT, and for learners around the world.

The Office of Digital learning (ODL) catalyzes and amplifies MIT's innovations and initiatives in digital learning by…

  • Supporting MIT faculty and students in bold experiments to enhance our residential education and provide resources for those who are interested in exploring how they might do so;
  • Facilitating research on how people learn and on new technologies that might improve understanding, retention and application;
  • Providing platforms for technological advances in digital education;

Partnering with companies, universities, governments and organizations that wish to develop new learning capabilities and enhance the competencies of their workforce, students and citizens; and

Learn more: odl.mit.edu and engineering.mit.edu

Olin College of Engineering

Olin College of Engineering has a dual mission as a laboratory for transformational education and a catalyst for educational transformation in America and throughout the world. In a decade, it has become widely regarded as a center for educational innovation, including winning a Gordon Prize from the National Academy of Engineering. At the heart of this success is an individualized, student-centered curriculum and pedagogical approach, coupled to a growing outreach network that spans the globe.

Olin seeks a like-minded post-graduate (including post-doctoral) partner through the Vest Scholars program, to engage with us as a learner and co-teacher and to become a part of our community. The ideal candidate will be enthusiastic about exploring new pedagogical and curricular approaches, embracing educational reform and innovation, and committed to translating best practices to their eventual learning environment. We anticipate that they would explore research topics such as project-based learning, intrinsic motivation and autonomy, or self-efficacy, would create and co-teach in new pedagogic models, and would work with the Collaboratory to engage educators outside of Olin.

Olin is an undergraduate-focused institution; a Vest Scholar at Olin will have the opportunity for substantial professional development and engagement, but not for credit-bearing academic work. The Vest Scholar at Olin would both develop their own approaches to personalized education and learn how to create interdisciplinary, contextual learning experiences for students to help give them the tools to tackle the multidimensional Grand Challenges, and would emerge with a strengthened portfolio in both research and in education.

Learn more: olin.edu

14. Engineer the tools of scientific discovery

In the century ahead, engineers will partner with scientists in the quest to understand many unanswered questions of nature—designing the tools, instruments, and systems that make it possible to acquire new knowledge about the physical and biological worlds. The Grand Challenge of engineering new tools for scientific discovery encompasses efforts ranging from developing the next generation of quantum computers to devising new ways to analyze and extract useful information from massive datasets generated by new technologies.

Scholarship opportunities available at the following schools:

California Institute of Technology

Due to its small size, Caltech excels at bringing together researchers from all areas of science and engineering. Resources such as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS), for example, offer the opportunity to see new technologies deployed at the very frontiers of science and can drive the fundamental underlying research.

Research opportunities range from:

  • Designing flexible and foldable space structures
  • Designing sensors for earth and outer space observations
  • Demonstrating a community seismic network using cell phones for rapid detection, response, and analysis of earthquakes as they occur
  • Creating exotic MEMS devices for microscopic measurements of pressure, shear stress, acoustics and their integration with computation
  • Designing instrumentation for observing ultrafast phenomena at various length scales

Caltech's Division of Engineering & Applied Science (EAS) brings together professors, postdocs, and graduate students to work at the edges of fundamental science to invent the technologies of the future. EAS researchers collaborate with colleagues in all the academic divisions at Caltech. Among its 76 faculty members, the EAS Division has 6 National Medal of Science recipients, 2 National Medal of Technology recipients, 33 National Academy of Engineering members, 10 National Academy of Science members, and 17 members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. EAS is also home to several Institute wide research centers including the Resnick Sustainability Institute, Joint Department of Energy Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, and the Information Science and Technology initiative. Through its close association with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, it also drives forward the fundamental science of space and earth exploration.

Learn more: eas.caltech.edu

Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering

Duke engineering faculty are world leaders in developing a range of tools to support scientific discovery, from novel metamaterials (including the world’s first invisibility cloak) to improved imaging techniques. Efforts are enhanced by Duke’s highly interdisciplinary environment; our engineers collaborate with clinician-scientists at the top-ranked Duke University Medical Center and with mathematicians, physicists, statisticians, and other scientists across the University to devise practical solutions for real-world scientific inquiries.

Highlights include:

  • Advancing biophotonics to improve medical imaging and identify disease biomarkers
  • Engineering tools for mining massive, complex, changing datasets to extract and apply meaningful knowledge
  • Developing metamaterials and plasmonics for improved optical devices, biosensors and other applications
  • Engineering molecular-level tools to improve understanding of biological functions and advance tissue engineering, regenerative medicine, drug development and DNA-based diagnostics
  • Creating multi-functional integrated systems to advance quantum computing
  • Employing physical sampling and digital processing strategies to develop high-performance sensor systems, including a gigapixel camera
  • Developing novel bioinspired and biomimetic materials and biosensing systems for applications including improved diagnostics and environmental monitoring

Duke University is ranked among the top 10 research universities in the United States by U.S.News & World Report. Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering is the fastest-rising of top-tier engineering schools.

Learn more: pratt.duke.edu

University of Washington (UW) College of Engineering

The College of Engineering at the University of Washington (UW) has substantial research programs (e.g., the eScience Institute) aimed at developing new mathematical and computing tools to extract and use knowledge from collections of large data sets to accelerate progress in science and engineering research and innovation.

New mathematical and computing techniques are already opening up, for instance, the complex relationships between genes and disease to develop a systems biology approach that will enable us not only to treat disease in new ways but to better understand healthy life. We are pursuing this work in collaboration with the UW Medical School (ranked first among public medical schools in federal research funding and second among all medical schools) and the new Molecular Engineering and Sciences (MolES) Institute, which aims to develop personalized medicine through novel medical therapeutics and diagnostics.

Similarly, in a collaborative effort between UW engineers and physicists, quantum engineering is working to develop next generation computers that will lead to new insights into the quantum world itself. Moreover, UW developments in distributed sensor networks and scientific instruments are recording ever-larger amounts of data in physics, astronomy, oceanography, biology, and many other fields.

To realize the benefits of these advances, new tools and techniques are needed to support analysis, extract knowledge, and lead to still further discovery. The collaborative efforts with researchers in the sciences and medicine make the UW College of Engineering an ideal institution to pursue the engineering of new tools for scientific discovery.

Learn more: engr.washington.edu