By Brent Stephens on May 31, 2013
So here we are, May 31st 2013. I’ve officially made it through my first two semesters as an assistant professor at IIT and I think it’s time to reflect briefly on the last year or so and assess how things went and where things are going! So here’s a quick rundown of what has gone on in and around IIT with me in the new job, lab, and students.
I signed on at IIT in late March 2012 and officially started as an adjunct assistant professor in May 2012. I pursued adjunct status immediately so I could send out a few research proposals last summer before starting officially in August (so I’ve only been with IIT about 9 months, depending on how you count it). Since then, the lab I share with Prof Paul Anderson has been completely renovated and is in the best shape it’s been in for a very long time (our building was built in the mid 1940s). We split the lab space into student offices on one side and lab facilities on the other side, although my use of “lab” is very different from others that work in much more controlled environments — we don’t even have a fume hood. We use the lab space primarily as a staging ground to assemble hardware and sampling rigs for field campaigns. Anyway, it’s a very functional space now and it warms my heart to see students working away on various projects in there! You can follow some of the previous progress here, although I still need to update with some newer photos.
Now, let me quickly summarize some of the past year’s worth of research, teaching, and student achievements.
In the past year I’ve spent a lot of time working on a few new research projects. In the first year I’ve received funding for the following three projects:
- Hospital Microbiome Project. Our lab is funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to measure a variety of building science parameters in a brand new hospital that opened at the University of Chicago. The utmost goal of the project is to characterize microbial communities as they develop and evolve in a new hospital right before it opens and as it is occupied with staff and patients for a year. We are working to characterize building operation and environmental parameters so we can hopefully learn something about how buildings influence microbial communities in a critical environment like this hospital. Jack Gilbert at UC/Argonne Lab is the PI on the project and we are a subcontract. We recently attended a meeting hosted by the University of Colorado and funded by the Sloan Foundation to present some of our initial measurements and findings. Our work has been well received in the microbial ecology community and we look forward to continuing to work on this for the next 9-12 months! Also stay tuned to the Microbiology of the Built Environment Network (microBEnet) blog for continued updates in this field.
- Life cycle costs of duct designs in residences. Switching gears a bit to energy use in the built environment, we’ve also been working on a project funded by the Air-conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI) to model the energy impacts and overall life cycle costs of a range of low, medium, and high pressure HVAC duct designs in homes in Chicago, IL and Austin, TX. The idea here is that ductwork designs can introduce excess system pressures that an air handling unit fan has to overcome in order to distribute conditioned air to the space. Those pressures may have some energy impacts but designing lower pressure duct systems also costs money! We’re just wrapping up the draft final report on this work and will update its project page as we complete it. We’ll also prepare this work for publication in the near future (i.e., this summer).
- HVAC filtration for reducing risks of airborne infection in indoor environments. In another interesting project funded by the National Air Filtration Association (NAFA) Foundation, we’ve been working to model the potential impacts that HVAC filters might have on controlling infectious aerosols and thus reducing risks of spreading airborne infectious diseases in indoor environments. I’ve personally learned a lot through this work, which involved digging deep into the literature on infectious disease epidemiology, biology, and the physical processes that govern the transmission of diseases like influenza, tuberculosis, and rhinovirus (the common cold). One of our doctoral students, Parham Azimi, and I just prepared a manuscript on this work for submission. Also, the full report is available online. Parham continues to work to compare the risk model we used with other methods of modeling infectious aerosol dynamics and risk in indoor environments.
Aside from our funded projects, I’ve also worked closely with students on a range other unfunded projects. One of our masters students, Zeineb El Orch, has been working on a really nice Monte Carlo model of the infiltration of outdoor particulate matter inside homes in the US. She’s working on her thesis and a couple of publications from this work as we speak. In our first short field campaign, a group of us went out to a local 3D printer shop and performed measurements of ultrafine particle emissions from desktop 3D printers. We’ve already submitted this work for publication and it’s under review now — it turns out some of these printers emit a lot of particles in the nanoparticle/ultrafine size range and they appear to differ quite drastically depending on the plastic feedstock used and the operating temperature. We also published a paper with a Ph.D. student in the College of Architecture (now Dr. Irina Susorova) on the development and validation of a model she built for evaluating the thermal performance of ivy on exterior walls of buildings. We’ve also been acquiring equipment and supplies and gearing up for field work for measuring indoor and outdoor size-resolved particle and gas-phase pollutant inftilration measurements.
In the past year I’ve also spent a lot of time preparing lectures and teaching my first two classes full time, as is tradition for new faculty. In Fall 2012 I taught my first course: CAE 463/524 Building Enclosure Design (mixed undergrad and grad). Then in Spring 2013 I taught my second course: ENVE 576 Indoor Air Pollution (grad). I enjoyed both and learned a lot from both — about the material itself as well as about my own teaching styles (whatever those are) and student learning. I post all of my lecture notes online so you can get a sense of what we’re covering. I intend to keep teaching Indoor Air Pollution once per year for, oh, the rest of my life. I really enjoyed it. I’ll probably keep teaching Building Enclosure Design as well — it’s all about heat, air and moisture transport through building envelopes (roofs, walls, windows, floors) and designing them in a way to control those flows. My only real complaint with this course is that I felt like I wasn’t always teaching to the right discipline. We really need to increase the number of architecture students who take this class because in the way that we do things, architects often make these envelope detail decisions and by the time the drawings get to engineers it may be too late to do anything! We’re working on this in part by working with the PhD program at the College of Architecture, which leads us into a summary of collaborative efforts….
In the past year I’ve also spent a lot of time working on building my network of collaborators both within IIT, around Chicago, and elsewhere. I’m thankful to have begun working with some students in the College of Architecture at IIT, particularly in their PhD program. We’ve been discussing ways to grow our programs together. I’ve also worked a bit with a couple of other faculty members within IIT, from mechanical engineering to transportation to applied math. I hope these collaborations continue to grow. We’ve also met a few times with CNT Energy — a nonprofit “think and do tank” in Chicago whose model I really respect. Same with some faculty members at UIC (e.g., Rachael Jones in public health) and with a practitioner colleague, Ian Cull at Indoor Sciences. I’ve been PI on a couple of proposals that includes these folks so hopefully some will hit and we’ll get to work together for real.
We’re also keeping up good relations with my PhD adviser Jeff Siegel, now at the University of Toronto, and with Michael Waring at Drexel University, among others. I’m always open to collaboration and I think some of our research work in a wide variety of areas will continue to push us here.
Also in the past year, we’ve grown the number of students working in the lab, from zero students in the beginning to as many as about 10, depending on how you count them all! Our current students are a mix of bachelors, masters, and doctoral candidates from a range of disciplines including civil engineering, architectural engineering, environmental engineering, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, and architecture. Congrats are already in store for a couple of graduates as well: Irina Susorova (PhD Architecture) and Ben Wachholz (BS Civil) both graduated in May! Also congrats are in store for Tiffanie Ramos (MS Environmental) who won a prestigious Starr-Fieldhouse Fellowship within IIT for her work with the Hospital Microbiome Project team at Argonne Lab.
I’ve also been somewhat active in working with some great student groups. One group I’m working with is building a greenhouse facility for a school on Chicago’s south side. I’ve also spoken with members of the Engineers Without Borders and ASHRAE chapters at IIT to some extent. We’ve also participated in the College of Engineering’s undergraduate research program where some undergrad students have gotten to cut their teeth on research and actually contribute to some of our research work and lab development. Overall, working with my students is really a joy — but I’ve also learned that mentoring and management is a skill that takes time to hone. Hopefully for their sake I’m getting there! I’ve also realized that watching students graduate this spring was even more enjoyable than I thought! … it was great to see everyone graduate and move on to bigger and better things!
Plans for the next year
As I move forward into my second year and beyond, I’m looking forward to continuing to pursue a wide range of research interests. We are going to work to crank out 4-5 publications this summer now that I have some time to continue to generate content here and summarize the work we’ve been doing over the last 9 months. I’ll also be adding a new course to my teaching portfolio this fall: CAE 331/513 Building Science, which I’m looking forward to. I’ll also be submitting an application to develop an M.S. program in architectural engineering (currently we only have a professional masters, which is a non-thesis, non-research degree).
I also need/want to blog more on this site (which was part of the motivation for this post!). I started using an offline blog editor (MarsEdit) that looks like it will encourage me to post more. We’ll see. I will try to post at least weekly and will continue to generate my “literature round-ups” that cover some interesting journal articles that I come across on a day-to-day basis. I’m also pushing to put some of the things we learn in the lab onto a group wiki for all students to use — I have dreams of this increasing efficiency and productivity for all as we move forward!