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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Microscopes without lenses for high-throughput and mobile health solutions

Apologies for the lack of posts recently. My school semester ended last week, and I spent every waking moment not at work over the past month finishing projects and studying. But for now, a respite. I have a week off of school before my summer classes start, so this is a good time to catch up on some things.

Several weeks ago a press release I wrote about lab-on-a-chip microscopy was distributed by UCLA. I’ve been working with the professor, Aydogan Ozcan, for three or four years now. Writing press releases, news items for the CNSI website, and even nominating him for awards. It has been fascinating to see the progression of his technology.

A little background on Ozcan’s technology first. It is essentially a microscope without a lens. Capturing an image without using a lens to focus the light is done through some clever computer tricks. When a light is shown on organic structures, like cells, they produce a shadow. But because they are semi-transparent, the outline of sub-cellular structures are also apparent from the shadow.

An LED light illuminates the samples, causing the shadows of microparticles in the sample to be projected onto a digital sensor array, which records the shadow images. Taking advantage of the fact that microparticles like red blood cells have consistent and particle-specific structures, Ozcan developed computer algorithms capable of instantly identifying and counting microparticles in a sample.


A lens is the main size constraint in constructing a microscope, so removing the lens allowed Ozcan’s device to be scaled down enough to fit on a cellphone. The device works with a broad array of cell phones and interfaces with the phone so that captured images can be sent over cellular networks to a hospital for analysis. Because cell phones have penetrated most of the planet, this leapfrogs the development of healthcare infrastructure to deliver diagnostics to remote areas.

Now, onto the latest research. Ozcan has shrunk his lens-free imager down even more to lab-on-a-chip dimensions. Instead of interfacing with a cellphone, this iteration is designed to work in tandem with a microfluidic chip, which could deposit samples onto the lens-free imager for characterization. These two automated technologies could provide a sort of high-throughput system for analyzing biological fluid samples.

The lens-free imaging technology for cell phones is being commercialized by a startup company called Microskia. They recently moved into the Technology Incubator at CNSI, where they will be further developing the technology.

Visit the UCLA Newsroom to read my full press release.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Robert F. Kennedy - Green Gold Rush: A vision for energy independence, jobs and national wealth

Last night I attended a lecture by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. at Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles. I was a bit worried about making it to the lecture because President Obama was shuttling around the Westside yesterday fundraising. On a previous visit of his I sat still in gridlocked traffic for about an hour and 45 minutes because one of the main east-west roads in LA was shut down for the Presidential motorcade. 
Miraculously, I didn’t encounter any traffic last night, it even seemed much lighter than a normal rush hour. I attribute this mostly to people fighting the last war. Because there were loud warnings about impending traffic gridlock, people changed their patterns. Also, the White House witnessed the disruption caused by their last visit and took measures to fix the problems, namely using a helicopter whenever possible to stay out of traffic.

The end result of all this was that I budgeted an hour’s worth of travel time for a trip that ended up taking 15 minutes, better to be early than late though I suppose. Arriving early gave me some time to catch up on my Businessweek reading. I was able to get through a great article about cloud computing and how Amazon Web Services is well on the path towards turning web infrastructure (servers, processing power) into a utility that any company can gain access to on a pay-as-you-go model.

I mention that the talk was at Temple Isaiah because prior to Kennedy taking the stage a previous Temple president said a few words about the Temple’s founder, Albert Lewis. As the gentleman took the stage he walked with a cane and seemed frail. Once he got into his comments though, I was left with the impression that old people can get away with about anything. He began by mentioning how he was good friends with the Albert Lewis, and said some kind words. Then, even as he acknowledged that everyone was anxious to hear Kennedy speak, he proceeded to read an entire letter from the Lewis. Not many people under the age of 80 could get away with giving 10-15 minutes of opening remarks for a headline speaker.

Finally, Kennedy took the stage. He sort of began with a whimper, looking a bit nervous and stuttering over words. As I was about to write off the experience, thinking I had at least seen a Kennedy speak live, he found his stride.

Kennedy’s main point was that ‘dirty’ energy - coal, oil, and nuclear - are not nearly as cheap as their proponents make them out to be. Though coal is often cited as only costing 11 cents a kilowatt hour, when external factors, or as he called them subsidies, are taken into account it is actually much more expensive.

The immediate costs associated with these subsidies are the dedicated infrastructure required, such as maintenance for the 3,000 miles of coal roads in U.S. A typical road has 4 inches of so of asphalt, but a coal road has 24 inches of asphalt to keep it from immediately being pulverized by the massive trucks hauling coal. Even with the extra padding, the coal roads need to be repaired every couple years or so, costing millions of dollars per mile. These maintenance costs are paid by taxpayers, but are not taken into account for the 11 cents a kilowatt hour price for coal power.

Another hidden cost he cited is health and environmental. These power sources are called ‘dirty’ for a reason. And the dirty part comes not just from burning them, which is bad enough, but also from their extraction. Mining is ravaging the landscape of West Virginia as mountains are flattened through blasting to get to the coal. Pollutants from mining is often dumped into rivers and other water sources, leading to not only environmental damage but health concerns. The health costs from the cases of asthma and cancer caused by polluting industries is not taken into account in the 11 cents a kilowatt hour price cited for coal power.

As Kennedy was moving through his list of hidden subsidies for dirty energy, he kept returning to his second main point of the evening, what he sees as the failure of the media to expose the shenanigans of big energy companies. His thesis here was essentially that corporate, i.e. Republican, interests have gained control of most media outlets. As part of this takeover, they have lessened balanced reporting of the news, and replaced the reporting of complex foreign policy and domestic news with celebrity gossip catering to the lowest common denominator. He believes that investigative journalism has also been greatly weakened in the current news media.

I find this second point interesting because pundits on the right often disparage the ‘mainstream’ media as well. Though I don’t understand how Fox News is not considered mainstream. Journalists can’t catch a break. Nobody wants to pay for newspapers they can read online for free, Republicans attack them for being stooges of the liberal elite, and Democrats castigate them for not doing enough to uncover corporate wrongdoing.

Kennedy did have one very good point about undue corporate influence in America. In Citizens United vs FEC, a Supreme Court decision from 2010, the court ruled that because of free speech, corporate donations to independent political broadcasts in candidate elections cannot be limited. This more or less freed up corporation to unlimited donations to politicians, and greatly increased the influence of corporations on politics.

It is hard to understand how a corporation has a right to free speech. In a subsequent ruling in 2011, the Supreme Court found that AT&T did not have a right to personal privacy in claiming that records should be exempt from disclosure. The justices unanimously ruled that there is a difference between an individuals rights, and a corporations. How the situation between free speech is different than that of privacy is beyond me.

After spending the better part of the speech building a case for a downward spiral in society where corporations are controlling the government, ruining the environment, and leaving all societies major problems for the next generation to fix, Kennedy at least ended on an upbeat note. He discussed his venture capital companies investment in a solar energy plant in California’s Mojave Desert.

The plant, from BrightSource Energy, will cost approximately as much to build as would a comparable coal plant, and significantly less than a nuclear plant. But the main difference comes after the plant’s construction. While a coal plant requires coal, which has to be extracted, and all the associated environmental hazards, and oil required for transportation, solar plants get free and abundant power from the sun.

Kennedy argued that the technology to meet all power needs from solar already exists, the only impediment is an upgrade to the energy grid required to port electricity from the sunny southwest to the rest of the country. He posited that this investment would be more than offset by the savings from no longer subsidising dirty power and cutting out the costs of importing oil. It is a beguiling vision for the future, and I hope he is at least partly right.

That article in Businessweek mentioned a saying about predicting technology trends. People tend to overestimate what will happen in two years, and underestimate what will happen in ten years. If our energy consumption patterns don’t measurable change in the next couple years, but the proportion of energy coming from renewables is drastically higher in ten years, that will be a very good thing.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Scientists or Communicators

Recently I’ve come across a debate about whether scientists should try communicating directly to the public, or whether they should focus on getting their research to the press and letting them communicate it to the public. Full disclosure here, I come down on the latter side of the argument because a good bit of my job revolves around being a liaison between scientists and the press. But for reasons other than employment security, I think that scientists communicating directly with the public isn’t always the best idea.

This is not a one-size-fits-all discussion though. There are  a number of scientists who are natural communicators, and in that case they should be encouraged in the strongest terms possible to communicate away. The less that science is distorted by translating it from person to person, the better. The problem arises when we are faced with the reality that the majority of scientists are not natural communicators.

There are a number of workshops and programs to teach scientists communication skills, here is a story about one I attended in February. But there is a difference between being trained in something, and actually being good at it. Though virtually everyone engages in a great deal of communication every day, few of us are actually good at it, even fewer when the communication in question is written.

This is where a communications professional, like myself, or a journalist comes in. We spend every day thinking about how to communicate these issues to the public, so in theory we are pretty good at it. Scientists can have a tendency to almost regurgitate their findings, and they are so immersed in their worlds that they have a hard time knowing the right level to communicate to the general public at.

I recently watched an NSF video of Alan Alda talking about what he learned getting scientists to communicate during his time hosting the PBS show Scientific American Frontiers. I love the part towards the end when he is talking about his efforts to drag scientists back into conversations when they drift into lecture mode. Having someone who is skilled in communication can be key in getting scientists to effectively tell their story.

Also, I believe pretty strongly that having that filter can be necessary when communicating science. Most Americans are generally in favor of science and technology when they first hear about it. The problem arises when this newly learned scientific knowledge comes into contact with other beliefs. For example, when you look at support for stem cell research, it breaks pretty cleanly along religious lines because the debate has been framed that way.

I’m not optimistic enough to think that communications professionals will always be smart enough to frame science news so that it doesn’t fall into the culture wars, as stem cell research has. But someone who spends every day thinking about communication will have a better chance to anticipate those stumbling blocks, than will someone who spends every day thinking about a way to cure cancer.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Solutions in need of problems, and venture capital investing at university start-ups

I always find it interesting when I come across solutions to problems that I didn’t know existed, and apparently I am not the only one. This past week I attended a panel discussion for budding entrepreneurs, and finding solutions in need of problems seems to be one of the main goals of venture capital (VC) funds in Silicon Valley.

The institute I work at, The California NanoSystems Institute, houses a technology incubator for start-up companies coming out of UCLA. As part of the efforts to help these entrepreneurs (there are currently seven companies incubating) the institute has organized a series of panel discussions with experts in various areas applicable to start-ups. These panel discussions, the Thirty-Thirty Incubator Panel Series, feature thirty minute presentations followed by thirty minutes of questions from the audience. With a bit of pride, I must add that I created the ‘Thirty-Thirty’ name when the organizers were looking for something catchy to brand the series with. See past topics and video clips here.

The discussion last week featured three people from venture capital firms in Silicon Valley and Southern California. These panelists were discussing ways that start-ups can position themselves to get funding and giving insight into the thought process of investors.

One of my main takeaways from the discussion was how much the venture capital funds want to change the world. A couple times during the discussion panelists emphasized that they are looking for solutions to big problems; they don’t bother with iterative improvements. One of their favorite topics was companies that create their own market, providing a solution to a problem that people didn’t realize they had, or ‘greenfield’ investing.

The realist take on this subject would be that the highest returns on investment come from a company that pioneers and dominates a market. But there are lots of ways to make money, and it seems to me that these venture capital professionals are interested in greenfield investments for more than the potential money.

A very virtuous alignment seems to be in place with the agendas of venture capital funds. They are interested in gaining fame and fortune through their investments. One of the fastest ways to this fame and fortune is through funding a technology that a great many people will pay for, i.e. something that will really help people’s lives.

Another element that struck me was how people intensive the venture capital and start-up world is. I had thought that ideas and technology were the main focus, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Entrepreneurs often can’t even get in the door with venture capital investors without the people skills to get a referral, apparently cold calls aren’t well received in Silicon Valley.

One of the panelists talked about how his favorite investments are in solutions in need of a problems. He explained that his firm is really good at finding markets for good ideas and developing businesses, but they need that raw idea to shape. They are constantly in search of people who have a good idea/technology in development, but who don’t know what their market would be. This development of an idea into a business is a long process though, and he stressed how vital it is for the inventor and the venture capital fund to work well together.

The incubator program at CNSI is very exciting for me. It represents a clear path for some of the great ideas from UCLA to make it out to the market. Before starting at CNSI I had no idea of the difficulties involved in transitioning ideas out of research labs. Without commercialization programs, great ideas, which are often supported by federal, taxpayer provided funds, would not be transformed into real products capable of making a difference in people’s lives.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Ray Kurzweil: Solar Will Power the World in 16 Years

I can’t decide whether to love or hate technology predictions. They do help to get conversations started and to generate thoughts about the future and how to prepare for it. But technology trends are so unpredictable that sometimes prognosticating even six months out can be precarious.

So I was intrigued when I came across a solar power prediction post from the Think Tank blog on Big Think. The post discussed an interview with predictor extraordinaire Ray Kurzweil. The crux of the interview is that Kurzweil believes that solar power is on an exponential curve upwards in usage. Despite the fact that solar power only currently supplies less than 1% of the worlds power, its output has been doubling every two years. He thinks this upward trend will continue and within 16 years, solar power will meet 100% of the world’s energy needs.

Solar power does seem to be the most promising alternative energy out there, but this prediction seems to be slightly optimistic. Maybe solar energy conversion technologies will continue the trends of increases in efficiency along with decreases in price. But the technology to move around power will also have to also be improved. In the United States, power would need to be piped from sunny areas like the South and Southwest to darker areas farther North.

I don’t buy into the doubts about batteries though, this area is already undergoing dramatic technological improvements. Supercapacitors should be developed in upcoming years which can be charged or discharged very quickly and also store large amounts of power.

I do hope Kurzweil is at least partly right, and that solar power does keep steadily increasing to meet growing demands with clean, renewable energy. But getting back to the idea of predicting technologies 15, 20 years in the future. This is either a foolproof plan to look foolish when the endpoint of the prediction finally comes around, assuming that someone actually remembers the prediction made at that point, or an attempt at generating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Often, these predictions tend to have an ideological bent. Something like, if only society would adopt X strategy, world peace and happiness will surely follow in short order. Therefore it would be ludicrous not to follow X strategy, so unless everyone falls in line with the predictor’s world-view, they must be against world peace and happiness.

This example is hyperbole of course, but when you break down some of these predictions, and follow some of these predictors for a while, the hyperbole is often not that far off. While I don’t disagree with the end goals of Kurzweil in this instance, it is hard to argue against alternative energy from an ethical standpoint, I’m usually skeptical when I see technology predictions, especially ones so far in the future.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Unfavorable geometries in organic solar cell molecules

I’ve been remiss in posting lately, but at least I have plenty of excuses. My dad was visiting for a week at the beginning of March and we were busy carting him all over Los Angeles to see the sights - Universal Studios Hollywood, UCLA, and an urban farm and produce stand near us called Tapia Brothers. We took him there once to pick up some fruit and he decided they have the best strawberries he’s ever tasted.

One of the reasons that he came to visit was for our housewarming, another of the things keeping me from posting lately. Housewarmings are nice because it is a great motivator to finish up the ‘moving in’ process that can sometimes drag out indefinitely. Getting things tidied up can be time consuming though.

Then there is school, the Tuesday after our housewarming I had a midterm. I was convinced that this test would stymie me so I studied as much as I was able. But in the actual event it seemed pretty easy. Now I’m a little paranoid that it only seemed easy because I completely misunderstood it, and overlooked it’s challenging intricacies, but I think that is just the little devil on my shoulder trying to psych me out.

As for actual science, last week one of my press releases was distributed. It is for research published in Science magazine on controlling and observing complex chemical reactions. The team fabricated a nanostructure to precisely fit two molecules, and then tailed the chemistry to attract those molecules. They arranged everything so that the molecules would come together, when a light was shown on them, in an orientation not typical naturally.

Molecules have certain preferred geometric alignments, and these alignments affect the reactions that occur when the molecules combine. By creating the geometrically unfavorable alignment, in this case with photosensitive molecules used in organic solar cells, the researchers were able to study a reaction that could lead to more efficient conversion of sunlight into energy. They also succeeded in building a one-of-its-kind scanning tunneling microscope to observe the resulting reaction. Setting up interesting molecular reactions is great, but it doesn’t accomplish much unless you can closely study the reaction.

As always when I start working on a release, I took a stab at reading the academic paper to see what the research was about. But this paper was pretty dense chemistry. After staring at it for about half an hour I was sure they were were working with molecules, and not much else beyond that.

Two of the authors of the paper were kind enough to meet with me to explain, in small words, the research. As seems to be a somewhat common occurrence in academia, these two researchers, from the same lab, are also married. The husband is from the U.S. and the wife is from South Korea.

While the wife speaks fluent English, she seems diligent about trying to perfect her communication style. With this particular research the wife played a much bigger roll, but it seemed to be easier for the husband to translate the work into non-scientific English terms. This did not deter her though, she kept shushing his attempts to help. She was determined to successfully explain her work, and I must say, I was impressed by her patience in explaining the concepts to me.

Episodes like that are part of the reason I really enjoy my job. It is one thing to write about such cutting-edge research, but I find that getting to know the people behind the experiments can be just as interesting.

Check out the full release in the UCLA Newsroom, I must say I’m quite fond of the opening line.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Try this at home

I was looking through Science’s website today, and beyond a hilarious blog post about what it is actually like to be a scientist, I came across an interesting how-to article. It started with an astronomer in need, Chris Lintott from the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, who had way too many images to classify and not enough staff to do it. 

In response, Lintott and his collaborators setup a website called Galaxy Zoo to allow volunteers to do the classification heavy lifting. They were hoping for a few thousand helpers, but ended up getting 375,000 and counting. The project has exceeded all expectations, resulting in over twenty astronomical papers and the discovery of two astronomical phenomena, mostly through the help of citizen-scientists. 

The second part of the article gave advice for other scientists hoping to tap into the distributed-thinking phenomenon to assist in their research. The advice boils down to making sure the user interface is foolproof, and providing extra resources that advanced users can harness to really dig into problems.

Citizen science isn’t new, it was first popularized in 1999 by the SETI@home project from UC Berkeley, but it seems to have taken off in recent years. SETI@home and other distributed-computing projects were really just glorified grid computers. Users downloaded programs that ran in their computer’s background, adding their machine to a network of thousands, all combined by software to mimic a supercomputer and work on big science problems.

The paradigm started to shift with Foldit, a protein folding game created by researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle. Instead of passively relying on volunteers spare computing power, Foldit enlisted their brainpower. In the distributed-thinking game volunteers experiment with protein folding, determining how a linear chain of amino acids curls up into a three-dimensional shape that minimizes the internal stresses and strains. 

Projects like Galaxy Zoo and Foldit allow anyone to participate in real scientific research, which is pretty amazing when you stop to think about it. Contrary to the common perception of academics perched in ivory towers looking down upon the rest of humanity, most of the researchers I have come across started in science out of a genuine desire to help others. Distributed-thinking is a wonderful tool which allows the people whose lives will ultimately be impacted by the research contribute to the scientific process. 

Check out some of the distributed-thinking games linked to in this post, and the next time someone asks you what you did over the weekend, you can look them in they eye and say... science.