Solving Real Problems with Real Solutions

“If you’re going to solve real-world problems, you need to work in the real world,” said Professor Michael Silevitch, director of Northeastern University’s NSF-funded Gordon Center for Subsurface Sensing and Imaging Systems (CenSSIS), during a keynote address at the Fifth International Workshop on Advanced Smart Materials and Smart Structures Technology (ANCRiSST) in the Egan Center July 30. “This means, if you’re going to work on breast-cancer imaging, you had better be working with medical doctors.”

The prestigious conference, sponsored by the NSF and held on Northeastern’s campus for the first time, aims to foster partnerships between Asian and American scientists engaged in trying to evaluate and preserve civil infrastructure.

Silevitch addressed an audience of scholars from Hong Kong, Korea, and several other Asian countries, and outlined how his center, through its multidisciplinary approach, is focused on solving a variety of real-world problems, ranging from breast cancer detection and embryo viability testing to bomb detection and underwater coral-reef surveying. The answers to these problems, he stressed, share a common thread: the solutions lay far beneath the surface.

He gave examples of two such real-world, and seemingly disparate, issues: the viability of embryos implanted through in vitro fertilization, and the devastation of terrorism through hidden explosive devices. The point was to show that there are other applications for subsurface sensing and imaging techniques—ones that don’t have anything to do with civil infrastructure, but that could spark interest across other disciplines.
When it comes to fertility research, Silevitch’s team is using the embryos of mice to perfect ways of extracting information from cells previously too far removed to examine. This new information will help doctors better predict the viability of those embryos, and eventually, Silevitch hopes, the viability of human embryos.

On the national security front, the center is using the same basic subsurface detection principals to find new ways of detecting hidden explosives. At the conference, Silevitch, who co-directs the new center, Awareness and Localization of Explosives-Related Threats (ALERT), a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Center of Excellence, posed a simple question: If you can find a tumor in the body or determine the viability of an embryo, can you find a bomb in a suitcase?

He then outlined the research and technology his center is employing to answer that question, including a collaboration with Homeland Security officials focused on improving airport-screening systems.

“When we have a problem in the world, we have to take off our academic glasses and go to work with the real-world people who are focused on solving these problems,” Silevitch said.

Silevitch also noted during his address that the center’s research team has produced 400 scholarly papers, but that teaching still remains a top priority, with more than 150 students a year participating in the cutting-edge research occurring at Gordon CenSSIS. He went on to describe the excitement students experience when training with the very latest equipment in the field, including the Keck 3D Microscope.

“A lot of our students are inspired by the fact that we’re dealing with real problems and real-world solutions,” he said.

Silevitch was among four keynoters at the three-day workshop. Professor Ahmed Busnaina, director of Northeastern’s NSF-backed Center for High-rate Nanomanufacturing also spoke. The conference was sponsored by Northeastern University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Asian-Pacific Network of Centers for Research in Smart Structures Technology.

For more information, please contact Susan Salk at 617-373-5446 or at

Related Faculty: Michael B. Silevitch

Related Departments:Civil & Environmental Engineering