Report on Research 2017



New Devices that Emulate Biological Synapses

Mike MaloneI am delighted to provide this report on UMass Amherst research and scholarly activity.

Our campus strategic plan, Innovation and Impact, emphasizes continued excellence in our disciplines as a means of innovating and focuses on the engagement of external stakeholders. This year, we highlight some of these areas, many with a strong interdisciplinary aspect. This strategy has enabled continued progress toward our goal of being the investment of choice for our stakeholders in government and industry.

Thank you for your interest and Go UMass!

Michael F. Malone ’79PhD
Vice Chancellor for Research and Engagement,
Ronnie and Eugene Isenberg Distinguished Professor of Engineering

Massachusetts and greater New England are nationally known for their robust research enterprise and strong industrial manufacturing base. Our campus’s historic strengths in materials science, engineering, and nanotechnology and our talented, innovative workforce drive regional and national growth in the advanced-manufacturing sector. Materials and manufacturing research and innovation are enabled by new campus facilities for roll-to-roll manufacturing, e-design, electronics and 3-D print prototyping, device characterization, and materials testing, to name a few.

The technology for creating power-generating clothes is here
Power Generating Fabric

A lightweight, comfortable jacket that can generate the power to light up a jogger at night may sound futuristic, but UMass Amherst materials scientist Trisha Andrew could make one today. She and colleagues have invented a way to apply breathable, pliable, metal-free electrodes to fabric and off-the-shelf clothing so that it feels good to the touch yet transports enough electricity to power small electronics.

“Our lab works on textile electronics,” says Andrew, who trained as a polymer chemist and electrical engineer. “We aim to build up the materials science so that you can give us any garment you want—any fabric, any weave type—and turn it into a conductor. Such conducting textiles can then be built up into sophisticated electronics. One such application is to harvest body-motion energy and convert it into electricity in such a way that every move you make generates power.” Powering advanced fabrics that can monitor health data remotely is important to the military and is increasingly valued by the health care industry, she notes.

Trisha Andrew, Chemistry

Trisha Andrew, Chemistry

Generating small electric currents through the relative movement of layers is called triboelectric charging, explains Andrew. Materials can become electrically charged as they create friction by moving against a different material, as happens when you rub a comb on a sweater. “By sandwiching layers of different materials between two conducting electrodes,” she explains, “a few microwatts of power can be generated when we move.”

Andrew and her colleagues have taken advantage of this new technique to make gloves that keep a hand’s fingers as warm as its palm.

“We took a pair of cotton gloves—regular, old-fashioned cotton cloth—and coated the fingers to allow a small amount of current to pass through, so that the fingers heat up,” says Andrew. “We chose to make a pair of gloves because the fingers require a high curvature that allows us to show that our material is really flexible.”  She adds that the glove is powered by a small coin battery that runs on nano-amps of current, not enough to pass through your skin or to hurt you.

 “Even when it’s completely dunked in water,” says Andrew, “our coating will not shock you, and our layered construction keeps the conductive cloth from coming into contact with your skin. We hope to have this reach consumers as a real product in the next few years. It’s ready to take to the next phase.”

Visit for more information.

Our strategy for the life sciences includes promoting the economic development of the commonwealth, and western Massachusetts in particular, by serving as a hub for research, innovation, workforce training, and technology transfer to industry. Our success is driven by partnering with industry, venture capitalists, and federal, state, and local agencies. It is also tied directly to the quality of our infrastructure for life sciences research and development. To that end, the Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS) fosters collaboration among researchers, medical care practitioners, and industrial partners to advance medical technology, encourage the production of pharmaceuticals and point-of-care diagnostics, and develop novel patient-care techniques for personalized medicine. With 30 centralized core facilities, modern laboratories and office spaces, and collaborative areas for research and workforce training, IALS also provides comprehensive training programs for undergraduate and graduate students and continuing education to train for today’s life sciences workforce.

Human cognition is one of the most challenging and exciting of scientific frontiers. All voluntary and involuntary actions, perceptions, feelings, and thoughts are controlled by the brain and nervous system, yet fundamental questions about how these events occur remain unanswered. Our campus has considerable strength in the study of human cognition from the perspectives of linguistics, psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, and computer science. The campus’s new MRI/S creates a unique niche for partnering with industry and positions the campus for research opportunities in clinical technologies and methodologies.

New Devices Emulate Biological Synapses

The future of computing is anything but conventional, says J. Joshua Yang, UMass Amherst professor of electrical and computer engineering. He believes that processes in the human brain called neuromorphic computing hold promise for taking computing far beyond its current energy efficiency and processing limitations. “In this era of big data and the internet of things, we are faced with tons of data,” says Yang. “Our devices must be able to process things faster while using less energy.”

Yang and his colleagues have developed a diffusive memristor, a tiny electrical resistance switch that can faithfully emulate the synapses where signals pass from one nerve cell to another in the human brain. These devices can store and process information while offering several key performance characteristics that exceed conventional integrated circuitry. Their manufacture doesn’t require exotic materials or high temperatures and they can be used for different purposes such as memory storage, information processing, security, and as a sensor.

J. Joshua Yang, Electrical and

Computer Engineering

“We’re looking at how human brains process and store information,” says Yang. “We wanted to build something with real intelligence—computers that can really think and learn, not just use software and human-programmed algorithms.”

Universal memory is one application Yang sees for memristive technology. “Right now,” he says, “we have memory hierarchies, different types of memory with different attributes and performance. We need a universal memory designed to be good at everything—to be fast, dense, and nonvolatile and have low energy requirements. Universal memory means a much simpler computer in terms of components, one that will use less energy, store more information, and be faster. We’ll be able to process the same information with orders of magnitude less energy and faster speed.”

Yang’s diffused memristor is just one building block in neuromorphic computing. “We now want to emulate a neuron” he says, “then integrate synapses and neurons together to build a neural network; that’s what’s next. We will pick the neuroscientists’ brains to get their latest knowledge to implement in our electronic platform. This will help the neuroscientists, too. We may have a better platform to verify their theories of the brain than animal tissues, which is still pretty much a black box. Our electronic system is well defined and can be checked. It can help us get answers. It’s also a great natural platform for novel computing paradigms.” Visit the Yang lab to learn more.

Massachusetts has recognized the creative industries as a significant component of its statewide economic development strategy, providing a conduit for social and cultural engagement between UMass Amherst and its host environment. The campus has broad strength in business and the arts, as evidenced by historic and new programs designed to encourage such engagement. Our Arts Extension Services have been connecting campus cultural and educational resources with the community, stimulating the growth of arts and culture across Massachusetts and New England since 1973.

We live in an age of ubiquitous data. Vast amounts are produced each day from sources as diverse as online interactions among people, wearable health monitors, and sensor networks measuring weather and traffic. Tools for data science and students trained to wield and extend those tools are in high demand because these techniques have the power to increase productivity, develop insights into patterns of human behavior, transform existing business practices, and spawn new industries.

Our campus’s approach to data and computational sciences is interdisciplinary: faculty members from disciplines as varied as physics, journalism, political science, and public health work in data science–related research. Our commitment to data and computational sciences research and education runs deep: at least 17 research groups and laboratories affiliated with our College of Information and Computer Sciences focus on various facets of data and computational sciences. The campus’s Computational Social Science Institute is a diverse, interdisciplinary community using computational models and methods to help us understand the social world. With its 75 faculty affiliates in 26 departments across campus, it is the largest, most diverse academic institute of its kind.

Powerful new GPU cluster advances regional deep learning research
UMass Professor Erik Learned-Miller stands among GPUs at the Mass Green High Performance Computing Center

Deep-learning research uses neural network algorithms to analyze large data sets. With a new cluster of 400 specialized graphics processing units (GPUs), our campus has a powerful new tool for big data analysis and is poised to attract the nation’s next crop of top PhD students and researchers in deep-learning fields. Housed at the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke, Massachusetts, the cluster is the result of a five-year, $5 million capital grant to the campus from the Baker administration and the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative. The grant leverages a $15 million gift supporting data science and cybersecurity research from the MassMutual Foundation of Springfield.

Unusually large for an academic cluster, the GPUs are critical for modern computer science research because of their enormous computational power. According to computer scientist and project lead Erik Learned-Miller (above), they can address extreme computational needs, solving problems 10 times faster than conventional processors.

“Deep learning is a revolutionary approach to some of the hardest problems in machine reasoning and is the ‘magic under the hood’ of many commercial products and services,” says Learned-Miller. “Google Translate, for example, produced more accurate and natural translations thanks to a novel deep-learning approach.”

The campus currently has research projects that apply deep learning techniques to computational ecology, face recognition, graphics, natural language processing, and many other areas.

Learned-Miller says he and colleagues are now in the first year of the grant, during which about $2 million has been spent on two clusters: the GPU cluster, dubbed “Gypsum,” and a smaller cluster of traditional CPU machines dubbed “Swarm II.” Gypsum consists of 400 GPUs installed on 100 computer nodes, along with a storage system and a backup system. It is configured with a leading software package for deploying, monitoring and managing such clusters.

Not only do the researchers hope the GPUs will accelerate deep learning research and train a new generation of experts at the campus's College of Information and Computer Sciences, but an important overall goal is to foster collaborations between the campus and industry. Connect with our Center for Data Science.

As a public land-grant institution, UMass Amherst is deeply committed to providing access and opportunities for all people, especially historically underrepresented groups. The university has been a leader in promoting equality and inclusion through much of its history, with respected research and student success programs for and about ethnically diverse, first-generation, and nontraditional students. Research in this area spans social science, economics, public policy, public health, education, history, women’s studies, literary and cultural studies, and the arts. In partnership with state, regional, and federal agencies, we are working to determine the root causes of inequality and to identify sound solutions.

Remedies can prevent attrition of girls and women from STEM

Social psychologist Nilanjana (Buju) Dasgupta is part of an ongoing group advising the National Science Foundation on strategies to promote diversity in the nation’s education system and workforce in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Her most recent study found that early in their undergraduate years, young women in engineering majors felt more confident about their ability, a greater motivation and sense of belonging in engineering, and less anxiety if they had a female peer mentor. At the end of the first college year, a remarkable 100 percent of female students mentored by advanced female peers were still in engineering majors.

Dasgupta is particularly interested in finding and testing effective remedies grounded in solid science. “There’s been enormous public interest in identifying the leaky pipeline problem and its impact on the U.S. workforce,” she says, “but far less attention has been paid to identifying and testing effective interventions that can solve the problem.”

In her research, Dasgupta tests a range of factors—the influence of teachers, professors, and peers and the effects of teaching styles and classroom dynamics—to determine which bolster women’s confidence, interest, and career aspirations in STEM, and which have no effect or even a negative effect. Her team, which includes graduate students and postdocs, employs various types of research methodologies. Sometimes they conduct longitudinal field experiments that introduce a specific intervention in students’ lives. The researchers then follow the students over the course of a semester, a year, or their entire undergraduate careers to test whether the intervention has any effect, and, if it does, how long it endures. Dasgupta’s team also conducts brief lab experiments in which students are placed in specific situations—for instance, assigned to various types of work teams—and observed to determine whether their behavior changes as a result.

While her work continues, after a decade of research, Dasgupta has identified a number of interventions that can help retain women in STEM. They include:

#1: Make sure female students in STEM classes know about women scientists, engineers, and technology innovators.

If female students hear about scientists and engineers who are women through their STEM courses—through anecdotes professors share in class or biographical inserts in their readings—it keeps them motivated and interested in pursuing STEM careers.

#2: When possible, have more female professors or graduate teaching assistants teach entry-level or “gateway” classes.

Female students taught by female professors exhibit more confidence in their STEM abilities and indicate more interest in STEM careers than women with male professors.

#3: Match female students in male-dominated fields with peer mentors who are women.

Students with female mentors did better on a number of measures than those matched with male mentors or no mentor at all. “Students with female mentors felt they belonged in engineering more,” Dasgupta says. “They felt more confident about their abilities and their interest in pursuing engineering careers and graduate degrees increased.” By the end of the year, 100 percent of women with female mentors were still in the major, as opposed to 82 percent of those with male mentors and 89 percent of those with no mentors. The research found that even after their mentorships ended, women who’d had same-sex mentors continued to show higher levels of confidence and more interest in engineering careers—a long-term beneficial effect Dasgupta likens to a “social vaccine.”

#4: Make sure that student work groups are at least 50 percent female.

Much work in the sciences is done in teams, and the gender balance of those teams has significant consequences for its female members, Dasgupta  found.

#5: Timing matters.

Due to their anxiety about new environments and worries about whether they will fit in, girls and women are particularly vulnerable to attrition from STEM at developmental transition points—when they move from middle to high school, high school to college, college to the workforce. So it’s important to employ interventions designed to retain them at those times.

Dasgupta is a former fellow in the UMass Amherst Public Engagement Project, which supports faculty in bringing their research to the public. She often presents her work to audiences who can shape the future for girls and women in STEM. “I want to take the research back to the public, the people who train and hire the next generation, and those who make decisions that can either remedy or exacerbate inequalities, with the hope that they use our data to inform their teaching practices and policy decisions,” she says. Learn more.

Sustainability issues pervade public debate and private-investment decisions at every level. UMass Amherst makes significant contributions in areas such as renewable energy, water-treatment technologies, environmental and climate science, and public policy. Large-scale national centers such as the Northeast Climate Science Center (one of eight national centers established by the U.S. Department of the Interior), the National Science Foundation’s competitively awarded offshore-wind Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program, and the Water Innovation Network for Sustainable Small Systems are at the intersection of research excellence and federal priorities.

In 2017, industrial sponsored research awards rose 33 percent to $16.9 million. Total sponsored research awards reached $146.3 million.
Aerial shot of University of Massachusetts Amherst campus

By The Numbers

  • Sponsored research awards: $146.3M
  • Annual research expenditures: $214.6M*
  • Doctoral degrees awarded: 337**
  • Technology patent and licensing revenue: $792.7K

* FY2016 (most current data)
** AY2015–16 (most current data)

Distribution of Awarded Dollars Accepted from Federal Agencies – FY2017

Distribution of Awarded Dollars by Sponsor Category – FY2017

Distribution of Awarded Dollars from the Private Sector – FY2017

Access the full annual report of sponsored activities here.