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Giving Back to the Future

Top left: Alex Serrano. Bottom left: Eli Friedman. Right: Howard Flagg, Joe Mandelbaum and Bruno Pellegrini in the Cooper Electrical Engineering Lab with Nova Computer, circa 1974.

The Howard Flagg Memorial Prize, a new endowed prize for outstanding research conducted by current electrical engineering students has been created in honor of Howard Flagg, a 1975 Cooper Union graduate in electrical engineering and former trustee who passed away in 2009. Eli Friedman and Alex Serrano, both electrical engineering seniors, each received the $2,000 inaugural prize, an amount that will vary each year.

Benedict Itri EE’75, a classmate and professional colleague of Mr. Flagg’s, initiated the prize with a generous gift to commemorate his long-time friend and business partner. “Howard had the unique ability of seeing how things would pan out in the future. Both his engineering and business skills were second to none,” Mr. Itri says. “I truly miss his presence and insight.”

Not long after graduating from Cooper, the two friends decided to start their own consulting firm, Advanced Telecommunications in 1978, and later, the telecommunications company PairGain in 1988. That company became a pioneer in DSL technology, developing a device that allowed multiple phone lines on a single pair of telephone wire. Their innovation was particularly important in the late 1980s as more people took on second residential phone lines. At the root of their successful business was the relationship between Flagg and Itri. In a presentation on PairGain delivered by Flagg, he advised, “Team is more important than the business plan - one is easily fixed; the other isn’t.”

In 2014, Itri was inspired to honor his late business partner after reading about other commemorative prizes at Cooper. He provided a substantial gift to kick-start the fund and then reached out to his fellow alumni and colleagues to raise the rest. In his lifetime, Flagg was a significant donor to The Cooper Union so this was an opportunity for others to carry on his philanthropic tradition.

“It was important that others who knew Howard from either school or business contribute to this fund,” Itri says. “Everyone I reached out to contributed, understanding his importance as an individual and within the industry.” Donors included many of Flagg’s classmates who joined together to celebrate their 40th class reunion last May.

Howard Flagg's widow, Angelica, continues to support her late husband’s alma mater and was touched by the efforts to honor him and provide greater opportunities for Cooper students. “Howard was always grateful to Cooper Union for the education he received and the doors it opened, as is Ben.”

The Howard Flagg Memorial Prize will be awarded annually and decided by a committee of engineering faculty members. “This award for undergraduates exemplifying excellence in the field of electrical engineering research is the first of its kind solely for EE students,” says Anita Raja, associate dean of research. “This is a wonderful opportunity to recognize some of our students who are already doing exciting and creative research in EE in addition to maintaining a heavy course load.”

Fred Fontaine, professor and Jesse Sherman chair of electrical engineering, nominated seniors Eli Friedman and Alex Serrano to receive the first prize this year. Both students maintain excellent academic records while pursuing multiple research opportunities.

Eli currently works on a project at Cooper's Distributed Intelligent Agent Lab (DIAL) with Associate Dean Raja, analyzing an algorithm first derived by her and a former student at UNC-Charlotte. The algorithm enables nodes in a dynamic network to quickly coordinate their status by exploiting the network topology. “I'm analyzing the average length of time that it will take before every node reaches the same state,” he says. “The hypothesis is that it will work quickly for types of networks where a few nodes are very well connected, but most nodes are not. I want to prove this theoretically rather than experimentally.”

In the summer of 2014, Eli traveled to Bar Ilan University in Israel as part of Cooper’s study abroad program. There he worked in the Robotics and Artificial Intelligence Lab, participating in a national competition to program an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle to autonomously fly through an obstacle course. “We developed an algorithm for the hexacopter to detect and avoid obstacles while flying towards its goal,” he explains. Eli’s team won first place in the competition.

Eli’s Flagg Prize funds will further his senior project research, a collaborative undertaking with mechanical engineering students. The students are building an autonomous snowplow, which will be able to clear snow from a homeowner's walkway. The robot can be trained to keep a designated region clear of snow.

The other inaugural Flagg prize recipient, Alex Serrano, spent the summer prior to his junior year working at Rice University’s Quantum Institute in a laboratory studying how light scatters in turbid media, or matter with opaque elements, such as seawater or biological tissue. Turbid media affects light travel and therefore has an impact on the accuracy of microscopic images. “Biological microscopy is a potentially powerful method for forming detailed three-dimensional reconstructions of neural networks in brain tissue,” Alex says. “However, light scattering in turbid media continues to be an obstacle that researchers must overcome in order for constructions of neurons and their connections to be reliably made.”

By studying the size, shape and structure of turbid media-–he used an agar gel mixture containing light-scattering microbeads in lieu of actual brain tissue—Alex hopes his findings will help make microscopy more useful in studying neurons affected by diseases such as Parkinson’s.

His summer at Rice changed his research pursuits “drastically.” He became fascinated with medical imaging, in particular the restoration, reconstruction and compression of images. “After taking courses such as Digital Image Processing, I felt a strong need to apply my signals processing background to areas such as that of biomedical imaging,” Alex says. To that end, he applied for another research job to spend this past summer at the Center for Imaging Science at Johns Hopkins University. There he studied a field of growing interest to researchers, dMRI (diffusion magnetic resonance imaging), which measure water molecules along fibers in brain tissue. The movement of these molecules, Alex says, “will help us understand the complex fiber architecture of brain tissue and study cases of neurological disorders.” Both of Alex's summer projects were funded by the National Science Foundation's Research Experiences for Undergraduates program.

Like Howard Flagg and Benedict Itri, Alex and Eli have collaborated on projects while at Cooper. Along with fellow members of the robotics club, they created a robot that could transport goods across rough terrain to aid during disaster scenarios.

As this was a new prize, it came unexpected to both students. However they quickly realized the unanticipated funds would go a long way towards their ongoing inventive projects and support their next steps after Cooper. “One can only do so much inside a classroom,” Eli says.