By Bill Kisliuk
Insights into the future of engineering research and displays of ground-breaking work topped the bill at Tech Forum 2013, the annual conference of the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science. The event took place May 8 at Covel Commons on the UCLA campus.
UCLA Engineering students placed more than 100 of their research projects on display during afternoon poster sessions, and a panel of industry experts weighed in on the conference theme – “The Future of Engineering Research in the United States” – in a spirited discussion.
In addition, more than 40 faculty members and a handful of industry guests gave overviews of their research in breakout talks that covered all seven UCLA Engineering departments – Bioengineering; Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering; Civil and Environmental Engineering; Computer Science; Electrical Engineering; Materials Science and Engineering; and Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.
Many guests focused on the poster sessions, where students showcased research in nanomaterials, computer architecture, healthcare solutions and more. More than 400 guests attended the event, the largest turnout in the eight-year history of Tech Forum.
In an afternoon ceremony on the Covel Commons deck overlooking the UCLA campus, UCLA Engineering Dean Vijay K. Dhir awarded cash prizes to the students whose posters were deemed by a panel of judges to be the best. Criteria included quality of research and presentation.
The winners were Suwei Zhu, a graduate student in the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department who is helping to develop nanocapsules for delivery of healthcare remedies; Kristine Mayle, a graduate student in Bioengineering who is researching optoelectronic devices for use in healthcare; and a team from the Electrical Engineering Department, postdoctoral researcher Kyeong-Sik Shin and graduate student Yufei Mao, working on nanowire biosensors.
They won prizes of $500, $300 and $200, respectively.
Research and the pace of change
In the morning session, engineers with decades of industry experience offered their views on the future of research. Themes included the pressure to quickly connect new research and technology to commercial applications, the global research marketplace and what employers are looking for in engineering talent.
Neil Siegel, vice president and chief engineer at Northrop Grumman Information Systems, who oversees an engineering research portfolio of roughly $350 million and supervises a team of 14,000 workers, served as keynote speaker. Siegel also joined a panel that included Cary Nachenberg, Symantec Fellow and Chief Architect of Symantec’s office of the CTO; Rachel Vandenberg, vice president of engineering and infrastructure firm AECOM; and Marko Sokolich, deputy director of aviation and automotive engineering firm HRL Laboratories.
Dwight Streit, a UCLA professor in electrical engineering and materials science who also served as Tech Forum 2013 conference chair, moderated the panel discussion.
Sokolich addressed what he called “the valley of death – the (time) gap between research and investment capture.”
While it can take decades for research to bear fruit in terms of commercial use or rewards, the agencies and companies that fund research seek more immediate returns, Sokolich said.
Vandenberg, whose firm oversees large infrastructure and design projects in 45 countries, and Nachenberg, whose company is a global leader in computer security software, acknowledged that the private sector looks to invest primarily in research that promises a turnaround within five years.
“It’s very difficult to allocate funding (for research) that isn’t going to help the bottom line,” Nachenberg said.
Transparency, flexibility and ‘funding diversity’
Yet the panelists noted the problem is an old one – the Wright brothers did not benefit from their aviation breakthroughs and it is routine that technology invented for the military ends up having unforeseen civilian uses decades later. Furthermore, Siegel and Sokolich said, universities would risk eroding their educational mission if they tailor their curricula primarily to serve immediate needs.
Siegel and Sokolich emphasized that one of the most important products of university research is engineers with a solid scientific foundation. Others said that in hiring they are looking for people with potential, regardless of whether their research specialty fits the company’s business model.
“More and more, we value people who look beyond their discipline,” Vandenberg said.
In his keynote address, Siegel identified ways to minimize the gap between research and successful application of new technologies.
Siegel encouraged researchers to identify problems that need a solution, rather than trying to figure out the best ways to apply technology they are inventing. This will lead to greater and faster societal gains, a better response from funders and clearer public understanding of the value of engineering.
“I think we’re on a path for all the obvious reasons where the public, who writes a lot of the checks for engineering research in the United States, is going to demand transparency about payback,” he said.
Siegel said that “funding diversity” is increasingly important for universities, especially as the federal government faces ongoing, long-term budget uncertainties.
A global view
Nachenberg addressed the global marketplace for engineers. He pointed out that new hubs are developing around the world to compete with places such as Silicon Valley, and that several developing countries are forging direct ties with U.S. universities to encourage the growth of their domestic engineering prowess.
He also said companies gain advantages by hiring engineers to work in their native countries, where engineers can be close to family, interact directly with the local marketplace and help develop new research hubs.
But he said the United States retains many advantages as an engineering center. Among these are the substantial government investment in research, the benefits of a democracy and working in the English language, as well as the existence of hubs such as Los Angeles, Silicon Valley and the Research Triangle in North Carolina.
”The world is flat, but there are a lot of places with preferred climates,” Nachenberg observed.
He said that the salaries of engineers in other countries often are lower than in the United States, but from a company’s standpoint the difference is not enough to make up for the advantages of having people work in areas where they can collaborate, take advantage of funding opportunities and work in close proximity to engineering excellence at universities and in the private sector.
“There is an established research ecosystem to draw on, and that benefits the U.S.,” he said.
Main Image: UCLA Engineering Dean Vijay K. Dhir and poster contest winner Suwei Zhu.