johnston-lgMatthew Johnston’s interest in multidisciplinary science and entrepreneurship is reflected in his career as an electrical engineer who specializes in developing electronic platforms that have applications in fields like chemistry, biology and medicine.

“I’ve always been interested in non-standard applications of electrical engineering … especially biology and medicine, maybe because there are a lot of physicians in my family,” Johnston said.

Early lessons in approaching open-ended problems included projects for Science Olympiad competitions in middle school and high school, where Johnston competed for many years building elaborate Rube Goldberg-type contraptions. While the final goal was simple, such as lighting a candle or raising a flag, points were won by linking electrical, mechanical, and chemical actions together in novel combinations.

As an undergraduate at Caltech he got involved in research on a microfluidics project for chemistry and biology labs that involved piping chemicals on a microscale. The complex networks of fluid routing could mix and separate tiny amounts of fluid. The project sparked his interest in miniaturizing lab technologies (lab-on-chip).

Johnston followed his interest to Columbia University to work on his Ph.D. with Ken Shepherd who is one of the early pioneers of using integrated circuit technology for biological applications. After finishing his master’s degree, he took a pause in his graduate studies to co-found a start-up company, Helixis, in Carlsbad, California, that was related to research he did as an undergraduate at Caltech. The successful venture was acquired by Illumina in 2010, and Johnston returned to Columbia to finish his Ph.D.

He stayed in New York as a postdoc to further develop a label-free sensor platform he developed at Columbia, which garnered a National Science Foundation grant to aid in commercializing the platform. Johnston also worked for a life science venture capital firm that funded new technology for medical applications and devices, where his role was to assess the feasibility of novel products like orthopedic implants or diagnostic technologies. It was a job that gave him a different perspective. “It was intensely interesting,” he said. “I learned a lot about practical applications, whereas in the lab we are too often focused on the technology and only later try to find real-world applications for it.”

Johnston’s interdisciplinary research in biosensor and bioelectronic platforms, massively-parallel sensing, and lab-on-chip technologies for medical monitoring and point-of-care diagnostics, fits well with the collaborative research at Oregon State which was important for his choice to move here.

“I feel that interdisciplinary work is the one of the most effective ways to creatively solve problems,” he said. “We’re dealing with very complex problems now on a global scale that require collaborative solutions and systems approaches.”

One of Matt Johnston's most memorable hikes was on the "treacherous and spectacular" trail up the Hua Shan mountain in China.
One of Matt Johnston’s most memorable hikes was on the “treacherous and spectacular” trail up the Hua Shan mountain in China.

The move to Corvallis is a major lifestyle change for Johnston, who said he will miss the museums and dining opportunities in New York City, but is gaining a world of outdoor activities that were not possible there. He hopes to spend more time on hobbies like hiking, skiing, and fly-fishing that were mostly put aside while he lived in New York.

As an avid traveler, however, Johnston has hiked in several countries he has visited, with especially memorable treks in China and South Africa. He also travels to a different country each year with friends from college on a New Year’s trip. Their trips have ranged from Europe to South and Central America with highlights including Portugal, Scotland, Brazil, Costa Rica and Panama.

Just as he enjoys crossing the boundaries of disciplines in his work, he also enjoys learning about different cultures and seeing their influences on each other expressed in art and food. He even finds the challenge of not understanding the language a boon.

“When we were in places like Japan or Italy where there was really limited ability to communicate verbally, that was even more fun and heartwarming because people try to help you, and it’s exciting when you can come up with solutions to get your messages across,” he said.

– by Rachel Robertson

Mike Rosulek
Mike Rosulek enjoys sharing his passion for cryptography with Oregon State students.

Mike Rosulek, assistant professor of computer science, brings the area of cryptography to the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Computer science grabbed Rosulek’s imagination early on, and at the age of 7 years he was already writing a UFO adventure game. He had the advantage of growing up in a technical household. In fact, his family home was connected to the internet before there was a World Wide Web.

It is perhaps surprising considering he lived in the small town of Fredericksburg, Iowa (population 925) “the dairy capital of Iowa, according to the sign,” Rosulek said.

But computers were a hobby for his father who, although he worked as a minister, was the de facto tech support for the whole town and eventually became a network administrator for the local community college.

Before starting a computer science degree at Iowa State University, Rosulek was essentially self-taught and remembers one of his big Christmas presents in 8th grade was the newest version of Visual Basic.

After graduation, Rosulek continued on to graduate school in computer science at University of Illinois, but by his second year he hadn’t yet found a line of research that interested him. Indeed, he had filled out the paperwork to leave graduate school when he was convinced to stay by a professor who thought he might be interested in the work of a newly hired faculty member who studied cryptography.

“It worked out really well,” Rosulek said. “Cryptography is full of amazing things … it was mind blowing to me. I wanted to know how it worked.”

He describes cryptography as taking problems that are really hard for computers to solve and using them to create robust security systems.

“It’s like making lemonade from lemons,” he said. “The lemons are that we don’t have efficient ways to solve these problems, and the lemonade is that we can turn it around so that if the bad guy wants to break our system he has to solve one of these really hard problems.”

Currently, he is working on secure computation which is the idea that you can make calculations on sensitive data without actually looking at the data. One application could be a research study across several  hospitals that cannot share patient data but can submit encrypted data to a secure common location where it is analyzed. Although he has been working mostly at the theory level, Rosulek said he is moving toward applied uses for his work.

“This research has to get out into the real world, because it’s so important and we know that people out there are will have amazing uses for secure computation. It’s just that right now it is computationally expensive. It takes a long time to perform these operations securely, so it’s not yet practical,” he said.

A photo by Mike Rosulek.
A photo by Mike Rosulek.

Rosulek started his career at University of Montana and arrived at Oregon State in 2013. As the first member of the security group in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Rosulek discovered the students were “chomping at the bit” to have opportunities in the area of security. Before even arriving on campus he received emails from students about security courses and clubs.

“I’ve found the students here to be really sharp. They were able to take any hard problem I could throw at them and eat it up, so I was very pleased. I get to teach right in my sweet spot, so I find it easy to get excited about the material and students get excited too, so everyone has fun,” he said.

Although Rosulek’s two young girls keep him busy enough to not have much time for hobbies, he enjoys creative outlets like playing guitar, singing and photography. And although he likes being able to ride his bike to work year round in Corvallis, he misses snow which was the main subject of his minimalist landscape photography — stark snow scenes with dark trees set against them.

“The work that I do is often proving that something is impossible, but I also like creating something more tangible and I think that’s why I like the artistic outlets of music and photography,” Rosulek said.

–by Rachel Robertson