RPI Engineering

Incoming Faculty Bring New Areas of Research to Rensselaer

Troy, N.Y. — From neuronal differentiation and protein trafficking in order to understand diseases such as Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s, ALS, and diabetes to spacecraft navigation, from advanced controls for manufacturing processes to research that focuses on the behavior of complex networks, and the dynamics of social, biological, and ecological networks.  Rensselaer is welcoming new experts in research as 19 professors join the faculty for the 2017-18 academic year.

Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson greeted returning and incoming faculty members during the annual Faculty Welcome Back reception, held this year at the President’s Residence on September 7. In her remarks to faculty, Jackson spoke about the need to “consider humanity’s greatest challenges—including climate change and extreme weather, which took a horrific form in Hurricane Harvey; along with our need for sustainable infrastructure; sufficient supplies of food, water, and energy; national and global security; human health and the mitigation of disease.” Jackson further noted that it is very clear that collaboration is the key to everything. No single person, discipline, or even nation can unravel such complex, networked challenges.

“The ‘polytechnic’ in the Rensselaer name comes from the Greek for ‘skilled in many arts,’” Jackson said. “We operate within a paradigm we term ‘The New Polytechnic’: as a great crossroads for brilliant people from all generations, fields of study, sectors, and geographies—who, empowered by the most advanced tools and technologies—work together to make the world a better place.”

In her remarks, Jackson also spoke about the founding vision of Rensselaer as a school that would instruct students “in the application of science to the common purposes of life.” That founding vision has served to define Rensselaer as a place where practical experience and hands-on learning are integral to education. “We educate our students, as well, not just for deep knowledge in their chosen fields, but for a keen awareness of complementary perspectives and experiences—so they graduate prepared to lead such collaborations,” she said.

Today, faculty research at Rensselaer has driven groundbreaking new discoveries and innovative applications in a wide variety of human endeavors. In recent months, Rensselaer has been awarded research grants from major federal agencies including, NASA, the National Science Foundation, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Department of Energy, National Institute of Aging, National Institute of Mental Health, National Institute of General Medical Sciences, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, and National Cancer Institute, United States Air Force, United States Army, and United States Navy. These awards contribute to our growing research enterprise and help make Rensselaer even more instrumental in addressing the emerging needs and opportunities of our rapidly changing world.

Faculty who will join Rensselaer during the 2017-2018 academic year are:

Marvin Bentley, assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. Bentley is a neuronal cell biologist studying neuronal differentiation and protein trafficking. At Rensselaer, he will focus on how and why axonal and dendritic proteins are distributed differently in the cell—processes of great interest to the understanding of diseases such as Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s, ALS, and diabetes. Bentley received his bachelor’s degree in business administration and a post-baccalaureate in biology from Ouachita Baptist University in Arkansas. He received his Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology from the University of Montana and was a postdoctoral researcher and assistant professor in the Jungers Center for Neuroscience Research at the Oregon Health & Science University.

John Christian, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering, is an expert in spacecraft navigation, computer vision, sensor testing, and space systems. Christian received his bachelor’s and master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology, and his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. After earning his doctorate, he joined NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where he received numerous awards for his work. Christian comes to Rensselaer from West Virginia University, where in 2015, he was named the “New Researcher of the Year” in the College of Engineering and Mineral Resources.

Mamadou Diagne, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering, did his postdoctoral work on the dynamical modeling and control of screw extrusion for additive manufacturing technologies at the University of California, San Diego; and on electrohydrodynamic jet printing at the University of Michigan. He earned his bachelor’s degree in control and electrical engineering from Blaise Pascal University, and his master’s and doctoral degrees in control engineering from the Université Claude Bernard Lyon. At Rensselaer, Diagne will focus on the advanced controls for manufacturing processes.

Jianxi Gao will serve as assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science. His research focuses on the behavior of complex networks, including the dynamics of social, biological, and ecological networks. Gao received his Ph.D. in control theory and control engineering from Shanghai Jiao Tong University. He completed a postdoctoral position at Northeastern University. Prior to joining the Rensselaer, Gao was a research assistant professor at the Center for Complex Network Research at Northeastern University.

Alex Gittens, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science. His research focuses on the intersection of large-scale machine learning, high-dimensional probability and statistics, and numerical linear algebra—and the applications include creating tools to extract value from massive datasets. Gittens received his bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering and mathematics from the University of Houston, and his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from the California Institute of Technology. Gittens also completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley.

Xiaozheng He, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. His research interests are in the area of transportation and infrastructure systems, with a focus on transportation system analysis and modeling, and traffic operations and management. He received his master’s and Ph.D. degrees in civil engineering from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. He also received a bachelor’s and master’s degree in computational mathematics from Nanjing University in China. Prior to joining Rensselaer, he held postdoctoral positions at the University of Minnesota and Purdue University.

Jason Huh, assistant professor in the Department of Economics. His research centers on health economics, public policy, labor economics, and applied econometrics. Huh received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he also served as a research assistant in the Department of Finance and Center for Business and Public Policy.

Gaurav Jain, assistant professor at the Lally School of Management. His research focuses on how individuals make judgments, estimates, and decisions in the absence of complete information, and spans the fields of numerical cognition and judgment, working memory capacity, and attention limitations. Jain earned his bachelor’s degree in engineering, electronics, and communication from the Manipal Institute of Technology in India; his MBA in marketing from the Management Development Institute, also in India; and his doctorate in marketing from the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa.

Fotios Kopsaftopoulos, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering. His research focuses on aerospace structural systems, including intelligent aerospace systems, and autonomous vehicles with state-sensing and structural health monitoring capabilities. Kopsaftopoulos received his bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and aeronautics from the University of Patras in Greece. Prior to coming to Renssselaer, Kopsaftopoulos served in postdoctoral positions at the University of Patras and at Stanford University.

Jianjing Lin, assistant professor in the Department of Economics. Her research focuses on health economics, industrial organization, and applied econometrics. Lin received her Ph.D. in economics from the University of Arizona and master’s degrees in economics from the University of Arizona and the City University of Hong Kong. Lin comes to Rensselaer from Tulane University, where she served as a postdoctoral research fellow and economics instructor. 

James Malazita, assistant professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies. His expertise is in participatory design, speculative realism, and actor network theory, which will contribute to Rensselaer’s powerhouse Games and Simulations Arts and Sciences program. Malazita received his Ph.D. in communication, culture, and media from Drexel University, and his master’s in digital media, also from Drexel. He has been a lecturer at Rensselaer since 2015, teaching critical and practical classes in the Design and Innovation program, and in the Institute’s top-ranked in the nation Information Technology and Web Science program.

Sergio Pequito, assistant professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering. His research expertise is in dynamical and control systems theory, optimization, and network science. Pequito received his bachelor’s and master’s degree in applied mathematics from the University of Lisbon. He received a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Lisbon. Prior to coming to Rensselaer, Pequito served in a postdoctoral appointment in the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania.

Chris Sims, assistant professor in the Department of Cognitive Science. Sims received his master’s and Ph.D. degrees in cognitive science from Rensselaer. Following a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Rochester’s Center for Visual Science, Sims became an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Drexel University. His research centers on visual memory and perceptual expertise, sensorimotor control and motor learning, and learning and decision-making under uncertainty.

Chad Stecher, assistant professor in the Department of Economics. Stecher’s research considers health economics and development economics, with a secondary emphasis on social network analysis, behavioral economics, and applied microeconomics. Stecher holds a bachelor’s degree in economics and mathematics from Colby College, and received his master’s degree and Ph.D. in economics, both from the University of California, Los Angeles. Earlier in his career, Stecher served as senior research assistant at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

Luigi Vanfretti, associate professor in the Department of Electrical, Computer, and Systems Engineering. His expertise is in the area of advanced power system modeling and control, and smart grid and distribution system engineering. Vanfretti received his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, with an electric power concentration, from the Universidad de San Carlos in Guatemala. He earned his master’s and Ph.D. degrees in electric power engineering from Rensselaer, and stayed on to do a postdoctoral position, before accepting a position as assistant professor at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. Vanfretti was promoted to associate professor in 2013.

Raquel Velho, assistant professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies. Her research focuses on disability and infrastructure studies, standards and classification in governance, and cyborg sociology and anthropology. Velho received her Ph.D. in science and technology studies from University College London. She also holds a master’s degree with distinction in science, medicine, technology, and society from Imperial College London.

Yangyang Xu, assistant professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences. His research focuses on applied mathematics, numerical optimization, and data science—with applications in compressed sensing, image processing, data mining, and machine learning. Xu earned his Ph.D. in computational and applied mathematics from Rice University. He held postdoctoral research appointments at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and the University of Minnesota. Prior to joining Rensselaer, Xu served as an assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Alabama.

Pingkun Yan, assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. His research focuses on bioimaging, informatics, and image-guided intervention, with an emphasis on the detection of tumors. Yan received his bachelor’s degree in electronics engineering from the University of Science and Technology of China, and his Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering from the National University of Singapore. Yan was a senior scientist with Phillips Research, and from 2011 to 2013, and served as a research professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Miao Yu, associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. His research focuses on rationally designing and preparing nanoporous structures for precisely distinguishing molecules by size and shape differences, and applying them for separations, and for size-selective catalysis. Yu received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering from Tianjin University in China, and his doctorate in chemical engineering from the University of Colorado at Boulder. In 2012, he joined the University of South Carolina’s Department of Chemical Engineering as assistant professor.

The research and expertise of the new faculty members exemplify the vision of The New Polytechnic, an emerging paradigm for teaching, learning, and research at Rensselaer, the foundation of which is the recognition that global challenges and opportunities are so great they cannot be adequately addressed by even the most talented person working alone. Rensselaer serves as a crossroads for collaboration — working with partners across disciplines, sectors, and geographic regions — to address complex global challenges, using the most advanced tools and technologies, many of which are developed at Rensselaer.

About Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, founded in 1824, is America’s first technological research university. For nearly 200 years, Rensselaer has been defining the scientific and technological advances of our world. Rensselaer faculty and alumni represent 85 members of the National Academy of Engineering, 17 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 25 members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 8 members of the National Academy of Medicine, 8 members of the National Academy of Inventors, and 5 members of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, as well as 6 National Medal of Technology winners, 5 National Medal of Science winners, and a Nobel Prize winner in Physics. With 7,000 students and nearly 100,000 living alumni, Rensselaer is addressing the global challenges facing the 21st century—to change lives, to advance society, and to change the world. To learn more, go to www.rpi.edu.