Creating a TruffleBot to Sniff for Chemical Vapors

A non-traditional educational path led engineering concentrator Jason Webster ’18 to the Rosenstein Lab and a Doris M. and Norman T. Halpin Senior Capstone Prize to explore an electronic nose.

Jason WebsterThe traditional high school to college to graduate school or industry path does not work for everyone. Sometimes stumbling blocks arise. Reformatting those blocks into stepping stones has been the solution for electrical engineer Jason Webster ’18.

He graduated from high school in 1997 and set his sights on a physics and philosophy degree at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. But that path was interrupted after two semesters, and Webster found himself managing a local retail establishment. He worked his way up the corporate ladder, but 12 years later he was downsized. He knew the time had come to return to school. 

Webster enrolled at Bristol Community College (BCC), thinking he would earn his associate’s degree and transfer to a Massachusetts state school to complete his bachelor’s. On his first day at BCC, he ran into Connor Dvorsky, a fellow engineering student who planted a simple idea in Webster’s mind. “Well, first he laughed at me because I had no books. The decision to enroll happened so fast, I hadn’t had time to get any books. Then he told me he was going to give it everything he had to be valedictorian. I thought, ‘Okay, I can do that.’”

That was the beginning of a renewed and re-invented Webster. He continued to earn grades at the top of his class.

“There was a professor in the tutoring center there, and every time I walked by he said, ‘Are you applying to Brown?’ Every time. I thought it was a joke. Then one day he pulled me aside and said, ‘I’m serious. Are you applying to Brown?’”

There was a professor in the tutoring center (at BCC), and every time I walked by he said, ‘Are you applying to Brown?’ Every time. I thought it was a joke. Then one day he pulled me aside and said, ‘I’m serious. Are you applying to Brown?’

Jason Webster '18

It was then Webster first learned of Brown’s Resumed Undergraduate Education program—a small, highly competitive program ideal for students who interrupt or delay their formal education due to extenuating circumstances. He was accepted as a transfer student in the fall of 2015, a few months after giving his valedictory speech at BCC. He now serves as secretary of the RUE student board—working to facilitate inclusiveness for other non-traditional students such as Dvorsky ’19, now a computer engineering concentrator at Brown.

Heading into his senior year at Brown, Webster met with Professor Chris Rose, who suggested several research opportunities. The one that most piqued his interest was in Assistant Professor Jacob Rosenstein’s lab, which had just received a DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) award.

Together, Rosenstein and Webster came up with a capstone project that incorporates both chemical and mechanical engineering based on a biological principle. “It was the first time I ever thought about an artificial nose,” Webster said.


His TruffleBot (a name coined by Rosenstein’s wife) is related to that DARPA award, involving correlated electronic olfaction. Webster’s electronic nose is a 3.5” x 2” circuit board fabrication with arrayed groupings of mechanical pressure sensors and chemical sensors to dynamically “sniff” for chemical vapors. Once the tubes are installed on top, air will be pulsed through the tunnel, where air speed, timing, and pressures will be measured and the ensuing data points analyzed. This work is important to the concept of the DARPA award, to develop strategies where an array of low-cost sensors might perform better than one, more expensive sensor.

Thanks to a Doris M. and Norman T. Halpin Prize, he recently conducted experiments, and will record his results in a paper to be submitted to a scientific journal. Webster will also be attending the 2018 Biomedical Circuits and Systems conference in Cleveland next fall to share his work.

“I’m so grateful for the funds from the Halpin award,” Webster said. “All of the experiences I’ve had working with TruffleBot have pushed the limits of what I thought I could accomplish and have expanded my already remarkable education in Brown’s engineering program.”