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Pacific Coast Innovation Relies on Diverse Cast of Scientists

Rich in sunshine, oil and fertile soils, and flush with eastern transplants seeking new job opportunities, California became a hub of science and technology in the 20th century — leading the U.S. in energy extraction, aerospace engineering and innovative entertainment from Hollywood to Disneyland.

To maintain this cutting edge reputation, however, West Coast scientists and engineers now rely less on the region's natural resources and more on creative, sometimes counterintuitive collaborations to develop new technologies while protecting the environment, speakers said at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Pacific Division meeting, held 12-15 June at Cal Poly Pomona.

"The Pacific Division conference has long been a showcase for innovative research in fields such as aerospace engineering, materials sciences and pollution and climate research that have both local and global impacts," said Rush Holt, AAAS CEO and executive publisher of the Science family of journals. "Our Division meetings are unique because they bring together a local community with its scientists and engineers and create opportunities to discuss how new technologies and discoveries can be put to work on behalf of the region."

From the earliest days of its southern California theme park, for instance, the Walt Disney Company has relied on a "shockingly deep base of technology" to develop its immersive attractions, said Jon Snoddy, head of the Research and Development Studio for Walt Disney Engineering, in a plenary address at the start of the meeting.

But the days when a Disney mechanical engineer might work separately from a software developer or even a psychologist are over, replaced by diverse teams that "surround a problem" in unexpected ways, he said. During the development of the Pirates of Caribbean boat ride for the Shanghai Disney resort, he explained, his studio needed an interdisciplinary cast of researchers to puzzle out the challenge of combining massive physical sets with a 50-foot tall video screen featuring images from 28 projectors stitched together using computer vision software, to ensure that visitors would experience the ride as a "seamless space."

"I often find that when you put everyone of the same discipline on a problem, you get predictable, interesting progress forward," said Snoddy. "But if you put a diverse mix of people on a problem, you get cool leaps, you get things that are non-obvious."

At the meeting, Cal Poly Pomona professor Jonathan Puthoff and his students discussed their work creating adhesives that mimic the grip of a gecko. | Puthoff Lab

The pool of West Coast research and development talent also has expanded in the 21st century, most notably with the rise of Silicon Valley and the Seattle technology corridor, said plenary speaker Joan Robinson-Berry, vice president and general manager of Boeing South Carolina and Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

In the past, Boeing's market dominance ensured that it could develop future flight technologies at its own pace, Robinson-Berry said. "But the whole world has changed, because we have all these new entrants in this field like Tesla and Virgin Galactic, so we have to kind of disrupt ourselves or be disrupted by these other companies."

Disruption for Boeing, she said, means moving beyond a workforce centered on engineers and design aerodynamicists "to making sure we have mathematicians, chemists, data scientists, so we have integration between information technology, artificial intelligence, sensors, software, algorithms, chemistry, material science and biology."

Projects like Boeing's FedEx 777F "ecoDemonstrator" plane, which includes more than 30 experimental technologies from carbon nanotube materials to biofuels, shows how these diverse collaborations could help mitigate the environmental impacts of flying, Robinson-Berry said.

The meeting featured several presentations by scientists contending with California's changing climate and environmental pressures. At Cal Poly Pomona, graduate student Sebastian Olarte is manufacturing a fluoride-based polymer membrane filter to turn seawater into fresh water, spurred on by the 2011-2014 drought, the worst in the state's history since 1895. Engineering professor Mikhail Gershfeld is exploring new technologies for producing laminated timber and plywood panels that may provide material for commercial buildings that is earthquake-resilient and has a lower carbon footprint than concrete. Shelton Murinda, an animal and veterinary sciences professor, is working on a handheld device that can test for toxic E. coli bacteria contamination directly in the fields of southern California produce farms.

Jeanette Cobian Iñiquez, a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Riverside, shared her research using wind tunnels to study the spread of wildfire in dry chaparral shrublands. For Cobian Iñiquez, the Pacific Division meeting was a good venue to discuss her unusual approach to a common California problem.

"It is a unique opportunity to both interact with experts in my general field of mechanical engineering as well as with scientists and engineers from other fields as the conference spans through a wide array of science and engineering applications," she said. "It's a great venue to keep up to date with the latest research occurring in our region."

A version of this article appeared in AAAS News & Notes in the June 29 edition of Science.

[Associated image: Some scientists attending the 2018 Pacific Division Annual Meeting participated in field trips, including one to explore the science and art of the Getty Center. /Photos by Clark/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)]