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Engineering Leads Finalists for $1 Million Nayar Prize

Illinois institute of Technology recently announced three finalists for its first Nayar Prize, a $1 million award to develop breakthrough projects that produce meaningful results with a societal impact. 

The Nayar Family Foundation created the prize for students, faculty and staff at Illinois Tech to recognize their extraordinary problem-solving capabilities and help “move the needle” toward significant innovations to impact society, the economy, and our environment. 

The engineering College has strong representation in this competition. Out of over 50 team entries, 23 were headed by engineering faculty in the role of Principal Investigator. Additionally, 36 engineering faculty participated as members of the various competing teams. Three engineering faculty (Kenneth Tichauer, Jovan Brankov, and Lili Du) are among the finalist teams for the Nayar Prize. The two finalist teams with the lead and or participation of Armour faculty are The Adept Cancer Imager and The Driverless City

“Armour College of Engineering strives to provide innovative solutions that positively impact our global society”, said Natacha DePaola, Armour Dean of Engineering, Carol and Ed Kaplan Chair. “I am very proud of our Armour community and excited for what is to come.”

Team finalists will each be granted $100,000 to spend within a year to show significant progress toward a solution for the problem they are investigating. In year two, the team that shows the most promise will receive an additional $200,000 to continue its work over the next two years. Finally, if that team continues to meet the metrics and benchmarks established by the steering committee, it will be award $500,000.

A description of the two finalist team projects with engineering representation are with faculty interviews below.

The ADEPT Cancer Imager

Team members: Kenneth Tichauer (PI), Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Jovan Brankov (Co-PI), Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Rajendra Mehta (collaborator/consultant), Professor of Biology, and Lagnojita Singha, MS Electrical Engineering, Biomedical Engineering graduate student.

With cancer as the second leading cause of death in the United States, doctors and researchers have recognized that treatment strategies should really be personalized depending on the characteristics of the individual’s cancer. The Agent-Dependent Early Photon Tomography (ADEPT) Cancer Imager will take cancer management to the next level. Focusing their efforts on developing an imaging system that can map the variability of cancer in 3D at a cellular level, the ADEPT team aims to provide information about cancer variability that is currently unattainable using conventional imaging approaches such as ‘staining’. This system will also be used in basic research to help discover new drugs that are able to deal with cancer variability.

ADEPT is a combination of two innovations. First, Paired-Agent Molecular Imaging, is a method to achieve more quantitative information about the molecular environment of cancers. Faster and more precise than conventional ‘staining’ methods, paired-agent imaging employs co-administration of a control/untargeted fluorescence imaging-agent with the targeted agent to correct for tumor transport effects and nonspecific retention. Their lab has made major advances in this area over the last 5 years, currently holding two patents and their research published in over 20 articles, with applications highlighted in high impact journals such as Cancer Research, Proc Natl Acad Sci, and Nature Medicine

The second, Early Photon Fluorescence Tomography, is a method to improve spatial resolution of fluorescent imaging in bulk tissues. Generally, it is very difficult to localize fluorescent-imaging-agent molecules in bulk tissue because the light they emit is randomly scattered many times prior to exiting the tissue. They are developing new methods of determining which light photons detected took the shortest path between the molecular and the detector (the “early arriving” photons). Future plans include pursuing a patent in this area, as they have found a way to isolate “earlier” photons than has previously been demonstrated. 

By combining these two innovations, the team will produce an imaging system that will achieve 3D spatial mapping of the molecular environment of cancers that has order-of-magnitude better resolution and sensitivity compared to existing systems. The team will then collaborate with drug developers to use ADEPT as a way to guide the development of new promising therapies to handle cancer variability and improve treatment of patients with more advanced cancer. Moreover, they will translate the system to the clinic to provide more sensitive staging of high-grade cancer for early diagnosis, prescribe aggressive steps to treat it, and thus improve the prognosis. 

Kenneth Tichauer, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering, is the inventor of the “paired-agent molecular imagine” which forms the scientific basis of the system. Jovan Brankov, Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering, is a world leader in medical image processing, reconstruction, and instrument engineering. Lagnojita Sinha received her Master’s in Electrical and Computer Imaging in 2014, specializing in Medical Imaging and Image Processing. Since then, she has joined the Biomedical Department at IIT and is pursuing her PhD in the lab of Dr. Tichauer, also in the Medical Imaging track. Both Tichauer and Brankov identified Sinha as an ideal candidate to work on this project because her training involves a rare combination of technical expertise in hardware development and a deep knowledge of cancer biology. All research spans two of Illinois Tech’s premier research centers: Medical Imaging Research Center (MIRC) and IIT Research Institute (IITRI).

“We are truly honored to be selected for this prestigious award amongst the many other deserving applicants at Illinois Tech,” said Kenneth Tichauer, PI, Inventor of ADEPT and Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering. “We cannot wait to develop our system and share with the community the advances it will make in guiding personalized cancer therapy.”

The Driverless City

Team Members: Marshall Brown, Associate Professor of Architecture (CO-PI), Lili Du, Assistant Professor of Transportation Engineering (CO-PI), Laura Forlano, Assistant Professor of Design (CO-PI), Ron Henderson, FASLA, Professor of Architecture, MLA Director (CO-PI) and Jack Guthman, Attorney, Planning Law Expert.

Driverless cars create the potential opportunity for safer, greener, smarter and more efficient cities, but at the same time, there are a number of constraints.  The automotive and digital technology industries are investing vast resources in developing autonomous vehicles for market. Municipalities around the world are trying to grasp the performative opportunities and legal impacts of these new machines. However, very little attention has been paid so far to the potential impacts on urban space and urban form.

The Driverless City project will work with the City of Chicago to leverage autonomous vehicle technology to imagine new social scenarios, new design strategies, and new material realities for urban streets and related infrastructure. The end goal is to inform the development of guidelines including new physical infrastructures, model urban codes, and land use policies to transform streets into smart driving control systems, driving guidelines for transportation agencies, municipal codes, and infrastructure prototypes. 

The team will produce scenario-based designs for prototypical streets and infrastructure that address the various scales of impact from urban networks down to material detail. Overall, the Driverless City works on a well-timed, complex, and multidimensional problem with significant global societal impact outside of the City of Chicago.

After a century where the majority of urban space has been sacrificed to the car, this project looks to reinvent transportation infrastructure as human infrastructure for the 21st century.

Lili Du, Assistant Professor of Transportation Engineering (CO-PI), has two foci in research. The first being Connected and Autonomous Vehicle System (CAVS) which helps develop driving coordination mechanisms among vehicles as well as between vehicles and roadside infrastructure. This includes the coordination amongst a group of vehicles – strategic (routing), tactical (lane change) and operational (car following) driving decisions. Du’s second research focus, funded by the National Science Foundation, seeks to design approaches to facilitate the propagation of useful, accurate, and timely information while preventing the propagation of malicious, inaccurate, obsolete information over CAVS.

“I have been planning and looking forward to an opportunity such as this for a long time. Thank you to Nayar Family Foundation for giving us this great chance,” said Lili Du. “We have assembled the perfect that will work towards making traffic flow smoother and safer, travel more efficient, fuel consumption reduced resulting in a broader impact on the transportation systems in the future.”


The Nayar Prize is funded by distinguished Illinois Tech alumnus Madhavan Nayar and the Nayar Family Foundation. Madhavan is the founder of a company that is a pioneer in information integrity software.