Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Really Special People

I just had the most wonderful opportunity to spend 3 days with this year’s winners of the Caltech Resnick Sustainability Institute Resonate Award.  These are people who have developed very innovative solutions to some of the biggest problems in sustainability.  If you want to read about the work of this year’s winners, check out the web site. 
I didn’t have to be a rocket scientist (fortunately) to know that these people are very special.  They are among the best in their fields in the world.  However, I had the chance to chat one on one with some of these wonderful scientists and discovered how special they are – beyond finding solutions to some of the world’s critical environmental issues:
At the end of the official several days together, three of us joined up for a hike in the Aspen area.  How fun!  And there is no better way to learn about what people are really like. Keeping us on the right trail without getting lost was Delia Milliron, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin.  Delia has (with her team) developed smart windows that can dramatically impact energy use in buildings.  She is tremendously articulate:  she can explain what she is doing at the scientific level, of course; more importantly, she can convey to people like me what she is doing, why it’s important, and its broad potential. Delia combines both the vision of a great innovator and the practical insights of a wonderful entrepreneur (a company has been formed based on these breakthroughs).  Besides that, she loves to hike, play poker, and probably lots of other things.  And mostly, she is a lovely person.
Our other hiking partner was Arshe Said.  Arshe is part of the team lead by Finland’s Aalta University Prof. Mika Järvinen (who is the Resonate Award Recipient) to develop a very significant way to use CO2 waste from industrial processes.  This is an often overlooked problem and the prospect of fixing it is very exciting.  But Arshe’s story goes well beyond working on this contribution.  He is originally from Somalia and arrived in Finland more than twenty years ago.  Recognizing that Somalians all over the world are facing various kinds of challenges, he is working in Finland and elsewhere to try to alleviate them.  Moreover, his goal in the next few years is to also spend time in Somalia and get involved in political movements that are trying to establish democracy in the country.  Arshe is such a nice man, and listening to him about the complexities facing Somalia was fascinating. (Besides, though Arshe is very fit, this was his first hike ever!)
At dinner one evening, I had the chance to spend time with Dr. Joel Dawson, an electrical engineer who until recently was a professor at MIT.  He is now the CTO and founder of ETA Devices.  Joel is terrific dinner company.  He not only explained to me (very patiently in his deep bass voice) what his company is doing, but he has a vision and understanding of business that I haven’t often seen in scientists.  He didn’t drown me with technology, but explained simply and with great examples what his company’s approach could mean to mobile devices, cell networks, and sustainability.  He shared that if Eta Devices’ chips are used in all base stations of around the world, the energy savings could equal the same as if we could take 7 million cars off the roads.  That’s meaningful.  Beyond our “shop talk”, Joel was very comfortable sharing his upbringing, how he found electronics, and where he thinks this all can go. 
Finally, at the beginning of the three days together, I asked Yi Cui, a Stanford professor and multi-time entrepreneur, how he got to where he is today.  The short version of his story is that he came from a small town in China and his parents had the prescience to move the family to a larger town for broader exposure.  He went to one of China’s premier technical universities and then came to the U.S.  These kinds of stories always amaze me.  But what is really amazing about Yi Cui is that, while listening to him, I realized that his is the embodiment of a “fertile” mind; this is a man with so many ideas.  He doesn’t seem to be constrained by uncertainty, doubt, or worry; he actually makes many of them happen.  By all accounts he is a brilliant scientist, but even without needing to discuss the science with me (since I wouldn’t understand most of it), it was clear that this man is changing the world.
The whole experience was so enriching.  These terrific people hold the future in their hands.  That’s a good thing.
(P.S.  The fifth winner is a lovely Japanese man.  Unfortunately, language constraints kept us from meaningful dialog.)
2015 Caltech Resnick Sustainability Institute Resonate Award Winners  (From Left:  Neil Fromer, Executive Director, Resnick Sustainability Institute, Tsutomu Ioroi , Joel Dawson, Delia Milliron, Prof. Harry Atwater, Caltech, Yi Cui, Mika Järvinen, Arshe Said)

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