Rising Star Engineer Reflects On Sensors Expo 2015 And Muses About The Future

As all our subscribers, followers, and loyal attendees and exhibitors know, each year at Sensors Expo we give an award to up and coming engineers and engineering teams that demonstrate sustained high levels of creativity and innovation in their respective fields. In brief, the Rising Star award recognizes a budding engineer who is really going places in this sensor business.

Aptly put, 2015’s Rising Star is an engineering superstar with a long and impressive list of achievements. Sporting a background in optical and electrical engineering, materials science, and nanotechnology, she was the youngest among PhD recipients at Drexel University. Currently working as a staff scientist for a Fortune 500 company, she researches and develops revolutionary optical sensor technologies. But that is only one example why the Rising Star award went to Dr. Elina Vitol.

Adding to a long list of peer-reviewed publications, conference presentations, honors, and a full history of developing optical sensor instrumentation for medical applications, Dr. Vitol’s doctoral thesis titled “Nanopipettes for intracellular surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy” received recognition with the Best Doctoral Dissertation Award from Drexel University in 2010.

Dr. Elina Vitol was the recipient of the Sensors Expo 2015 Rising Star Engineer Award.

As you can imagine, Dr. Vitol’s schedule is usually booked beyond the capacity of its pages and trying to grab some time for an interview is a daunting endeavor at the very least. However, as the smoke of commitments and personal life cleared a bit, we managed to get a sit-down to hear some of her thoughts on Sensors Expo, the award, and some peeks into the future of optical/sensor technologies.

MD: How did it feel to win the Sensors Engineering Excellence award?

Dr. Vitol: I was very excited to hear from the Sensors Magazine & Expo about me winning the Rising Star Award. It is a great honor to be recognized by the industry leading magazine and conference in sensors.

MD: What did to expect to see and/or accomplish at Sensors Expo 2015?

Dr. Vitol: My goal was to connect with vendors exhibiting at the Expo as well as to attend technical sessions. I did both and also this time I was able to attend one of the pre-conference symposia on Enabling Smart Systems Through Sensor Fusion, thanks to the Gold Conference Pass that I received as a part of my award.

MD: At Sensors Expo 2015, was there a central theme or market trend that stood out above the rest?

Dr. Vitol: In my opinion, one topic which stood out was wearable sensors. The complexity of wearable technology is related to not only sensor design/power requirements but also the analysis of data where every measurement is complicated by multiple parameters due to interaction with human body. An excellent example of addressing such problems in wearables by taking into account individual’s heart rate and motion was given by Sam Massih from InvenSense in the pre-conference symposium on Sensor Fusion.

I also enjoyed the keynote speech by Gadi Amit who presented an outlook on how wearable sensors may soon be integrated in our daily lives, potentially even becoming a part of our body for personalized health monitoring going well beyond sensors in fitness equipment that we have already become accustomed to.

MD: Did you attend any of the educational sessions during the show?

Dr. Vitol: Yes, I attended the technical sessions during the conference and pre-conference workshop on Enabling Smart Systems Through Sensor Fusion. The workshop presented an excellent overview of the latest trends in this emerging field. The speakers addressed a variety of topics, including MEMS-based systems, flexible electronics, big data analysis and even the legal aspects and managing vulnerability risks when using open source software in sensors. It was very educational to get this multifaceted and well-structured overview of successes and challenges associated with developing sensor systems which essentially what sensor fusion is about – creating sensor systems with novel functionalities unachievable by standalone sensing devices.

MD: What were your impressions of the keynote speakers and topics?

Dr. Vitol: I attended both of the keynotes. The speakers were very inspirational. I already mentioned about Gadi Amit’s talk in connection to wearable sensors. As regards the first keynote speech by Mike North, it was really interesting to hear about his experience in using rapid prototyping technology for making a variety of devices, tools and even his leg cast (equipped with LEDs and a music player). I think Dr. North is doing a great work for the advancement of science and technology knowledge to the general public.

MD: What would you have liked to see more of at the Expo?

Dr. Vitol: At the exhibit, I would like to see more companies that specialize in optics. In the educational sessions, as a scientist, I am interested in seeing more technical talks, although I have to admit that I am always fascinated with marketing and business-oriented presentations. It is so exciting to learn the different ways other people transfer ideas into real products.

MD: Will you be attending at Sensors Expo 2016? Would you like to do a presentation of your own?

Dr. Vitol: I don’t know for sure yet if I will be able to attend. I am definitely very interested in going and giving a talk.

MD: What do see that is outstanding or of note in young engineers entering the workforce today?

Dr. Vitol: I would not necessarily juxtapose the young and the “old” engineers. Every generation has its own strengths and unique characteristics. One of the prominent features in younger engineers nowadays is their early exposure to advanced technologies developed in the last couple of decades. Living in a digital world, having access to all kinds of advanced modeling, calculations and engineering tools at their disposal, the new generation of engineers is set to create the new technological frontiers.

Sometimes, however, I think that the dependence on digital technology may eventually overshadow the key underlying “analog” skills, like making mechanical drawings or knowing how to do optical ray tracing calculations by hand. I believe that for engineers it is important to still know how to approach a problem by using their skills and knowledge, and not just rely on a computer program which always “knows” how to do it.

MD: Where do see the greatest interest exhibited by emerging engineers? What areas of technology do you see them being most passionate about?

Dr. Vitol: That’s not an easy question to answer. Engineers have so many different interests which they pursue with great dedication. If we talk about common areas of technology, then it is probably Energy/Power and Internet that are the key interest areas for emerging engineers.

By Energy, I mean everything related to energy production, storage, and efficient utilization.

By Internet, I mean the concept of communication between people and “things”, where the latter can be represented by all kinds of hardware, that people are looking at now. The idea of the Internet of Things as a network for sharing information and enabling control for applications ranging from industrial automation to remote monitoring of human health is thrilling. For engineers, this opens up a whole new realm of possibilities for not just creating new types of devices which can communicate with each other but also for addressing problems differently through utilization of the data exchange opportunities offered by the IoT. One example is the automation of equipment for monitoring industrial processes.

To me, applied optics, materials science and nanotechnology are the most fascinating technical fields. Through combination of knowledge in all three of these fields, it is possible to create solutions for a myriad of applications benefiting the society.

I am very passionate about multidisciplinary approach. As an example from my career, I was able to bring together my knowledge in optics and nanotechnology and create a new sensing nanopipette tool for studying single living cells. This tool allows to reproducibly obtain characteristic chemical fingerprints of individual organelles in a cell. The fingerprints are measured by means of surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy enabled by using specially made gold nanoparticles attached to the tip of the nanopipette sensor.

Studying cell properties and functions on an “individual” level can be compared to studying the differences between physiology, metabolism and other critical biological functions of individual people. While it is possible to draw some conclusions based on information averaged over a large population, it is really the individual’s unique characteristics that affect the ultimate response of the crowd. That is why single cell studies, enabled by modern measurement, sensing, and detection technologies, is among the top areas of research in the field of life sciences.

MD: What are your engineering and career goals for the future?

Dr. Vitol: I will be continuing my work on creating new optical instrumentation for industrial applications, while also advancing my knowledge in nanotechnology and materials science and incorporating it my work.

I greatly enjoy being a part of open innovation process which is now getting more and more widely adopted in industry. I follow academic research in my area of interest and maintain close ties with my colleagues in academia.

I am very passionate about bringing together the industrial and academic worlds for having a dialog about how to address critical technological needs existing in industry by utilizing the results of both fundamental and applied research in academia. I was recently elected to be a chair of the Applied Spectroscopy Technical Group which is a part of OSA, the Optical Society, and during my term I intend to foster the industry/academic collaboration in the field of applied spectroscopy.

We thank Dr. Vitol, not only for taking time out of her busy schedule to speak with us, but also for her commitment to technology, passion for innovation, and persistent creativity. Now you have yet another reason not to miss the next Sensors Expo in San Jose, CA, June 2016. ~MD

 

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