.Top of the Class

Five UC Santa Cruz innovators break the creative mold with projects destined to make a positive difference

There is a lot more going on at the UC Santa Cruz campus than you may know— revolutionary computer games, gardening that’s “hip,” ocean advocates, and a cure for cancer and solution to blindness. As a brand new decade begins, take note of five innovators whose work is already generating powerful change.

The Visionary

Wentai Liu, professor of electrical engineering

I knew of Wentai Liu for some time before pursuing this article, but as no more than a rumor or myth: Tucked in the woods at UC Santa Cruz was an engineering professor who was curing blindness with a robotic eye. Or so the story went.

I met Professor Liu at his office at the university’s revered Baskin School of Engineering. Half expecting to come face to face with a mad inventor/scientist—cloaked in a starched white lab coat and surrounded by a smattering of other robotic body parts, perhaps—I instead sat down with a soft-spoken, friendly man with a much more realistic, but no less impressive, story.

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In 1988, while Liu was a faculty member at the University of North Carolina, an eye surgeon from Duke University approached him because of his reputation as one of the best computer chip designers around. “He came to see whether I could help him design an implantable system for them to make blind people able to see again,” Liu says in a thick accent, residual from his upbringing in Taiwan. He agreed to the project, and so began his more than 20-year involvement in trying to recover vision in people with retina pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration, the two leading causes of blindness.

“When we were first seeking funding, everyone we proposed it to thought it was science fiction,” he recalls. The Artificial Retina Project now operates through the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, and is a collaboration between six national laboratories, four universities and private industry. Liu, who has been at UCSC since 2003, leads Santa Cruz’s participation.

“When we were first seeking funding, everyone we proposed it to thought it was science fiction.”
“I like to help the less fortunate. I like to take on those big scale problems.”
Wentai Liu, professor of electrical engineering

The system, now in its third generation of development, relies on an implantable chip based on Liu’s microchip design. He found that all layers of the retina were still functioning except for the Rod and Cone layer in people with both retinal pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration. “The trick was to bypass the layer that isn’t working,” he says. He developed a small implantable chip that receives and processes visual signals that are sent through a small external set of electronics after being captured on a discreet video camera the patient wears on a pair of sunglasses.

Liu shows me videos of three clinical patients after receiving their implants. The first is of a 74-year-old man who went blind in his 20s from genetically transmitted retina pigmentosa (his twin brother, however, did not). He was one of six volunteers to receive the first generation implant, and is shown in the video identifying large letters and smaller objects that are put before him. A few dozen patients received the second-generation model, and were able to see even more: We watch a previously blind man give a vague tour of his kitchen, pointing out the cupboards and windows. We watch a spry grandmother shoot hoops with her grandson. She makes a basket.

Liu is thrilled about the advancement of the third generation, which will restore facial recognition and reading abilities.

He and the rest of the team have taken the idea of a sight-restoring device from far-fetched science fiction to a successful clinical product—one so promising, in fact, that R&D magazine awarded the Artificial Retina Project with a 2009 R&D 100 Award, a prestigious annual award recognizing the 100 most significant advances of the year. The collaborators hope that the product will be available commercially in the near future.

Working on the retinal prosthesis impassioned Liu to work on other health-related problems. He is currently working on projects to restore mobility in people with spinal chord injuries, develop implants for epileptic patients that would prevent or subside seizures, and other research that puts similar technology to use for brain disorders.

The successful partnership of medical doctors and engineers in developing the artificial retina gives him hope for these other efforts.

“When I see people with unfortunate conditions, I hope a medical doctor can help them, but they can only help to a certain point,” he says. “Maybe an engineering solution can help. Instead of taking a drug, maybe technology can help. We have found there is a way to help those people in other, interdisciplinary ways.”

Pondering the amount of work on his plate—the courses he teaches, the research he is doing and the zillion other ideas he is itching to make a reality—I ask how many hours a day he spends on campus. “Oh, 14 or 15 hours,” he says, shrugging, as he leads me into his lab for a tour.

I ask him why he does it. Why not stick to easier projects? Problems that take less than two decades to solve; that let you leave work at a reasonable hour?

“I like to help the less fortunate. I like to take on those big scale problems,” he says.

“I don’t like to work on small problems,” he adds a moment later. As if that weren’t obvious.

The Player

Michael Mateas, associate professor of computer science and first holder of the MacArthur Foundation Chair

Michael Mateas was a nerd growing up. He was a dedicated Dungeons and Dragons player, Star Trek fan, self-proclaimed math and science guy, and lover of all things science fiction. It was only natural, then, that when personal computers hit the scene he would be one of his generation’s first computer geeks, too.

“I was already this game and science geek,” Mateas says, “then, in 1980, a friend of mine from around the block bought a TRS80 personal computer and I borrowed the basic programming manual for his computer, read it overnight and wrote my first program the next day.”

He couldn’t have known then, at age 14, that the simple adventure game he created would lead him to a life as a computer gamer, or that someday he would be an accomplished computer science professor, or even that the dorky habits that drew him to the computer in the first place would pay off big.

And in fact, his eventual career in computer gaming took him several degrees, various jobs, and well into his 30s to realize, finally coming to a head when he came to UCSC in 2006 to help get the computer game design program off the ground. The major has since accepted 100 students each year and, at 400 students total, is the largest major in the School of Engineering. It remains the only computer game design major in the UC system and one of only a handful in the U.S..

Mateas—and UCSC with his help—is at the forefront of an erupting movement to canonize and evolve this already popular form of media. “In the ’90s, games were considered kids’ stuff, and didn’t get any serious academic attention,” he says. “The big difference is that academia has realized this is a major new medium. This is like the beginning of film, or the beginning of writing.” A bold statement, sure, but one he truly believes in.

Mateas promotes the term “computational media” over “digital media” because it is a more open-ended term that suggests computer-generated content rather than digitalizing outside content. He is also tired of commercial games and their hackneyed functions: run, jump, fight, shoot—not all video games are violent, he says, but almost all merely simulate physical actions.

In 2005, he and collaborator Andrew Stern launched Façade, a one-act “interactive drama” computer game that plops the player in the middle of a lifelike dramatic situation: drinks with a married couple whose strained marriage will be saved, ruined, or stay the same depending on how you behave. The player interacts with the characters through real time dialogue and optional gestures. There are no showdowns, gold coins, gangsters or fortresses, just personality-based interaction. “It’s the same as why one would make a movie like Husbands and Wives, Sex, Lies and Video Tapes, or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?” says Mateas. “Those were all strong inspirations for us. This is like the game equivalent of that.”

The Boston Globe raved that Façade is “a genre-defining leap forward in artificial intelligence,” and Ernest Adams, from the website Gamasutra, proclaimed “Façade is one of the most important games ever created, possibly the most important game of the last 10 years.”

“I strongly believe that we will soon be creating game-like experiences that are about anything you can imagine,” says Mateas. “Anything you can make a documentary film about, write a novel about, you can make a game about. But it means we have to start simulating things other than physical actions. Things like personalities, emotions, politics, and culture.”

Another big focus of his is serious games, which are used for non-entertainment purposes like education, training, public policy simulation and even political advertising. He is currently working on a project to create games for emergency response trainees. “What’s exciting for me, say with emergency response training, is if we can figure out how to make playable models around it, [the games] can be a much more compelling training medium than anything else, like videos or manuals,” he says. “It allows the player to actually learn the model instead of just a sequence or some rules of thumb.”

With Façade under his belt and many current projects like serious games in progress, he is expanding the artistic and utilitarian reach of computer games, and well on his way to forever altering the medium.

For more information, visit Michael Mateas’ website, interactivestory.net.

The Dream Team

UCSC’s Cancer Researchers

One out of every two men and one out of every three women will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).

In light of this menacing fact, Katie Couric and other members of the entertainment industry formed Stand Up To Cancer, a charity program that donates to cancer research. After an extremely successful telethon in September 2008 (they raised $100 million in one day), the group donated the money to the ACS, asking that they fund “dream teams” throughout the country that will have three years to find cures for cancer. In summer 2009, UC Santa Cruz was awarded a spot on the breast cancer dream team, led by Dennis Slayman, head of Oncology at the UC Los Angeles Medical Center.

Josh Stuart, associate professor of computer science at UCSC and dream team member, says that they hope to get clinical trials based on their work completed by the three-year deadline. “There are high hopes right now,” he says. “I hope we can deliver on all the promises.”

The key to the success of these dream teams may be a tool created and operated by UCSC researchers earlier this year.

UCSC launched the Cancer Genome Browser in April 2009, debuting an unprecedented online database with a variety of software tools that accelerate research, allow for new kinds of comparisons, and provide information about how a patient will respond to a particular type of treatment. “The raw amount of data is mind-boggling,” says Stuart. “Some of it takes a couple days just to download. Making sense of it and having tools that can help you see a summarization is very, very useful.”

At the helm of the project is David Haussler, professor of biomolecular engineering at UCSC, whose lab is a national leader in sequencing the human genome. The Cancer Browser grew out of the success of UCSC’s Genome Browser, which averages one million page requests a week and was created by James Kent, a research scientist with the school’s Center for Biomolecular Engineering.

“No one has had the kind of data we have all together in one place. Morale is very high and we have every expectation that results will be successful.”
Josh Stuart, associate professor of computer science

Stuart, who has since joined efforts with Haussler, says that it is too early to tell if the Cancer Browser will be as widely used as its predecessor, but one thing is for certain: “The demand is clearly there and this can step in. The Santa Cruz browser is the obvious place to have it,” he says.

And although the teams funded by the ACS face a difficult problem—one of our era’s most important—and a tight deadline, they are at the eye of a perfect storm of unparalleled technology, funding and collaboration. It has been a grueling, uphill battle to cure cancer—until now.

“No one has had the kind of data we have all together in one place,” says Stuart. “Morale is very high and we have every expectation that results will be successful.”

Visit the public Cancer Genome Browser at genome-cancer.soe.ucsc.edu.

The Ground Breakers

Life Lab Science Program

There was a time when everyone knew exactly where his or her food came from. We could probably argue that most of our grandparents could hang in a garden. But then something happened: call it urbanization, industrialization, consumerism, technology, laziness; we became increasingly distanced from food itself, and dangerously familiar and dependent on what could be found in grocery store aisles or fast food joints.

“My aunt says to me, ‘What are you doing [at Life Lab]? Everyone knows how to garden! Everybody knows what a carrot looks like! Are you crazy?’” says Gail Harlamoff, executive director of Life Lab Science Program, laughing.

Her smile fades, and she adds, “I look at her and I say, ‘Believe it or not, not everybody does.’”

To the disbelief of her aunt, Harlamoff dedicates herself to teaching people how to garden. A former fifth-grade science teacher, Harlamoff became disillusioned with the test- and textbook-driven method of teaching science. That all changed after her first Life Lab teachers workshop, where teachers are trained to use garden-based learning to teach science. “I became a believer immediately,” she remembers. “To me, science in this particular way of teaching is the great equalizer, because kids that may not excel in other areas would sometimes become the experts.”

Life Lab Science Program is neither run nor funded by the university. Rather, its affiliation with UCSC is more like a symbiotic relationship between two entities with similar values: the program, which turned 30 in 2009, started renting a plot adjacent to the UCSC farm on the school’s property in the early 1990s. More than 15,000 people visit its Garden Classroom each year on field trips, and it has around 30 UCSC students as interns at any given time.

“To me, science in this particular way of teaching is the great equalizer, because kids that may not excel in other areas would sometimes become the experts.” Gail Harlamoff, executive director of Life Lab Science Program

The beloved outdoor classroom is a lively web of educational opportunity. “We wanted a place where kids could feel like it was their own space,” says Harlamoff, walking past the chicken coop and deeper into the gardens. There is a patchwork of small garden beds and planters, like the pollinator garden and the tea bed (during the summer kids can pick herbs from it and make sun tea for their parents), a series of “rooms,” including the Apple Room and the Living Room, the latter of which is a fort made of branches and covered in a thick blanket of passion fruit and thambursia where children can hide. The Rot Zone demonstrates composting, the bird feeders are constantly abuzz with winged visitors, and educational signs, like one titled “Birds, Bats, Bees, Butterflies and Beyond!” pop up amongst the plants. An outdoor kitchen and array of weathered picnic tables set the scene for visiting classes to cook meals using things they pick from the garden.

The Garden Classroom is only one of the many branches of Life Lab. Others have sprouted over the years, stretching further into the community, and even around the world. The Food What!? branch reaches local teens, offering an after-school program in the spring, work during summer and internships in the fall. Five teens participated in Food What!? its first year; this year, more than 150 applied and 31 were accepted. Life Lab hosts summer camps, special events, and helps with school programs such as Waste Free Schools, a joint effort with Santa Cruz County. In recent years, Life Lab has spread its seeds around the globe, sending their curriculum and textbook, “The Growing Classroom,” as far as Europe, Asia, Saudi Arabia and New Zealand.

In the past 30 years, Life Lab has seen ups and downs in health, food, and economic trends. Harlamoff believes there is currently an upward spike in food awareness and health interest. She says that just as Life Lab has made it this far, they’ll continue to pave the way toward garden-based learning.

“There is something about Life Lab that endures because it’s connected to the earth and to where we all get our food,” she says.

Visit lifelab.org for more information.

The Guardian

Peter Raimondi, professor and chair of ecology and evolutionary biology

It’s the last day of fall quarter, and Peter Raimondi’s students have by midnight to turn in their final papers. Now that Kelp Forest Ecology is under wraps, it’s on to Statistics in the winter and Field Ecology in the spring. But while his students hang sloth around on winter break, Raimondi—in addition to grading all those papers—will be directing his attention to the many other projects he has up his sleeve.

At the forefront of his efforts is his involvement in the marine reserves established as part of California’s Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) of 1999. The ecology and evolutionary biology professor, who has been at UC Santa Cruz since 1996, serves on the Scientific Advisory Team (SAT) for the Central Coast region, one of five state regions stipulated in the MLPA. The SAT is a body of experts who provide council on decisions like how big each reserve should be and what types of extraction can or cannot be allowed. Since the Central Coast’s network of reserves was established in 2006, he has also been monitoring the protected areas to see how well they work.

The goals of the MLPA reserves are twofold: to conserve and to replenish. In his office at the Long Marine Lab deep in Santa Cruz’s Westside, where waves crash against idyllic bluff just feet from his window, Raimondi expounds on the project’s aspirations.

“There was nothing analogous in the marine system to what had been set up in terrestrial systems [as national parks],” he says. “With these protected areas, you get an area you can think of as being in a pristine state, like you would a national park.”

“The MLPA project is really exciting for me not only because it has a scientific component but because it is going to leave a legacy. A legacy of these national parks in the sea.” Peter Raimondi, professor and chair of ecology and evolutionary biology

In addition to ensuring unspoiled seas for future generations, the reserves aim to replenish overfished species. According to Raimondi, this will be done by regulating the level of extraction (or outlawing it completely), and also “the spillover effect.”

“If you produce a whole bunch of big individuals, especially big females, they produce a lot more babies,” he explains. “And those babies that are born in one location typically end up somewhere else. You can replenish the entire region in that way.”

He says that it’s not yet clear how successful the Central Coast reserves have been, but there are similar projects—like unrelated reserves on the Channel Islands—that suggest promising results. However, the effort has already resulted in some breakthroughs: “Because of the work we’ve been doing, we are really understanding, for the first time, how marine biological communities are organized along the whole west coast of the United States. Never has a big piece of the earth been studied so systematically and comprehensively,” says Raimondi, adding that California’s MLPA dual conservation-fishery management approach is also a first.

Of everything he is working on, he looks forward to the outcome of the MLPA protected areas the most.

“The MLPA project is really exciting for me not only because it has a scientific component but because it is going to leave a legacy,” he says. “A legacy of these national parks in the sea.”

Photo Credits: Kelly Vaillancourt, Elizabeth Limbach


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