Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Shift of Power

Duke students joined 12,000 other people at PowerShift 09, a four-day conference about the environmental issues affecting our planet, and how they can be addressed. PowerShift had speeches, panels, workshops, rallies, and Lobby Day, when participants converged on Capitol Hill to demand change from their representatives.

The first and second night (Feb. 27 and 28), keynote speakers gave stirring speeches about the rights and responsibilities of humans, and how environmental justice cannot be achieved without social and political justice. They spoke to an enthusiastic crowd that frequently burst into cheers and standing ovations.

“This is the moral obligation of our generation-- to address climate change and protect human rights,” keynote speaker Clayton Thomas Muller said.

Van Jones, founder of Green for All, emphasized the possibility for change. “It’s no accident that you were born right now, when we need you the most -- I want you to understand how much power you have!”

Jones described how if a person 50 years ago could access a world’s worth of information in a minute, or speak to a person thousands of miles away, they would be thought a god. But the tools that allow us to accomplish such feats are now commonplace and taken for granted. “It’s time to turn toys into tools,” Jones said.

Jones asserted the need to include all people, of all races, sexes, and economic levels, an idea which reverberated throughout the conference. The speeches both on Friday and Saturday culminated in a concert, which thousands stayed to enjoy.

During the day on Saturday and Sunday, participants attended workshops and panels of their choosing. Topics ranged from international environmental policy to organizational skill-building and “use of social media for the greener good.”

All six panels and workshops I attended were extremely informative and open to input from the audience. It created a very open and engaging dynamic. Many of the sessions emphasized the need for substantial domestic environmental legislation this year, so that U.S. representatives have something to take to the table for Copenhagen December, an international conference on climate change. Bill McKibben from stressed that people get involved in the Global Day of Action, Oct. 24, to get the point across that the tipping point has already been passed.

On Sunday, people broke out into group sessions to connect with other attendees from their state. This was one of my favorite parts of PowerShift; after all the conference had done to inspire and empower me, I was ready to get to work. So it was incredibly exciting to meet similar-minded people from my home state, who I might be able to work with in the future. All forty of us exchanged contact information and are already organizing to accomplish environmental action in our state.

Monday brought blasts of wind and snow, but thousands of persevering PowerShifters gathered in front of the Capitol for a blazing rally and show of support for green jobs, environmental equity, and renewable energy.

After the rally, the masses dispersed to lobby their respective Congressmen in surrounding buildings. I again joined with PowerShifters from my home state to appeal to our senators and representatives. The day before, we had been given training about effective methods of lobbying, and had planned our approach. It was interesting to see how our representatives or their staffers responded to our ideas. Some we thought were on the fence were quite on-board; we thought one representative would shut the door on us, but we found him to be somewhat supportive, although he had different methods in mind for reversing global climate change. (Fantastical “clean coal” being one of them.) Altogether, Lobby Day was an eye-opening experience, and proof of the effect thousands of dedicated people can have. One staffer mentioned that he had never spoken with a more engaging or energizing group of lobbyists, or a group as young.

More than anything, PowerShift proved that age is not a factor in creating global change.

“Young people have more power now than they’ve ever had before.” Van Jones said. “This is no ordinary year, and we cannot live ordinary lives.”

NAE Grand Challenges Summit- Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurship, even though not a specific Grand Challenge itself, is the driving force for the proper implementation of every solution to the challenges, according to a panel of entrepreneurs and business leaders who conducted a panel discussion at the Grand Challenges Summit hosted by the Pratt School of Engineering on March 2 and 3.

The Entrepreneurship panel discussed the most important factors to foster entrepreneurship and innovation to accelerate diffusion of technology solutions to the 14 Engineering Grand Challenges.

"How many times have we heard the word 'entrepreneur,' " asked session moderator Tom Byers of Stanford University as he opened the panel discussion.

Developing an entrepreneurial mindset among young students is key, said Phil Weilerstein, Executive Director, National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA). "Student innovation is not just a practice activity, but it is something that has the power to change the world."

Paul Kedrosky, senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation, added that an immense portion of entrepreneurship training has begun to focus specifically on scientists and engineers.

Collaborative curriculums are being developed at various universities -- including Duke -- to harness the innovative entrepreneurial attitude among engineers, to enable them to better market and strategically deal with situations.

Trevor Loy, founder, Flywheel Ventures, notes that entrepreneurs, particularly a specific breed of entrepreneurs in the form of venture capitalists, has generated 18% of the GDP of the country, while only forming a measly 0.02% of the investment asset. "The Venture Capitalist industry is small, but the outside impact on the economy is high."

"Engineering entrepreneurship is action," said Steve Nichols, Professor, University of Texas, Austin.

"The entrepreneur is like a jockey," adds Trevor Loy, as he controls how the innovative solutions presented by the engineers and scientists effectively reaches the customers.

"So why is now a different time from what it was 10 years ago for innovation in this area?" is the question that needs to be asked by an entrepreneur and an innovator before taking something to the market. "One of the things that need to be different is how will it be sustainable and self-generating," said Phil Weilerstein. Another fundamental question that needs to be answered before introducing an innovation to the customers is "Who cares?" and how can we separate the customer from their money, according to Steve Nichols.

The panel also informed the audiences about stimulating effective technology transfer and fostering innovation-oriented business ecosystems in all regions.

Paul Kedrosky beautifully summarized the role of an entrepreneur - "Entrepreneurship is like returning to love every time, even after having your heart broken many times."

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Convention Swag

The Grand Challenges summit in Durham was a great meeting with attendees from all over the country and beyond, but what it lacked was a big swag-filled convention hall.

Not to worry! The good folks at the Viterbi School of Engineering at the University of Southern California have cooked up some virtual swag -- a downloadable commemorative icosahedron. How cool is that?

Issues in Computer Security

It took the 2003 Slammer worm just 30 minutes to propagate internationally in the United States, Europe and elsewhere though the Internet. And cyber criminals can exploit online systems to obtain the tax records of people who are downloading music. Clearly, the public is "concerned about the digital infrastructure," said North Carolina State University computer science professor Annie Antón. "They don't feel it's secure."

Antón, who studies the behavior of software systems that are vulnerable to security risks if they fail or are misused, was keynote speaker on security Tuesday, March 3 during a two-day summit at the Durham Performance Art Center on "Grand Challenges" for the future posed by the National Academy of Engineering.

There are other concerns about online privacy, Antón said. Some people, for example, are not passing on sensitive parts of their medical histories to physicians for fear medical insurers will use the information against them.

On the other aide of the coin, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) that protects the privacy of patient information costs companies $25,000 per violation, presenting companies with powerful incentives to comply, she noted.

Industries have shown shortcomings in both "awareness" and "regulation," she said.

All these factors are presenting challenges for the writers of software code, said Antón, who is an internationally recognized expert on private policy in software systems.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Engineering Futuristic Medicine

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Robert Langer gave a National Academy of Engineering summit focused on addressing worldwide needs a primer on how engineers can aid medicine.

One big challenge is figuring how to get "drugs of the future" into the human body in a way that can do some good, said the chemical engineer who won the 800,000 Euro 2008 Millenium Technology Prize for some of his innovations. Langer himself has "found over 200 different ways to get that not to work," he said in an address on Monday, March 9 at the Durham Performance Art Center.

The problem is that such large molecular weight drugs -- such as hormones, proteins, peptides and forms of DNA -- must reach targets such as a pancreatic cell in diabetes treatment or a tumor cell in cancer therapy without being chewed up by the body's own biochemistry. One successful stratagem his group has pioneered is placing the drug inside a protective polymer coat.
Another idea is designing polymers that be threaded though tiny bodily passages and then shift their shapes at internal body temperatures.

Langer's team has also created polymer scaffolds that experiments show may be usable to nurture cells needed to repair burned tissue, grow new noses or ears, even repair damaged spinal chords.

Engineering Solutions for the World's 21st Century Challenges

Engineers and scientists -- including social scientists -- need to work together and urgently to address 14 engineering challenges identified as crucial to Earth's future last year by the National Academy of Engineering, said academy director Charles Vest in a March 2 kickoff address at the Durham Performance Arts Center during the first session of a summit on those problems.

Panels of experts have compartmentalized those challenges into six broad areas, Vest said at the two-day event, hosted by Duke University, the University of Southern California's Viterbi School of Engineering and Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering. Those include energy use, addressing global warming, maintaining sustainability, delivering health care, security against human and natural threats, and developing ways to enhance human capability and joy.

Speaking as a snowstorm was moving up the East Coast and the stock market continued to nosedive in a face of dire and worldwide economic news, Vest remained upbeat. "I believe this is the most exciting time in human history to be engaged with science and engineering," he said. But to harness that excitement, engineering educators also need to revamp curricula to lure more socially committed youth to major in engineering, he added.

A. Paul Alivisatos, the interim director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said he has noticed a startling turnaround of student interest in helping resolve such issues as climate change and such consequences as the potential for geopolitical conflict due to competition for water, land and other resources.

Alivisatos concentrated on another hot button issue, energy use, which he said contrary to public perception does not always increase as nations get wealthier. For example, the State if California's overall energy use actually held steady when compared to domestic outputs after new state standards stimulated new industry innovations in refrigerator efficiencies.

Alivasatos, who replaced Nobel Laureate Steven Chu at Lawrence Berkeley after Chu became Energy Secretary, also described new research efforts to boost efficiencies of collecting the sun's energy by developing solar cells made of nanocrystals or plastics and temporarily storing that energy in molecules like Nature does in photosynthesis.

Robert Socolow, a professor of chemistry, materials science and nanoscience at Princeton University, said successes at building large scale power grids are considered the number one grand engineering achievement of the 20th century. But the goal for the 21st century is not to significantly expand that power capacity but rather improve the efficiency of what exists now with techniques such as recycling waste heat. Tapping nuclear fusion will be a "century-long challenge," and building more nuclear fission power plants a shorter one, Socolow predicted.

Meanwhile, technology is already being developed to remove carbon dioxide from industrial exhausts and store it underground so it can't contribute to global warming, he said. A new challenge will be to regulate the proliferation of nitrogen in a way analogous to CO2, perhaps by engineering more plants to produce it instead of relying on industrial fertilizers.