News | Powering the New Engineer News from Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering at the University of Florida Thu, 07 Nov 2019 21:22:36 -0500 en-US hourly 1 UF Engineering Hopes to Curb Harmful Chemicals in Landfills With EPA Grant Tue, 15 Oct 2019 13:59:50 +0000

Municipal solid waste (MSW) includes the household waste we carry to the curb each week in our trash cans and recycle bins. Most MSW is composed of food, paper, plastic, and a variety of other discarded products and packaging materials. In the United States, roughly half of our MSW is recycled or burned to produce energy. The rest of it is disposed of in landfills, often along with other waste streams such as medical waste, water treatment sludges, and construction and demolition debris.

Modern landfills in the U.S. are designed and operated to protect the environment. One major challenge is that rainwater interacts with MSW and produces leachate, a liquid residue that must be properly captured and treated. Landfill leachate can contain almost anything that people throw away – large amounts of salts from food scraps and paper products, organic chemicals from decomposing organic matter, nutrients such as ammonia, and, most worrisome to human health, trace amounts of harmful or toxic chemicals. When people throw away a battery containing lead or cadmium for example, a lamp made using mercury, or a pesticide or out-of-date pharmaceutical, small amounts of these components may potentially end up in the leachate. It is the role of the environmental engineer to develop, design and implement effective and cost-efficient treatment solutions for this complicated wastewater stream.

Leachate results from the interaction of rainwater and landfilled solid waste, and geomembrane-lined lagoons, such as the one shown here, are often used to store and treat leachate.

Leachate results from the interaction of rainwater and landfilled solid waste, and geomembrane-lined lagoons, such as the one shown here, are often used to store and treat leachate.

Today, for the most part, the engineering profession has developed treatment technologies that address the myriad different chemicals encountered in leachate. In recent years, however, potential health concerns form a newly appreciated suite of trace chemicals has emerged on the national stage: per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Thousands of PFAS chemicals have reportedly been developed and used in a multitude of industrial and commercial products, including firefighting foams, water-repelling agents in our clothes and shoes, and in food product packaging. Because PFAS chemicals are designed for purposes such as repelling water and stains, and to keep materials from sticking to one another, they tend to be mobile and persistent when they enter the environment, and thus are not easily removed with existing treatment technologies.

Timothy Townsend, Ph.D., the Jones Edmunds Professor of Environmental Engineering in the Department of Environmental Engineering Sciences at UF’s Engineering School of Sustainable Infrastructure and Environment, and his team from the Sustainable Materials Management Research Lab (SMMRL) at UF, are spearheading research to study PFAS at landfills and our waste stream as a whole. “Today the scientific community recognizes that PFAS chemicals, many of which are known or suspected to impact human health, can be found in our water, surrounding ecosystems, animal life, and in every one of us right now,” Dr. Townsend said.

As the principal investigator (PI), Dr. Townsend is heading up a group of interdisciplinary collaborators that has received part of a $6M total grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to study PFAS chemicals and their role in landfills. “These grants will help improve EPA’s understanding of the characteristics and impacts of PFAS in waste streams and enhance our efforts to address PFAS,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler.

 ESSIE graduate students, such as the student shown here, build their research programs around solid waste and landfill-related questions posed by scientific, regulatory and industrial professionals.

Over the past decade, in an effort to address the research needs of Florida’s solid waste community, UF faculty and students have worked with landfill operators throughout Florida to collect and analyze landfill leachate.

The EPA desires to know more about the extent to which PFAS chemicals enter the nation’s landfills, the fraction of these chemicals exiting landfills with leachate, and the extent to which modern landfills provide effective control of the PFAS found in the garbage we throw away every day. Of critical importance to EPA is the development of effective treatment technologies. One element of the new research will include an examination of the degree of PFAS removal being accomplished by existing treatment systems.

The project is an interdisciplinary effort of investigators from within UF and outside. Dr. Helena Solo-Gabriele (Professor, Department of Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering at the University of Miami), a Co-PI on the EPA project, has been working with the SMMRL team on PFAS in landfills, with support from the Hinkley Center for Solid and Hazardous Waste Management, a statewide research center funded by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and hosted at the University of Florida. Co-PI Dr. John Bowden, Assistant Professor at the Center for Environmental and Human Toxicology & Department of Physiological Sciences at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine, brings to the project a wealth of experience on PFAS analysis, with his UF lab providing state-of-the-art analytical capabilities. Dr. Katherine Deliz Quiñones, a research faculty member in the Department of Environmental Engineering Sciences at UF, provides expertise in toxicology and biochemistry. Battelle, a global research and development organization, houses nationally certified PFAS analytical facilities and serves as one of the top PFAS labs in the U.S.

Dr. Townsend reflected on the desired impact of this research study. “It will provide scientists, policy makers, landfill operators, and the entire industry much more clarity regarding the many unknowns concerning PFAS and landfills. We need to better understand which components of our waste stream are providing the greatest PFAS inputs to landfills, if and how much of the PFAS chemicals are retained or transformed in the landfill, and what methods of PFAS treatment are most effective. The answers to these questions can help direct national strategies such as targeted waste screening and reduction to reduce PFAS impacts, better landfill operational strategy, and the most effective treatment techniques,” he said.

 ESSIE graduate students, such as the student shown here, build their research programs around solid waste and landfill-related questions posed by scientific, regulatory and industrial professionals.

ESSIE graduate students, such as the student shown here, build their research programs around solid waste and landfill-related questions posed by scientific, regulatory and industrial professionals.

This research will also provide significant experiential learning opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students in the environmental engineering discipline. “They will be interacting with landfill operators and others in the solid waste community, both through the collection of samples at multiple disposal facilities, and through the dissemination of research results. The students will play a critical role in the laboratory analysis and the performance of experiments to meet project objectives,” Dr. Townsend stated.

This project will span three years, with the researchers conducting studies at multiple landfill sites of all ages and waste characteristics, as well as laboratory simulations to test hypotheses resulting from field sampling and analysis. The ultimate goal is to allow the scientific community, policy makers and landfill operators to come up with new strategies for addressing the concerns of PFAS in our waste stream, with UF playing a leading role in this discussion.

NVIDIA Founder Chris Malachowsky Inducted Into Florida Inventors Hall Of Fame Wed, 25 Sep 2019 20:42:59 +0000
Chris Malachowsky, Florida Inventors Hall of FameUniversity of Florida alumnus who founded the computer graphics company NVIDIA is among the newest members of the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame.

Chris Malachowsky, an alumnus of UF’s Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering, was selected for inventing the Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) that transformed the visual computing industry by creating a consumer-oriented 3D graphics market. Under Malachowsky’s leadership, NVIDIA has evolved the GPU into a computer brain that intersects virtual reality, high performance computing and artificial intelligence. He holds 35 U.S. patents.

“Chris Malachowsky is an outstanding example of a world changing entrepreneur.  He is a creative, big thinker who took his UF education and used it to create not just a company but essentially a new industry. He remains firmly committed to the success of his alma mater and has been particularly pivotal in helping the college craft a vision around the coming 4th Industrial Revolution, which will help to position not only the university but the state of Florida as a leader in the creation of high tech innovation and jobs.” ​

Cammy R. Abernathy, Ph.D

Chris Malachowsky received his B.S. degree in electrical engineering from the University of Florida in 1980.

Read more from the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame.

Video courtesy of Hal Dunn.


View photos from the induction ceremony held September 20, 2019.

Hardware Security Research and Education Centers of Excellence open at University of Florida and Ohio State Fri, 13 Sep 2019 16:53:58 +0000

Dr. Mark Tehranipoor, Ph.D. (UF) and Dr. Waleed Khalil, Ph.D. (Ohio State), co-directors of the CYAN and MEST Centers of Excellence

Dr. Mark Tehranipoor, Ph.D. (UF) and Dr. Waleed Khalil, Ph.D. (Ohio State), co-directors of the CYAN and MEST Centers of Excellence

A joint launch event for both these Centers of Excellence, with a grant value of more than $9 million in the first year, was held at The Ohio State on Friday, September 13.

Gainesville, Florida/Columbus, Ohio – The Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering at the University of Florida and The Ohio State University College of Engineering are collaborating as a close-knit team in two Centers of Excellence sponsored by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), and Nimbis Inc., a developer of collaborative cloud communities. Their dual goals are to advance the area of hardware-enabled cybersecurity through innovation and development of new Analog and Mixed Signal (AMS) domain security and to provide a comprehensive workforce training and education program in areas related to microelectronics design and security.

The combined UF-Ohio State team boasts strong expertise in all areas of hardware security for analog devices and systems, including design, simulation, fabrication, validation, testing, physical inspection, and analog emissions. The sponsors recognized the importance of these research and education efforts by awarding two joint-university Center of Excellence (COE) grants.

The Center for Enabling Cyber Defense in Analog and Mixed Signal Domain (CYAN) has received a $5 million grant from AFOSR as well as an additional $3.4 million from the joint universities. The center aims to attract additional funding through cooperation and partnership with national labs, defense industry and commercial partners. Hosted at Ohio State and UF, CYAN will be a joint COE conducting multidisciplinary research in the area of hardware-enabled cybersecurity through innovation and development of new AMS domain security. Dr. Waleed Khalil, Ph.D., associate professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Ohio State and Dr. Mark Tehranipoor, the Intel Charles E. Young Preeminence Endowed Chair Professor in Cybersecurity at UF, will serve as co-directors of the CYAN COE.

 “The objective of the CYAN COE is to bring together expertise from each of the team universities to advance the science of analog security, analog emissions, and analog and radio frequency (RF) forensics,” said Dr. Khalil. “Experts in these areas will address some of the fundamental challenges and questions related to securing the design, fabrication, and operation of AMS technologies while also developing information fusion and predictive analysis algorithms of analog emissions and analog forensics,” said Dr. Tehranipoor.

The Air Force is particularly interested in growing research in this space because much of the focus and progress made to date in hardware security has been in the digital domain, which does not extend well to AMS systems. This leaves a major portion of electronics systems insecure, since the AMS side of electronic hardware comprises the highest share of the semiconductor and communication markets.  Additionally, there is an increasing demand for a well-trained cybersecurity workforce in all government agencies, national labs, and industry sectors, making a comprehensive training effort in microelectronics security a critical necessity.

 To address this demand, the two universities have additionally teamed up to develop a holistic training program in microelectronics design and security. The program, dubbed MEST (The National MicroElectronics Security Training Center) supported by Nimbis, will receive almost $1 million in the first year, with annual performance-based additions of up to $2 million in each of the following four years.

MEST, also hosted jointly at UF and OSU, will focus on developing a holistic, well-rounded training program in microelectronics security. Drs. Tehranipoor and Khalil will serve as co-directors of the MEST Center as well.

Group photo of the participants in the launch of the CYAN-MEST Centers of Excellence

Group photo of the participants in the launch of the CYAN-MEST Centers of Excellence

 “We will devise an eco-system of training modules and options with an emphasis on experiential learning to suit the needs of diverse groups of industry/government practitioners and students,” said Tehranipoor. “On-site, on-campus and on-line courses will be offered. Students who complete the necessary curriculum or course requirements will receive college credit, while practitioners will be awarded certificates of accreditation,” said Dr. Khalil.

“The centers will serve as a main platform to attract and retain a large pool of domestic graduate and undergraduate students to the field of AMS domain security,” said Dr. Khalil. “Students and engineers in our programs will be trained across multiple disciplines covering hardware security, algorithms, data analytics, as well as AMS design and measurements, which will allow them to have a large toolbox from which to solve diverse problems.”

“Ultimately, the engagement with our research on AMS domain security, in addition to the training courses we develop, will drive skills among our students and engineering practitioners that can enable new levels of cybersecurity in both analog and digital systems, which is vital to our military and industrial sectors,” Dr. Tehranipoor commented.

A joint launch event for both these Centers of Excellence, with a grant value of more than $9 million in the first year, was held at Ohio State on Friday, September 13. Drs. Khalil and Tehranipoor will present an overview of the two centers to members of the Air Force Research Laboratories (AFRL) from Wright Patterson Air Force Base, dignitaries from the AFOSR, leadership from the engineering colleges and research offices of both universities, and members of the industry consortium.

UF Adds Fully Dedicated Engineering Education Department to Engineering College Tue, 10 Sep 2019 12:51:41 +0000
UF Announces Department of Engineering Education
The Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering has created a new Department of Engineering Education (EED) to improve and enhance the learning experience for engineering students.

Faculty in the department will teach general engineering courses, including a first-year design class, courses for a graduate certificate in Engineering Education, and conduct fundamental and applied research in the discipline of Engineering Education.

The faculty will use evidence-based knowledge from their research to inform their teaching. The improved teaching methods will result in more engaged students and better learning outcomes, thus producing stronger engineers and enhanced employability of UF graduates.

Hans van Oostrom, Ph.D., will lead the new department as the founding chair. Dr. van Oostrom earned his M.S., and Ph.D. degrees in Electrical Engineering from the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. He helped build the J. Crayton Pruitt Family Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME) graduate program at UF and led the development of the BME undergraduate program. In 2016, Dr. van Oostrom created the Institute for Excellence in Engineering Education, which formed the basis of the Department of Engineering Education.  At the university level, Dr. van Oostrom is the co-chair of the University Curriculum Committee and a member of the Academic Policy Council.

“The field of Engineering is unique due to its wide breadth of subject areas that incorporate an extensive study of fundamentals as well as a vast body of experiential learning,” said Dr. van Oostrom. “The department specializes in engineering education research and the delivery of innovative and effective instructional methods in engineering undergraduate courses, as well as assessment. Our faculty design and teach large-enrollment undergraduate engineering courses that span multiple majors using methods that promote conceptual understanding and student retention. We perform research into the effectiveness of learning methods and continually strive to improve and adapt course content and delivery methods to serve students and faculty throughout the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering.”

Two new buildings on the UF campus will house the new teaching approaches. The iClassroom will function as a testbed for the use of new technologies in education. In addition, it will be a place where vendors and tech developers can test the real world educational applications of their inventions. Teaching will occur as students use the devices, improving upon some, identifying flaws in others. The iClassroom will move into the Data Science and IT (DSIT) building, once the planned $70 million, 260,000-square-foot structure is built.

In the new Herbert Wertheim Laboratory for Engineering Excellence, due to open in spring 2020, students will find an opportunity to participate in experiential learning during their very first year.


The “Herbie Lab”  will be home to the First Year Design Lab, a space where students will come together to consider issues related to today’s complex society to design and build engineering solutions for those problems. “Traditionally, students do not experience the interdisciplinary approach to tackling societal issues until their capstone design classes near the time of graduation,” Dr. van Oostrom said. “With the First Year Design course, we will capture their imaginations and instill the vision of becoming the New Engineer during their first year. This will help them set firm goals for succeeding in subsequent rigorous engineering coursework.”

One of the research efforts being undertaken by EED is the digital literacy moonshot, a multi-disciplinary strategic initiative led by Dr. van Oostrom and his team, aimed to increase the digital literacy of all UF students. “We envision a classroom that integrates the physical and virtual worlds, where students have goggles on, and they have their own individual instructor, a virtual instructor, who will teach them some of the basics,” Dr. van Oostrom says. “Then afterward, perhaps the students work together on a project. Students who need more help can get more help. Students who have grasped a concept can move on. Learning is virtually personalized and customized.”

UF is the first university in Florida and one of only 18 universities in the United States to establish a totally dedicated engineering education department that offers programs, degrees and/or certificates in engineering education research and pedagogy. The University of Florida’s Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering is proud to fully establish the Department of Engineering Education starting fall 2019.

UF Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering Recognized as a Model of Diversity and Inclusion Thu, 05 Sep 2019 13:51:54 +0000 The American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) has recognized the University of Florida’s Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering as an exemplar of diversity, equity and inclusion.

The ASEE Diversity Recognition Program (ADRP) was created in 2019 “to publicly recognize those engineering and engineering technology colleges that make significant, measurable progress in increasing the diversity, inclusion, and degree attainment outcomes of their programs.” The recognition program is the result of the ASEE Deans Diversity Pledge, which has now been signed by over 220 of ASEE’s 330-member engineering colleges. The pledge commits signatories to engaging in four activities:

  1. Development of a diversity plan for the college that would “articulate the definition and the vision of diversity and inclusiveness for the institution; assess its need or justification; provide a statement of priorities and goals; commit to equity, implicit bias and inclusion training across the school; define accountability; and the means of assessing the plan through various means including surveys;”
  2. Commitment to at least one activity with K-12 schools or community colleges aimed at increasing diversity and inclusion of incoming engineering students;
  3. Commitment to developing strong relationships between research schools and non-Ph.D.-granting schools that serve diverse populations ; and
  4. Commitment to increasing diversity ad inclusion among the college faculty

At UF, the Engineering College has developed a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Plan that covers these activities and more. With the primary goal of providing an exceptional academic environment that reflects the breadth of thought essential for the preeminent position held by one of the nation’s largest public land-grant universities, the College has committed to a set of strategic objectives that are can be achieved by a community of students, faculty, and staff who have diverse experiences and backgrounds.

 “We have set ambitious goals for the College,” said Cammy R. Abernathy, Dean of the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering. “Achievement of our objectives can only be accomplished when people of all backgrounds, creeds, beliefs and experiences come together and view this place as their home for learning, and for contributing toward solving the toughest problems facing the world. The New Engineer knows no boundaries.”

Of the 74 colleges that were recognized in the ADRP’s inaugural year, UF was highlighted as a model for other engineering colleges to follow in their own efforts to achieve higher levels of diversity and inclusion. ASEE reviewers noted that the UF DEI plan had significant initiatives and outcomes that led to the exemplar status. As an exemplar, UF will be able to attain a silver classification as early as next year.

UF Research Team Aims to Reduce Cost of Drug Development Using 3D-Printed Living Tissues Thu, 22 Aug 2019 12:36:39 +0000 Recently published paper confirming that basic principles of engineering apply to micro-beam mechanics provides solid foundation for new research.

Thomas E. Angelini, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering at the University of Florida and his research group, the Soft Matter Research lab have successfully fabricated living micro-beams from glioblastoma cells and extra-cellular material (ECM) embedded in a packed microgel support medium. They subsequently characterized the physical properties of the beams and compared their results against traditional mechanical engineering models. To their surprise, these microscopic, delicate structures behave a lot like the massive beams used in everyday building construction.  “We were pleased and excited to see that our micro-beams, only 50 to 200 µm in diameter, acted in accordance with the mechanical principles for other models such as large steel beams,” said S. Tori Ellison. Ellison is a Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering Ph.D. student who is mentored by Dr. Angelini and is the co-first author on the published paper that resulted from this research.

To systematically test the variables controlling cell-ECM micro-beam mechanics, the researchers varied cell density, ECM concentration, micro-beam diameter, and the surrounding medium’s material properties. They found a cascade of cell-driven behaviors, including beam buckling, break-up, and axial contraction. By modifying classic mechanical theories, they uncovered basic principles of tissue micro-beam mechanics that can be generalized to cell types, ECMs, and bio-printing support materials. “These foundational principles can be extended to other shapes such as sheets and tubes, enabling a component-oriented future of mechanical design in tissue engineering and bio-fabrication in which stability and instability are programmed into the tissue maturation process,” said Cameron Morley, co-first author. Morely is also a Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering Ph.D. student mentored by Dr. Angelini .

Their breakthrough finding, which has significant implications on 3D bio-fabrication strategies and design of dynamic multicellular assemblies in regenerative medicine, as well as tissue engineering applications, is published in the July issue of Nature Communications.

The work chronicled in the Nature Communications publication was supported in part by the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) of the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation.

The results of this research will be used in an exciting new project Dr. Angelini and his soft matter research team have just begun, which involves the development of advanced 3D liver tissue models for drug development applications. “BioFabUSA, a Department of Defense funded Manufacturing USA Institute, operating as The Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute (ARMI), is funding the project.”

According to the project proposal, the goal is to develop micro-tissues that can be used in commercial drug development applications. The objective of the research is to generate in vitro bio-fabricated liver micro-tissues of defined dimensions and cellular composition, which will have high levels of reproducibility in terms of metrology, cell function, and cell sensitivity to drugs and test compounds.

The proposal outlines three components:

  • A new bio-fabrication and 3D culture system that facilitates rapid, precise, high-resolution 3D bio-printing of multiple components, micro-tissue monitoring and assaying, and micro-tissue maintenance through media exchange or passaging;
  • Combinations of liver cells and extra cellular materials 3D printed into numerous different microstructures that will be monitored for response criteria; and
  • Advanced automation and engineering solutions.

The project will be a close collaboration between UF and industry partners that include a global pharmaceutical company as well as DEKA Research and Development Corporation, a leading automation technology company. Researchers on the project envision that their results will lead to new products including packaged micro-tissues capable of being shipped to the pharmaceutical industry to be used to model human liver toxicity of pharmaceutical compounds in advanced drug development and testing.

This project will also produce the instrumentation, techniques, and assays needed to bio-manufacture small surrogates of a multitude of different types of tissue in the next phase of the research.  

Dr. Angelini proudly summed up his team’s work, “The dedicated commitment of our laboratory to proving the sound foundations of our bio-fabrication 3D culture system makes us a reliable partner of choice in this ground-breaking endeavor to bring effective medications and treatments to market in a safer, quicker, less costly manner.”

“Engineering researchers are increasingly contributing directly in clinical translation research that could result in solid and immediate benefits that impact people and populations. What Dr. Angelini and his students did were exemplary of New Engineers who will transform the society of the future,” concluded Dr. Forrest Masters, Associate Dean of Research for the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering.


Olabarrieta Receives the PECASE Award Mon, 19 Aug 2019 15:07:45 +0000
Engineering School of Sustainable Infrastructure & Environment (ESSIE) associate Professor Maitane Olabarrieta, Ph.D., was awarded the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). 

The PECASE award is described as the highest honor given by the U.S. Government to exceptional new scientists and engineers who contribute to the advancement of the STEM fields through scientific leadership, community outreach and public education.

 Dr. Olabarrieta was one of four University of Florida faculty members to receive the PECASE award.

 “I am very honored,” Dr. Olabarrieta said. “The work that I’m trying to develop is new and not well-known, but it is important when we are talking about sea level rise effects, climate change and impacts of extreme storms along the coast.”

 Since joining ESSIE as an assistant professor in Civil and Coastal Engineering in 2013, Dr. Olabarrieta has mentored 11 graduate students and participated in numerous projects analyzing coastal systems. Her current research focuses on increasing the fidelity of morphological storm impact predictions and the morphodynamics of mixed energy inlets. This determines the impacts of extreme storms such as flooding and coastal erosion. This study will also help us better understand the longer-term morphological changes that we will expect to observe in coastal areas. Results can help the government prepare for and recover from natural disasters along coastal areas.   

“The fact that they are recognizing my work and the research area that I work in is relevant not only for me, but for the community that is working in this field,” Dr. Olabarrieta said.

 Dr. Olabarrieta also received tenure and a promotion to associate professor on August 16th.

 Since its formation in 1996, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy coordinates with departments and agencies to acknowledge and select PECASE recipients. To view the full list of awardees, visit

31 Faculty Awarded University Term Professorships Fri, 16 Aug 2019 21:08:07 +0000

Provost awards 2019 UF Term Professorships

The University Term Professorship was established in 2016 and is presented to 250 eligible faculty members annually. Selection of University Term Professorships is based on an assessment of academic accomplishment by either a faculty advisory committee and/or the department chair and approved by the dean. Each award runs for 3 years and provides a $5,000/year salary supplement to the awardee. Take a look at the 2019 recipients from the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering below.

UF Engineer Explores Virtual Interactions to Manage Mental Health Recovery Fri, 16 Aug 2019 21:02:52 +0000

This article is written by Zack Savitsky and originally published on University of Florida News.

CISE professor Benjamin Lok has grants from the National Institute of Health and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to study the applications of Virtual humans.

Humans are social creatures, but some things are just hard to talk about. For many people, mental health is one of those things.

But what if you can’t talk about something where the leading treatment is talk therapy? Maybe try speaking to someone who’s not human.

Benjamin Lok, a professor in the computer and information science and engineering department at the University of Florida, has been studying applications of virtual humans for two decades. His research has led to the creation of dozens of virtual characters that appear in 1,500 different programs around the world and wrack up over a million virtual patient interactions a month with his company, Shadow Health.

Now, Lok has grants to employ and assess his virtual-human technology in the mental health domain from the National Institute of Health (with Purdue University psychologist Adam Hirsh) and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (with Florida International University psychology professor Adriana Foster and Igor Galynker, psychiatry professor at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital).

Some of his characters will work with patients directly on a tablet application. His research has shown that by using human avatars, patients are more likely to relate to the characters and be more open than talking with a real doctor.

But patients aren’t the only ones who can benefit from the technology. How doctors, nurses and caretakers respond and communicate can largely affect the recovery process.

“We’re all each other’s keepers in some way,” Lok said. “All these different folks need assistance.”

Think about it this way. Just like pilots, nurses find themselves in high-stakes situations that require practice to make sure they’re handled appropriately — like talking to patients with suicidal ideation.

“Right now, how do you practice that?” Lok asked. “We’re doing the equivalent of just letting you get up in the airplane.”

What Lok and his team provide is a comfortable and safe environment where nurses can practice, make mistakes and learn to improve their conversation skills before interacting with real patients. Practicing with virtual patients helps nurses become more empathetic and medically accurate.

“Hopefully they remember to ask one more question — to listen and respond a certain way because they were able to get practice and get feedback,” Lok said. “My hope is that you and your family have gotten better care because people have used our technology to practice.”

Images courtesy of UF College of Journalism and Communication STEM Translational Communication Center

UF Professor Teams With Google To Present Phishing Insights At Black Hat Fri, 16 Aug 2019 20:44:35 +0000
We keep falling for phishing emails, and Google just revealed why

This article is written by Rob Pegoraro and originally published on Fast Company.

Here’s what Google has learned by blocking 100 million phishing attacks on Gmail users—every day.

You should feel cranky about all the phishing emails you get. Because getting your brain in a grumpy gear will elevate the odds of your not getting fooled by the next phony invitation to log into your account.

At a briefing Wednesday evening at the Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas, Google security researcher Elie Bursztein and University of Florida security professor Daniela Oliveira shared that and other insights about the business of coaxing people into giving up their usernames and passwords.

The first thing to know about phishing: It’s not as random and sloppy as it might seem. Said Bursztein: “Phishers have constantly refined.”

The roughly 100 million phishing emails Google blocks every day fall into three main categories: highly targeted but low-volume spear phishing aimed at distinct individuals, “boutique phishing” that targets only a few dozen people, and automated bulk phishing directed at thousands or hundreds of thousands of people.

Those categories differ in duration. Google typically sees boutique campaigns wrap up in seven minutes, while bulk phishing operations average 13 hours.

Google also sees most phishing campaigns target its commercial mail service. Bursztein said Google-hosted corporate email accounts were 4.8 times more likely to receive phishing emails than plain old Gmail accounts.

Email services were the most commonly impersonated login page in those attempts, at 42%, followed by cloud services (25%), financial institutions (13%), online retail (5%), and delivery services (4%).

Bursztein noted that Google still can’t definitely identify many phishing emails—as improbable as that might seem, considering all the data it collects. That explains why Gmail shows an orange box above messages that look somewhat suspicious but aren’t necessarily attacks.

This is your brain on phishing attacks

The presentation also covered the human factors that make phishing easier. As Oliveira explained, “When we are in a good mood, our deception-detection accuracy tends to decline.”

She cited research showing that increased levels of such feeling-good hormones as testosterone and estrogen, oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine increase people’s risk-taking appetite. But a jump in cortisol levels associated with stress makes us warier.

Presumably, the soundtrack for your mail screening should not be Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” but the J. Geils Band’s “Love Stinks.”

Oliveira outlined three common persuasive tactics in phishing invitations: appeals from a perceived authority (do you really want to ignore that urgent email from your boss?), offers of financial gain for acting on the message or warnings of financial loss for ignoring it, and appeals to the recipient’s emotions (“Won’t someone please think of the children?!”).

Bursztein and Oliveira’s advice to email users did not involve any recommendations to study web addresses in messages and on phishing landing pages. Instead, they emphasized two-step verification—but not just any form of 2FA.

Prior Google research showed that SMS verification, among the most common implementations of 2FA, can defeat larger-scale phishing but not the most targeted sort—while it worked against 96% of boutique phishing attempts, it only prevailed against 76% of spear-phishing attacks.

One key reason: Advanced phishing pages ask the target users to enter the code texted to their phone, then use that second credential to validate their account takeover before it expires. SIM-swap attacks to take over a phone account will also shatter this shield.

On-device prompts like those generated by Google’s Authenticator app are significantly stronger, thwarting 99% of boutique phishes and 90% of spear-phishing attempts. But the strongest protection comes from USB security keys, which in Google’s testing defeated 100% of all phishing attempts.

That’s because a USB key such as Yubico’s popular series needs to see the cryptographic key of the original site—a lookalike domain name or login page won’t fool its single-minded silicon.

But USB keys remain unsupported by many sites, won’t see support from Apple’s Safari until the macOS Catalina update ships later this year, and cost $20 and up. Bursztein and Oliveira brought a bunch to Vegas to give away to attendees at their talk, but everyone else will have to go out of their way to upgrade to that level of security.