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Academic Symposium celebrates ‘exchange of ideas’

Alice Rivlin discussed how to avoid a debt crisis in a partisan political world.

Bernard Amadei shared his experienes with the organization he founded, Engineers Without Borders.

At the outset of Lehigh’s third biennial Academic Symposium, President Alice P. Gast said the four distinguished invited speakers—two recipients of MacArthur Fellowships and two members of the National Academies—were a perfect fit with Lehigh’s vision of research.

“At Lehigh, we believe in research that transcends disciplines. We believe in research that is translated into solutions for real world problems. And we believe in research that matters,” Gast told students, faculty, staff and others gathered in Zoellner Arts Center’s Baker Hall.

“Our four invited speakers epitomize these beliefs. Their work crosses boundaries. Their work solves problems. Their work matters.”

The speakers more than lived up to their billing. This year’s impressive and diverse group featured:

  • Bernard Amadei, professor of civil engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder, founding president of Engineers Without Borders-USA and cofounder of Engineers Without Borders-International, and a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering. Amadei talked about creating “a new generation of engineers for the 21st century” who will use their skills to improve the lives of the 90 percent of the world’s population that lacks such basic needs as clean water, sanitation, energy, shelter, health care, and education.

  • Alice Rivlin, a member of President Obama’s bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, founding director of the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office, former director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, and a MacArthur Foundation Fellow. Rivlin warned that as the country pulls slowly out of the recession, the number of Baby Boomers reaching retirement age coupled with skyrocketing health care costs puts the U.S. “heading immediately into this demographic and medical care tsunami.” She expressed guarded optimism that the time is right for a bipartisan plan to address the long-term problems, but said it is made far more difficult by the fact that “all the options for solving it are unpopular.”

  • Camille Utterback, an internationally renowned interactive artist, current MacArthur Foundation Fellow, and recipient of a Transmediale International Media Art Festival Award. Utterback, whose public art commissions have included works in San Jose and Fontana, Calif., and St. Louis Park, Minn., used video of some of her interactive installations to explore the connection between technology and art and posed the question: “Am I an artist or am I an engineer?”

  • George Whitesides, the Woodford L. and Ann A. Flowers University Professor and head of the prestigious Whitesides Group at Harvard University, as well as a member of the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Whitesides talked about the work his research group is doing in fields such as diagnostics and nanofabrication to demonstrate how using “simplicity as a guide star for science” can result in products that are far more cost-effective and accessible to the people who need them.

Throughout the day, undergraduate and graduate students from Lehigh’s four colleges exhibited their research outside the hall. During morning and afternoon breaks, participants and attendees walked through the exhibition, engaging in lively discussions with the students about their work.

“We are inspired by our students today and we know that they will do great things in the future.” Gast said in her opening remarks.

Alan Snyder, vice president and associate provost for research and graduate studies, served as master of ceremonies, hailing the symposium as “a day that celebrates the exchange of ideas.”

‘The notion of interconnectedness’

Provost Patrick Farrell, in his closing remarks, said that after listening to the four very diverse presentations during the day, “the notion of interconnectedness really struck me.”

Amadei was introduced by Richard Weisman, professor of civil and environmental engineering, and was interviewed following his talk by Kristen Jellison, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. Weisman and Jellison were instrumental in starting Lehigh’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders, and continue to work with the students involved.

Amadei said that, over the past 150 years, engineers have focused most of their efforts on the richest 10 percent of the world’s population. He founded Engineers Without Borders after a visit to Belize, during which he saw young girls who could not attend school because they were needed to carry water back and forth from a nearby river to their village.

The organization has worked to bring such basics as clean water and sanitation to locations from Peru to Afghanistan to East Jerusalem to the Crow Nation in Montana. The key is bringing in people with the technical and social policy expertise to address the problems, Amadei said.

“It’s not Engineers Without Borders,” he said. “It’s borders without engineers.”

Rivlin, who was introduced by Anthony O’Brien, professor of economics, and interviewed by Saladin Ambar, assistant professor of political science and Africana Studies, said the debt crisis facing the U.S. “is basically not an economic problem. It’s a political problem.”

Any real solution must include spending cuts, increases in tax revenues, changes to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and economic growth, Rivlin said. Spending cuts alone or tax increases alone will not fix the problem, she said.

Even in the highly partisan atmosphere of Capitol Hill, Rivlin said, she believes a compromise plan to deal with the debt crisis is possible. “The consequences of not acting are beginning to dawn on people,” she said.

Utterback, who was introduced by Amy Camp, assistant professor of biological sciences, and interviewed by Nicholas Sawicki, assistant professor of art and architecture, showed video examples of some of the public installations she has created.

“Text Rain” featured a video screen with letters falling from the top. As viewers moved, the letters would catch on the darkened image of their arms or hands or even an umbrella. “Liquid Time” was described by Utterback as “video cubism,” featuring crowd scenes from New York City and Tokyo on a video screen that would be disrupted as the viewer moved closer to the screen.

Camp, in her introduction, said Utterback’s work “reminds us as humans how we are very much part of the natural world.”

Utterback told the audience that “stepping into the unknown” by taking creative risks isn’t the hardest part. “Letting go of the known. That’s the hardest part,” she said.

Whitesides was introduced by Dmitri Vezenov, assistant professor of chemistry and former member of the Whitesides Group at Harvard, and was interviewed by Steven Goldman, the Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Professor in Humanities.

Whitesides used the famous quote from the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart about pornography to define the concept of simplicity: “I know it when I see it.”

“We, scientists and universities, love complexity,” Whitesides said. “Society, we as citizens, want things as simple as possible.”

In his research, Whitesides seeks to take complex ideas and simplify them. For what he called “zero-cost” diagnostics, his group created a very simple and extremely inexpensive urine test based on the technology of “printing comic books.” They came up with a piece of paper that wicks a urine sample to areas treated to turn color for glucose or proteins.

A standard home glucose testing device uses test strips that cost anywhere from 50 cents to a dollar, he said. The version developed by his group costs just one-tenth of a cent.

Piercen Oliver, who is completing his Ph.D. in chemistry, presented his poster for "Sequencing by pulling genomic DNA" as part of the student research exhibition, and enjoyed listening to the speakers.

“The seminars were very engaging. It was not at all difficult to make connections between the speakers, even though their fields of study or profession were so different," Oliver said. "It is really hard to describe, but the speakers really made an impact on me—and it was refreshing to attend an event where you aren't hearing topics just related to your own field.

“It was also interesting to hear that the 'greats' in their field seem almost more concerned with philosophical questions they encounter than the science or art they are studying. It puts a researcher's pursuits of achievement in a different perspective.”

Photos by John Kish IV

Story by Jack Croft

Posted on Wednesday, March 30, 2011

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