UH selected as Center of Excellence for borders, trade and immigration research

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Computer science professor Ioannis Kakadiaris, director of the Center for Excellence, has high hopes for the new center. | Michael Calderon/The Cougar

UH has been selected by Department of Homeland Security to be the lead institution for a new Center of Excellence focused on borders, trade and immigration research.

The new Center for Borders, Trade and Immigration Research program will receive an initial $3.4 million grant for its first operating year from the DHS Science and Technology Directorate.

“We are excited that (UH) will join our family of Centers to provide innovative solutions across these extremely important mission areas in the department,” Science and Technology’s Office of University Programs Director Matthew Clark said. 

The Homeland Security Act of 2002 established the University-based Center of Excellence program, which will work directly with DHS operational components to work to solve complex and challenging homeland security problems.

Ioannis Kakadiaris, director of the Center and professor of computer science at UH, believes that Houston was chosen based on four criteria: the international track record with face recognition research and his own field of expertise, the innovative projects in the UH proposal submitted in September, his strong strategic vision for the Center and the University’s strong track record with commercialization and technology transfer.

“My vision for the Center is for it to be a leading national research center in the area of border, trade and immigration,” Kakadiaris said. “We are going to do that through innovative research, informed policy and individualized education.”

The Center will be concerned with the flow of people and services and Kakadiaris sees the biggest challenge facing the COE as finding technology that will help balance facilitating trade and keeping the borders secure.

Kakadiaris envisions image and video-based identification technology as the key to screening rapidly while maintaining safety at the borders.

But he also sees applications beyond the DHS.

“Face recognition is one of the biometrics that I think is important for our everyday life,” Kakadiaris said. “I personally believe that we have the opportunity to go away from passwords. When I look at my phone, I won’t have to use a password, I can use my face to interact with it and the same with my computer.”

Along with his involvement with face recognition research, Kakadiaris is responsible for putting the COE team together.

“This center can be considered a ‘team of teams.’ We have 16 projects, and it is my job to help all of them succeed. I have put together a group that will all be concerned with different aspects of this process and make sure we have (something to deliver) in terms of outputs and outcomes,” Kakadiaris said. “We will have a lead for technology research, for policy research and translation, for technology transfer, for media and communication and for education.”

Kakadiaris’ management team currently includes:

  • Maria Burns, director of the Center for Logistics and Transportation Policy at the College of Technology, as lead for professional and workforce development.
  • Lan Ni, associate professor of communication, as lead for media and communication.
  • Eckhard Pfeiffer, professor of computer science at UH, as lead for technology research.
  • Shishir K. Shah, associate professor of computer science at UH, as lead for technology transfer and commercialization.
  • Luis R. Torres, associate professor in the Graduate College of Social Work and associate director of the UH Center for Drug and Social Policy Research, as lead for policy research and transition.

Of the 16 proposed projects awaiting final approval, the UH-based research will primarily involve the previously mentioned facial identification, assessment of screening technologies used at the ports and the creation a capstone project for students interested in security technologies.

“The Center will provide excellent opportunities for students at our campus to understand the needs of the DHS in the areas of S.T.E.M. and give them the chance to be involved in such research,” Kakadiaris said. “We would like to create an avenue where students will be able to do internships with agencies of the DHS and spend time in the field. That is a crucial aspect to me.”

The University’s involvement in this program not only creates a unique opportunity for the students, but also for the school’s continued growth.

“The University of Houston is committed to providing leadership on issues of critical importance to our region and nation,” President Renu Khator said in a news release.

“We appreciate the opportunity to lead the Center for Borders, Trade and Immigration Research and to add our expertise in these vital areas.”

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