Amy Moll 

Sensing for the common defense

Boise State has continued to nab research grants in an effort to move the school toward the "metropolitan research university of distinction" championed by President Bob Kustra. That goal seems closer to becoming a reality, with Boise State announcing a record $37 million in funding for research in fiscal year 2009 and some $30 million in the first half of 2010 alone.

Dr. Amy Moll, alongside researchers in electrical engineering, computer, physics and chemistry, created the Materials Science and Engineering Department at Boise State in 2004. Moll has worked at Hewlett Packard, and taught at San Jose State University. Now, she's heading a grant from the Department of Defense for "three-dimensional technology in advanced sensor systems" to the tune of $2.4 million. It's Boise State's second largest research grant ever, after Moll's 2001 grant, $6.5 million from the Navy.

What's it like, working for the Department of Defense?

It's probably a little more flexible than running your own company, but there are certain things we promised them. We write quarterly reports, we have obligations--basically to them as sponsors. When I was in graduate school, I had a naval fellowship, I wasn't working for the Navy; it was just a fellowship. The military funds a lot of basic research. If you look in material science in general, the new materials tend to be funded by the military first and then high-end sports equipment.

Is it weird, knowing your research might be used in warfare?

It's not quite like I'm building bombs. I'd probably be a little uncomfortable if I was asked to do that. There aren't army colonels calling me up: "Do you have that sensor ready for me?' I'm quite a few steps removed from that. Overall, there are people that understand you gotta fund the basic research that leads to development that leads to product. If you look at what the Department of Defense funds, they fund that whole chain. They understand that a university is typically gonna be more in the basic research, a little bit of applied research stage. We're not going to be building a product. I'm maybe going to understand the basic technology, and then transfer to a company, or it'll get picked up by somebody else. It's kind of a funnel ... we're going to do all kinds of stuff that might not work.

So, can you explain, in layman's terms, what the research is looking at?

There are two pieces to it. The 3D part is, if you were to take apart your computer, you'd see a big green board. The individual integrated circuits are kind of laid out like a suburb--they're laid out next to each other ... but not good at high-density housing. If you'd like high-density performance, you'd like to be able to stack them on top of each other, more like a high-rise.

Your cell phone actually has a package that's got multiple chips--multiple memory chips--stacked up, and what they'll sometimes do is run wires off the ends. Well, if we can run the wires through the chip ... It'll be more economical, higher density, more performance. Your cell phone can even do more than it already does. There's always that drive--miniaturization, get more performance in the same package. Some of that technology has started to work its way into the marketplace.

And the sensor part, what's that about?

Sort of the next step for this has been applying this to new technology for sensors. Sensors take on a huge range of things. You might compare it to the Star Trek tricorder. That's kinda what we're striving for. From the military perspective, you might be looking for bio-terrorism, you might want to do lab-like stuff--doing blood tests in the field--but we'd like to make sensors smaller and smaller.

So then you have this whole need to be able to make this in a separate technology but still connect it to the outside world, and often maybe want to expose this sensor to something nasty, but you can't expose your electronics to that, or you need to protect them. So you can say here's my sensor, I've built it. I can put the electronics behind it and stack it up.

Is Boise State working up to bigger and better grants?

It's kinda like the football team. Not that we're as famous as the football team, but the more aware the community is of what you're doing, you get a better general impression, and that leads to people saying, "Oh yeah, I know they can do the work."

It doesn't guarantee it. You still have to do a good job, you still have to do good recruiting, and you still have to be good at writing grants, but I think there is that buildup. It builds a community within the university that's doing the research.

Read more about research at Boise State, military research and Moll's dog's nose at boiseweekly.com.

So merging these two technologies, you're in the introductory stages?

It's not as much incremental or evolutionary so much as potentially revolutionary. It's a different approach to a set of materials. There's a group here that's doing work on using DNA as basically a template and using that to build sensors on. It's using the double-helix as a template. The double helix has the A, C, T, G components and certain ones of them match up and other ones don't ... now what you have is, something from the material science sense, that's called self-assembly. I'm using it as a specific molecule that has this feature that it can bind, that it likes to bind to certain other things, and it's preferential. You can now design a molecule to detect something. The properties of that DNA molecule change when something new is attached. If you can detect that change, you can detect--whatever, take your pick.

So the sensor could--on a molecular level--detect explosives?

Yeah. A dog's nose is a good example, of how well they can sense different scents. A hound can come across your track on a trail and actually know which way you went. That incredible sensitivity and the sensitivity to multiple chemicals is the goal. We're still trying to say, "OK, let's find this one," whether it's anthrax or pick your chemical choice. We've got a long way to go.

What's the military hoping to use the technology for?

They would love it for applications in the field, and again, sensing a variety of things. The drive from the Department of Defense is often smaller, lower-powered, higher performance. You know, a soldier carries a bunch of batteries to do stuff. The smaller you can make things, the lighter weight, the higher performance, use less power, the happier they are. And, you'd like to be able to sense all sorts of interesting things out in the field. One of the big challenges for sensors is not having false positives. Its one thing to miss, but it's another thing to say it's there but it's really not. Maybe not so much militarily, but when you think about the Department of Homeland Security. You don't want to evacuate a building on a false positive.

You raise service dogs, so you've kinda got a sensor companion with you.

Ha, yeah. I have a service dog puppy from Canine Companions for Independence. I have her for about a year and a half, she gets sort of basic obedience, learns social behavior. This is a great environment to raise a service dog. She comes and goes with me.

So what does research like this at Boise State mean for the school as a whole?

I think for Boise State, it's great. As faculty members, it keeps us current. It gives us a way to do research, it keeps us active in our field, but more importantly, the students get a chance to participate in research. They typically have paying jobs, get to be on campus, apply what they're learning in the classroom--it's a great experience. And even if we're doing this--maybe higher-tag or something a little further out, they're still getting something of the basic idea of what's going on, and that makes them more marketable.

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