2019 | 20


A letter from the dean

Dear Friends,

2020 marked my fifth year as Dean of the School of Engineering, and as I reflect on the great achievements of our students, faculty, and staff, I have never been more inspired. Now, more than ever, Tufts School of Engineering is helping to create a Brighter World!

In the beginning of the academic year, faculty worked with academic, industry, and community partners to launch new interdisciplinary centers dedicated to data science, living materials, and antimicrobial resistance. We also welcomed our newest cohort of engineering students, including an undergraduate class that was 50% men and 50% women, which earned us a Forbes top-10 ranking among U.S. research institutions for women in STEM.

Then life across the globe was changed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and our students and faculty jumped into action to invent, develop, and implement innovative solutions to assist in the fight against the virus. Students helped to build cost-effective ventilators, designed personal protective equipment, and volunteered in COVID-19 field hospitals. Faculty worked to develop digital contact tracing and tracking, studied the surface transmission of COVID-19, and researched challenges inherent in developing vaccines.

In addition, Tufts School of Engineering students, faculty, and staff shifted our entire curriculum to virtual learning in the span of just a few weeks during the spring, when campus access was paused to help limit transmission of the virus. Also, this year, the School of Engineering joined conversations about proactive antiracism, diversity, equity, and inclusion. We stand committed to ensuring a welcoming environment for all groups historically under-represented in STEM fields and improving the experiences of our students, faculty, and staff of color.

Your continued generosity is so inspiring. I thank you for all that you do for Tufts.


Dean Qu

Jianmin Qu
Karol Family Professor
Dean, Tufts University School of Engineering

Alumni in the news

The impact of a Tufts education

Jumbo engineer and serial entrepreneur Guy Simonian, E76, discusses his experiences at Tufts and the joy of giving back.

For Guy Simonian E76, Tufts University was the perfect places to prepare for a career in business, providing him with skills, values and relationships that have stood the test of time. During his career, Guy has founded several companies including Check Fund Manager and Cotal Systems. He attributes much of his success to his Tufts training, and faculty members in the School of Engineering who helped him build the diverse skills of a well-rounded engineer and entrepreneur.

Guy Simonian, E76

Two faculty members who made Guy’s Tufts experience especially valuable would go on to achieve wide acclaim beyond the University: Allan Cormack, professor of physics and co-recipient of the 1979 Nobel Prize in physics for his work in computer-assisted tomography; and John Sununu, associate professor of mechanical engineering, who served as Governor of New Hampshire from 1983-1989. For Guy, memories of these two remarkable educators are still vivid.

"We all knew that outside of class Dr. Cormack was working on computed tomography 3D reconstruction algorithms, real cutting-edge medical technology, but here he was teaching the 101 fundamentals to us undergrads. Going from the large lecture hall to the smaller laboratories, I was really fortunate to have him assigned as my group's lab instructor. Dr. Cormack had a casual manner unlike any teacher I had known. He was very easygoing and yet he was also fully engaged, so you really paid attention. He successfully tapped into our scientific curiosity and it made us focus intensely on our neutrino research."

Guy remembers Dr. Sununu for encouraging him to bolster his expertise in academic areas beyond his comfort zones of math and science, in order to grow and challenge himself, both academically and personally. Looking back, Guys recognizes that this approach to learning has served him extremely well as a business leader and entrepreneur.

"Dr. Sununu opened up my exposure to other academic departments and their schools of thought. He convinced me that my goal at Tufts should be to develop competence in areas that I struggled with. This approach paid huge dividends later in my professional life. Scientific programming came easily to me, but once I went off on my own, I had to take on multiple personas. I had to be an author who wrote business plans, a psychologist who motivated my employees, an economist who set the company direction and a philosopher who adhered to the code of ethics under which we operated."

Along with the faculty who shaped his Tufts experience, Guy also values his lasting connections to fellow Tufts students, including his sophomore-year housemate Daniel Byrne, with whom he reconnected during a series of business trips to Seattle. As part of the sale of the consumer portion of Cotal Systems, one of the companies he founded, Guy spent time in Seattle vetting potential buyers. Guy explains that Cotal Systems was one of the first companies to move into then-new territory on the internet, and operated one of the largest direct to consumer people locating services. With the advent of social networking looming circa 2007, he decided to sell off the consumer portion of the business. The sale was secured, and as an added bonus, he renewed his friendship with Daniel, one of many friends from his days at Tufts.

In recent years, Guy and his wife Darlene have been happy to give back to Tufts University with a series of generous gifts. Because they share a love of animals, one of those gifts was to Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts. They have also made numerous contributions to the School of Engineering. A number of their gifts to Tufts have been in the form of a charitable gift annuity, for which they are proud members of the Charles Tufts Society. "Annuities give retirees the peace of mind of knowing they have an income stream for life,” says Guy, “and the Tufts Gift Annuity program gives you a double dose of satisfaction knowing that you are making a contribution to one of the world's outstanding institutions."

Tufts celebrates Tiampo Family Professorship

Tufts University and the School of Engineering recently hosted a celebration with a lecture by inaugural Tiampo Family Assistant Professor Amy Pickering.

This fall, Tufts University celebrated the Tiampo Family Professorship in Engineering. The professorship was established in 2018 to recruit and retain outstanding junior faculty members with a generous gift from James J., E83 and A83, and Kristy F., E83, Tiampo, who met while studying civil engineering at Tufts.

Kristy, E83, and James, E83 and A83, Tiampo with Tiampo Family Assistant Professor Amy Pickering

“It’s an honor to receive this recognition for the research that my lab does to improve child health in low-income countries,” Tiampo Family Assistant Professor Amy Pickering said while thanking the Tiampo family, who were in attendance at the celebration. “This type of support opens up new opportunities for our lab.”

Pickering’s lab focuses on environmental surveillance for infectious disease and antibiotic resistance, links between climate and waterborne disease, and novel water and sanitation interventions. Worldwide, 2.2 billion people lack access to safe water, according to the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) – that means water that is available when needed, accessible, and not contaminated. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals have set a high benchmark: ensuring access to water and sanitation for all by 2030.

Quantitative studies and novel innovations, like the ones carried out and developed by Pickering’s lab, are helping to move the needle. In her lecture at the Tiampo Family Professorship celebration, Pickering highlighted research on several methods of providing safe, accessible drinking water to low-income communities in Kenya and Bangladesh that don’t have regular access to electric power.

In Kenya’s Western Province, Pickering and colleagues worked with local kiosk owners to set up a program in which the kiosk owners sold chlorinated water that had been treated by Venturi dosers – low-cost devices that fit onto taps – designed by the researchers. Critically, the devices provided adjustable doses of chlorine and didn’t require electricity. The researchers field tested the dosers and studied the sustainability of the business model, providing the kiosk owners with several service packages to choose from, and followed the long-term results. Two years later, all of the dosers were still in use, and several kiosk owners chose to lease-to-own them.

In Dhaka, Bangladesh, Pickering and collaborators adapted a novel device to disinfect water with solid chlorine tablets. It was fitted to the inlets of the tanks that Dhaka residents draw their water from. The tablets eroded in water as it passed through the inlet into the tank, providing treated water without the need for electricity. In research published in The Lancet Global Health, the researchers found a 23% reduction in diarrhea, an 11% reduction in health care costs, and that people drinking water from the tanks with the dosers were 30% less likely to require treatment for gastrointestinal illness.

Ultimately, Pickering concluded, interventions are needed that can provide accurate doses of chlorine at a taste level that’s acceptable to drinkers, that don’t require behavior change on the part of users, and that utilize novel technology that can reduce costs and widen the target market.

The establishment of the Tiampo Family Professorship in Engineering was inspired by the Tiampos’ belief that engineering is a creative and collaborative discipline best taught from a rich diversity of perspectives and discussion. The professorship is intended to help support that commitment within the School of Engineering faculty, principally among junior faculty like Pickering who will be instrumental in teaching, learning, and research at Tufts for years to come.

Staying Power

Carolyn Birmingham shares her passion for engineering by supporting the Center for STEM Diversity

Carolyn O’Connor Birmingham, E57, remembers when women counted career options on one hand. “Professionally,” said Birmingham, “they were teachers, or they were nurses, or perhaps social workers.” Birmingham had other ideas.

Carolyn O’Connor Birmingham, E57

She earned a degree from the Tufts School of Engineering—one of only three women to graduate from the school in 1957—and went on to a career at Cambridge-based General Radio.

Today, she is happy to do what she can for young people who have big dreams and limited means. Her gifts are benefitting Tufts students from low-income families who aspire to careers in STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math. She and her late husband, James, first endowed a scholarship in 2006. More recently, she also started supporting the Center for STEM Diversity.

“I was excited that Tufts has a program that gives extra support to students who need it and that creates a place where they feel they belong,” she said. “I know from my work in town governance that diverse opinions and experiences are likely to lead to good decisions. The center understands that diversity in STEM is critical to success in the workforce.”

Ellise LaMotte, director of the Center for STEM Diversity, appreciates Birmingham’s philanthropy as well as her engagement as a member of the center’s advisory board. Birmingham has supported the STEM Ambassadors Program, which sends Tufts undergraduates into high schools to share their passion for science and engineering. She also made it possible for Bridge to Engineering Success at Tufts (BEST) students to attend the Tufts in Talloires summer program.

“Carolyn has been instrumental in making the Center for STEM Diversity successful and allowing students to have experiences they might otherwise not be able to have,” said LaMotte. “We’re fortunate to have a friend like Carolyn supporting us, not only monetarily, but also with her knowledge and experiences.”

Birmingham grew up in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, where her father, a postal worker, and her mother, a teacher and homemaker, nurtured her love of learning. “I was always interested in how things worked together, and I liked math,” she said. “And then I discovered physics!”

A scholarship to the School of Engineering brought all those subjects together, where, she recalled, “Dean Burden was always supportive of women students.”

In 1997, she and her husband, who built a successful career in finance, established a foundation that runs a program called Step Up to Excellence, which expands educational and cultural opportunities for high school students from low-income homes in Fitchburg, Framingham, Clinton, and Stoughton. “Through my work with Step Up, I learned quickly that it’s not just lack of money that holds young people back,” said Birmingham. “I realized what a culture shock it is to go off to college. That’s why the Center for STEM Diversity seems like such a good fit for me.”

Alejandro Colina-Valeri, E21, is one of many students whose lives have been transformed by her gifts. Through the Tufts in Talloires program, he traveled to Lyon, Paris, and Switzerland, “and I also took two classes that I normally wouldn’t study as an electrical engineer: Flowers of the Alps and Animation. It was the best summer of my life.”

That feedback affirms for Birmingham that each and every gift goes a long way. “I’m overwhelmed when I hear student stories,” she said. “There are so many young people out there who just need somebody to open a door for them, and to say, ‘I care about what you’re doing.’ You don’t have to do a huge thing to make a big difference, but it is important to do something. It’s important that all students have a chance to talk with and listen to many different people—how else are we going to make progress?”

COVID-19 Response

gears illustration

3D Printing PPE

Jason Jammallo, MSEM ’12, has always been a maker, a doer. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, he sprang into action and began 3D printing PPE.

Despite working daily with consumer-level and industrial 3D printers in his roles as a Senior Manufacturing Innovation Engineer and Additive Manufacturing Staff Manager at New Balance, Jason Jammallo, MSEM ’12, never personally owned one. So, in early March, when the coronavirus pandemic shuttered office buildings across the Commonwealth and de-densified cities, Jason bought a 3D printer and brought the fight against COVID-19 into his home. In his one-man operation, Jason has printed over 300 face shields and 250 ear-savers for the nation’s largest hospitals located in Boston.

“I was frustrated that I wasn’t able to do much or affect much change working from home. It felt really strange to be on the sidelines, seeing healthcare workers and other people helping and dedicating so much time, energy and resources to do anything they could,” said Jason. “Knowing that I had been working with 3D printing for over 10 years, I knew I could jump in to actually help.”

Throughout his career, Jason has been working in the innovation space, pushing the boundaries of what domestic manufacturing can be. Whether it’s automation, 3D printing, or something in-between, Jason is no stranger to matching solutions to problems.

According to experts, face shields are shaping to be instrumental in curbing the transmission of COVID-19 from patients to first responders and frontline workers. Reusability has been touted as an important characteristic given stressed face mask supply chains. However, face shields are just one piece of personal protective equipment (PPE) nurses and doctors are finding difficult to source through traditional supply chains. Ear-savers, like the ones Jason is 3D printing, remove the strain of surgical mask elastic bands on the ear.

Jason, who is a member of several online 3D printing communities, is printing PPE that follows publicly available guidelines and is both National Institutes of Health (NIH)-approved and reviewed for clinical and community use.

“Supply chains for critical PPE were drying up and being picked over and I thought that 3D printing would be a great way to jump in and help out, at least until those supply chains catch up,” said Jason. “I’m honestly just using my background and know-how to stand on the shoulders of others who have done a lot of work to design these 3D items and just chip in where I can.”

The 3D printer can print parts necessary for the face shields in different colors. From blue to orange and many colors in between, some are even glow-in-the-dark.

Not long after printing, the PPE would soon make its way into hospitals and word spread beyond professionals in the hospital community. “[The photos of healthcare workers wearing my PPE] were amazing to see. Those few pictures made this time and energy all worth it,” said Jason.

Soon after his PPE got in the hands of medical staff and word got out, Boston-area businesses started reaching out to him to source their own face shields as their businesses planned to start opening back up. In the meantime, Jason has been monitoring news of mass-manufactured PPE resupply in hospitals to better understand when the need for community donated PPE will slow down so he can start to focus on helping local businesses with their PPE needs.

Jason said, “I want to make sure I prioritize these to the right places; healthcare workers and first responders get first priority then come Somerville and surrounding area businesses like hairdressers and restaurants.” Those sales will help to fund materials for future PPE donations to hospitals.

A seasoned innovator, Jason is no stranger to making things with an emphasis on utility. Jason’s small business, Wilhelm Seam, a small-batch leather goods company out of his home in Somerville, Mass., has helped him understand the importance of quality products and backing them with his name.

In a 2016 interview with Scout Somerville, Jason said, “I want Wilhelm Seam to be bigger than what the actual product is.” Although his latest efforts are separate from his traditional products, the intrinsic sentiment has become almost prophetic.

“It’s really important for me to make things that are useful to people and things that people can use every day and enjoy. I get immense satisfaction from building things that are useful,” said Jason.

He added, “I don’t want to put my name on or sign off on anything whether at work or in my personal life that I can’t stand behind.”

Whether it’s through his work with New Balance, Wilhelm Seam, or even 3D printing PPE, the Tufts Gordon Institute alumnus is reminded of the pivotal skills he gained through the MS in Engineering Management program.

“I’ve been using project management-focused courses from the MSEM program every day. That’s certainly helped me with taking on bigger picture projects at New Balance: Becoming a project manager on emerging technology projects, leading different teams for new manufacturing initiatives, and expanding innovation programs,” Jason said.

As Massachusetts, like many other states, begins to reopen amid a new normal, the journey towards eradicating the pandemic-inducing virus continues. But Jason isn’t slowing down yet. “As long as there is a need and as long as I am able to continue printing these, I will continue to print them,” said Jason.

Vice Provost for Research Caroline Genco in her lab before the pandemic

Researchers Across Tufts Pivot to Fight COVID-19

Scientists collaborate to understand the coronavirus, from how it is transmitted to the disparity of its harm

As she witnessed COVID-19 spread worldwide, Tufts Vice Provost for Research Caroline Genco knew that it would take scientists in all sorts of disciplines—from virology to psychology—to mitigate the crisis. Getting all those researchers in the same room, however, has historically been a challenge, she said.

Yet even as Tufts University had to ramp down its laboratories in early March to keep employees safe, scientists across the university came together virtually, figuring out ways that they could pivot their research to focus on COVID-19, or offering to lend their expertise to cross-disciplinary projects.

A mechanical engineering professor suggested that his work on nanoparticles could be put to use identifying viruses; a visiting scholar in the math department could use her models to forecast COVID-19 cases and recoveries. Whether they worked in medicine, engineering, sociology, dentistry, nutrition, or veterinary medicine, researchers from across Tufts’ schools stepped forward.

Genco’s office helped them form the Tufts COVID-19 Working Group, a collective of more than seventy faculty and Tufts Medical Center researchers with a singular goal: to do whatever it takes to fight back against the virus.

Through the group, researchers who might not otherwise have crossed path are now able to brainstorm over videoconferences, share ideas and data, and develop new solutions to this unprecedented problem. In just a few weeks—barely the blink of an eye in academia—members have already launched new collaborative research projects focused on the virus, secured funding, and begun gathering data.

“It’s amazing how quickly people came together. There was always a will to collaborate across schools at Tufts, but now there’s a way,” Genco said.

To get promising studies underway swiftly, Tufts University and Tufts Medical Center created the COVID-19 Rapid Response Seed Funding Program, which has already awarded grants to eight projects. The studies are looking at everything from the body’s immune response to COVID-19 to gender disparities in risks and impacts of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Michael Jordan, an assistant professor at Tufts School of Medicine and a physician at Tufts Medical Center, is leading efforts to build a biorepository of specimens collected from hospitalized patients who were tested for COVID-19. Along with a database of de-identified clinical and demographic information, the biorepository will be an invaluable resource for all the COVID-19 research to come.

masks under repair

Team Comes Together to Repair Thousands of N-95 Masks

Tufts Medical Center needed more than 6,000 masks fixed fast, so Tufts students, staff, and alumni are jumping in, along with MIT and Harvard students, to make it happen

When Tufts Medical Center received a donation of 6,095 N95 face masks this week—crucial in these times—it seemed invaluable. But then staff quickly discovered they were old—the elastic bands on the masks were brittle and would break before they could be used.

A Tufts University team volunteering at Tufts Medical Center (Tufts MC) quickly jumped on the case, crowdsourced solutions in the wider Boston academic community, and came together to engineer a prototype to get the damaged elastic out without damaging the masks and provide an alternative way to attach new elastic so that the masks can be used.

Thanks to the fast volunteer mobilization and collaborative problem-solving, groups will begin assembling the masks at Tufts starting on Monday.

How It Came Together

As part of Tufts’ emergency response to COVID-19, members of The Fletcher School’s Military Fellows Program are volunteering logistical support on site at Tufts Medical Center. On Wednesday evening—March 18—Pete Lee, F20, a member of the group, put out the word to his Fletcher colleagues about the problem.

The group brainstormed responses, including reaching out as fast as possible to the Boston academic community for solutions. Volunteer leader Abby Kukura, F21, led a call for engineering expertise from around the area, and by midday Thursday she had identified six MIT graduate students able to develop prototypes for usable masks. That day, Ralia Bouska, F20, another member of the Military Fellows Program, took over as project leader.

Along with Amanda Schwartz, F20, Kukura arranged for Ameerah Siddiqi, F21, to coordinate volunteers to pick up a small batch of masks from the hospital and purchase elastic supplies from local craft stores. “We ended up buying out all the elastic JoAnn Fabrics had,” Kukura said. Then she delivered the supplies to the apartments of engineering students in the local area.

Within several hours, the crowdsourced engineering effort had yielded prototypes from each contributor. Back at Tufts MC, Lee presented nurses with possible approaches to retrofitting the masks that would still preserve their integrity. Meanwhile Schwartz worked with Tufts facilities staff to identify a workspace at the Tufts School of Dental Medicine where School of Engineering volunteers could go on Friday to meet with MIT and Harvard graduate students—they would review and refine the prototypes, work on designs, and order the supplies needed for mass production of the repaired masks.

To make the prototypes, the team turned to the NOLOP Fast Facility, the makerspace at Tufts. Its manager, Brandon Stafford, put out the call to engineering students still in the area who were familiar with the makerspace, and they were soon asking for volunteers to help.

Soon Tufts engineering students and a recent alum were on the job: James Aronson, E18, EG20; Tasia Gladkova, E20; Molly Lie, E20; Jeremy Kanovsky, E21; Elliot Pavlovich, E20; Courtland Priest, E20; and Carter Silvey, E20.

By the end of their time together on Friday, they and graduate students from MIT and Harvard had landed on two final prototypes, and refined them with an eye toward production speed and ability to quickly source materials. They prepared thirty-five masks in each of the two designs and ordered elastics, clips, and other materials to finalize the repair all the remaining masks.

Their work got an appreciative nod from Dr. Michael Apkon, President and CEO of Tufts Medical Center, who came to meet the volunteers and thank them for their efforts.

Starting on Monday morning, some twenty volunteers from The Fletcher School, the Tufts School of Engineering, MIT, and Harvard will begin working—in an assembly-line style—to repair as many of the remaining masks as possible. They anticipate working with 18,000 feet of elastic cord—that’s about 3.4 miles—and 6,000 elastic clips/stoppers.

For the health and safety of the volunteers, the workspace—large enough to ensure room for social distancing—at the dental school will be deep-cleaned and sanitized, thanks to Tufts operations staff. Volunteers will also be provided with personal protective equipment.

“We have stressed to the students the importance of monitoring their own health and notifying us immediately if they develop any symptoms,” said Schwartz. “We have also asked the volunteers to contribute as their academic commitments permit, making sure to prioritize their classes.” Tufts University School of Dental Medicine is providing lunches for the volunteers.

In addition to repairing the masks, the volunteers are developing written protocols for their efforts, to track and codify all the steps to ensure that they are following all safety and health protocols. They have the goal of documenting what they are doing, what tools they are using, and the sources of their materials to help others implement this elsewhere.

Fletcher School Dean Rachel Kyte lauded the contributions from the Fletcher community. “Our military fellows have deployed strategic support to decision making, problem solving, and communications across Tufts crisis response, as well as manage student volunteers. Solving interconnected, complex problems is what we train for at Fletcher,” she said. “We are proud of their contribution now and in the period to come.”

“Everyone recognizes that this is an opportunity to make a real, measurable difference. We each have unique skills and our own effort that we can contribute. Together, we have the ability to make a material difference,” said Aronson, one of the volunteers. “Just in our group, we have undergraduates and graduates from Tufts, MIT, and Harvard, assistance from Tufts dental school and the university’s emergency operations center, and invaluable coordination from the Tufts Military Fellows. Both at Tufts and as part of our larger community, we all need to come together to face the challenges presented by COVID-19.”

MIT mechanical engineering graduate student Levi DeLuke noted that the team quickly developed a spreadsheet as the work on the masks progressed, “adding new steps to the assembly process, sourcing materials, and timing the first practice runs of masks,” he said. “Hopefully other groups can use the information as a starting point on their own projects.”

an x-ray showing infection in the lungs

Using Artificial Intelligence to Help Diagnose COVID-19

Software developed at Tufts has been successful at identifying COVID-19 pneumonia in more than 99 percent of the X-ray images it processes

For patients with COVID-19, terrifying shortness of breath can set in virtually overnight. In many cases, it’s caused by an aggressive pneumonia infection in the lungs, which fills them with thick fluid and robs the body of life-giving oxygen.

Detecting these severe cases early on is essential for treating them successfully. At the moment, however, the only way to tell whether a patient’s pneumonia is caused by the coronavirus is by examining X-ray and CT scans of the chest—and as cases rack up worldwide, radiologists are being deluged with images, creating a backlog that may delay critical decisions about care.

One solution, said Karen Panetta, may involve taking some of that workload away from humans. Panetta, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the School of Engineering, is working to create artificial intelligence (AI) that can spot cases of COVID-19 pneumonia and flag them for review.

Using X-rays and CT scans from an international COVID-19 database, her lab is training AI software to comb through thousands of images, matching those that share similar traits. By comparing X-rays of pneumonia caused by bacterial infections, chronic smoking, and COVID-19, she says, the AI can gradually learn to identify features unique to each one, be it a particular shape, area of contrast, or other trait. Once the software finds potential matches, it uses statistical analysis to sort COVID cases from non-COVID ones.

“Think of it this way: If you’re watching football, and you’ve seen the same play run fifty times, you know what each player will do if their team runs it again,” said Panetta, who is also dean of graduate education at the School of Engineering. “But if a new guy comes in and you haven’t seen him before, how are you going to predict what he’ll do? You’ll look back on the last fifty times you saw the same play and take an educated guess based on your experience. Our software is basically doing the same thing with these images.”

Panetta’s COVID-19 work builds on research that her lab has already been doing to detect cancerous tumors. In breast cancer, she notes, her AI software looks at the nuclei of individual cells in a biopsy sample, and searches for distinct patterns that match known cases.

Cancer-free samples tend to have orderly nuclei contained in an oval structure, but if the cancer progresses, those patterns tend to break down. Using AI and machine learning, it’s possible to train the AI to spot new cancer cases autonomously based on those traits.

“We had already developed all these tools for image processing, machine learning, and AI methods for cancer, so COVID-19 was just a more timely application of the same technology,” she said. “We’re just tuning the software for a different use case.”

The results are already promising. So far, her lab’s software has been successful at identifying COVID-19 pneumonia in more than 99 percent of the images it processes.

Getting to that point hasn’t been so simple, however. The machine learning tools she uses to train the software are only as good as the data they’re fed—and while humans can easily ignore slight imperfections in an image, those same glitches can trip up even the best machine.

In some of the images in the COVID-19 database, she noted, large black rectangles appear where patient’s personal information has been blocked for anonymity. In others, technicians have underexposed the X-ray, making the entire image slightly cloudy, or have superimposed X-ray and CT scans, creating a confusing hybrid image.

“X-ray and CT scans aren’t always in pristine condition. They require a lot of enhancement and pre-processing to clean up those imperfections so they’re on equal footing,” she says. The AI also has to be smart enough not to misdiagnose an image because it sees anomaly.

“Everyone thinks AI is this magical black box, but it’s not Zoltar,” Panetta said, referring to the all-knowing fortune-telling machine from the Tom Hanks movie, Big. “You have to constantly tweak it to improve it.”

Another complication, she added, is that while AI can identify images that look like other cases of COVID pneumonia, it can’t tell exactly why those images meet the criteria from a medical point of view. To fill in those gaps, Panetta is looking to team up with experienced radiologists at Tufts, and wants to add medical annotation and context to each image.

Even if that improved AI software isn’t available to clinicians during the current pandemic—which it very well may not be, since FDA approval can take years—Panetta hopes it could still be used in the future to educate medical personnel. If another outbreak happens down the road, she reasons, hospitals will need all the training they can get.

“Right now, even doctors on the front lines have probably only seen a few hundred cases of COVID-19 pneumonia, but there are hundreds of thousands of cases happening worldwide,” she said. “If we can aggregate all that data into one place with images, symptoms, and patient info, it may be possible to use AI to study the disease more effectively,” she said.

That could help identify the patterns the cases all share. “For doctors who have never seen a patient with COVID-19,” said Panetta, “it could generate a portfolio that tells them what to look out for.”

Showcasing our Donors

Thank you for your generous support of the School of Engineering. Please visit our searchable donor listing to find your name and those of other supporters!

an interactive donor wall

Stories from the year

By the Numbers

63% from public high schools 14% first generation college students 4557 applicants for the class of 2024 47% of SOE students are recieving financial aid $47,000 is the average financial aid package infographic showing that 2020 goals have been met

Brighter World

campaign update

In May, 2020 our Brighter World campaign crossed the $1 billion mark and Jumbo thanks to all of our donors! The School of Engineering was the first Tufts school to reach their campaign goal and having raised $98 million to date, we are very close to reaching our new goal of $100 million.

Social Entrepreneurship at Tufts

sustainable water quality projects

What are Tumors?

Featuring Professor Madeleine Oudin

A Healing Revolution

"smart" bandages

"We ended up buying out all the elastic JoAnn Fabrics had."