University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Whole Technologies

Engineering innovations to benefit humanity
  • UMass Professor Aura Ganz stands in the hall of theKnowles Engineering building.

Ganz prides herself in her ability to develop what she refers to as “whole” technologies—innovations that require interdisciplinary collaboration to make them available to those who can use them.

Electrical and computer engineer Aura Ganz spent the first part of her career increasing bandwidth capabilities to perfect optical and wireless networks—networks many of us use daily when we search the internet or turn on our smartphones. It was this research that first established Ganz as a leader in the wireless networking field. Since then, she has worked passionately to use the technology she helped build to develop applications that assist people and save lives.

A national expert in networking, Ganz has published more than 250 papers on the subject. Her book, Multimedia Wireless Networks, introduced wireless networks practitioners to the art of wireless system design at a time when the field was growing exponentially. She is an IEEE Fellow—a prestigious honor awarded through the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers to the top electrical engineers in the field.

Ganz prides herself in her ability to develop what she refers to as “whole” technologies—innovations that require interdisciplinary collaboration to make them available to those who can use them.

Though Ganz has many successful projects to her credit, she has worked passionately to bring two in particular to fruition: PERCEPT, an electronic indoor navigation system, or “seeing-eye directory,” for the blind and visually impaired that employs a smartphone app to detect NFC (near-field communication) tagged landmarks; and DIORAMA, a tracking system for first responders to use in mass casualty situations that has proven to enable a 50-percent faster evacuation time than current practice. With unprecedented funding from the National Institutes of Health (grants are not commonly awarded to projects with engineers as the principal investigator), both are moving into trial studies with PERCEPT being piloted at the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority’s (MBTA) Arlington station. Ganz is eager to see her technologies help more people and would like to see more altruistic endeavors from the field.

“It’s very exciting,” Ganz says. “It’s a new era and I hope more professors and inventors will take up this charge.”

In developing PERCEPT and DIORAMA, Ganz demonstrates a unique ability to use advanced technology to build on existing practices. She worked extensively with the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind and disaster managers, fully acquainting herself with their current practices in order to best bring the technologies forward.

“I cannot come with a revolutionary idea where the users have to throw away what they know now—it will never get accepted,” Ganz says. “You have to understand what they currently do and how to improve the process with technology.”

In the coming months, Ganz will continue to work with the National Federation for the Blind to see how they can help lobby for a federal mandate that would require public building deployments of PERCEPT. She is also moving DIORAMA into large-scale trials. In order for the technology to be used in disaster drills around the globe, she must prove it can handle a large number of victims over a large geographical area.

Just as Ganz works on whole technologies (rather than a single slice of a project), she prefers to be thought of in her entirety—as a wife, a proud mother of three, a leader, and an engineer. While other female professionals have felt pressured to separate their family lives from their professional ones, Ganz says her family inspires her work.

“Perhaps I caught the ‘helping bug’ from my children—my two oldest are doctors, now,” says Ganz. “You really can see the immediate result these technologies have for people. You really can improve their lives.”

Amanda Drane '12