In This Issue
Winter Bridge on Frontiers of Engineering
December 19, 2016 Volume 4 Issue 46

Editor's Note: Engineering in a Rapidly Advancing World

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Author: Robert D. Braun

Each year the US Frontiers of Engineering (US FOE) Symposium brings together outstanding engineers, ages 30 to 45, to share ideas, network, and learn about cutting-edge research across a spectrum of topics relevant to advancing society. The competitively selected attendees come from a wide range of backgrounds and have a variety of interests and expertise. The symposium offers participants a unique opportunity to meet emerging leaders across a range of disciplines, learn about the latest research trends and potential breakthroughs in engineering areas other than their own, and facilitate collaborative work and the transfer of new approaches and techniques across fields. Through both formal sessions and informal discussions, these annual meetings have proven an effective mechanism for the establishment of cross-disciplinary and cross-sector contacts among the participants.

On September 19–21 more than 100 emerging engineering leaders from academia, industry, and government gathered at the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center in Irvine, California. The meeting was organized in four sessions with the following themes: Pixels at Scale, Extreme Engineering, Water Desalination and Purification, and Technologies for the Treatment of Cancer. Seven papers, representing the highly engaging topics covered by this year’s presentations, were selected for publication in this issue of the Bridge.1

The first session focused on High-Performance Computer Graphics and Vision. Cochaired by David Luebke of NVIDIA Research and John Owens of the University of California, Davis, the session explored the use of the significantly large number of pixels at our disposal today, including advances in computer vision and image understanding, computer graphics hardware, computational displays, and virtual reality.  Four speakers from industry and academia led insightful discussions of these topics. In this issue, papers by Gordon Wetzstein (Stanford University) and Kristen Grauman (University of Texas, Austin) address some of the more compelling computer vision breakthroughs.

The session on Extreme Engineering centered on the use of autonomy in space, air, land and underwater and was cochaired by DeShawn Jackson of Halliburton and Marco Pavone of Stanford University. This session focused on recent breakthroughs in decision making, perception architectures, and mechanical design that have paved the way for autonomous robotic systems to carry out a wide range of tasks of unprecedented complexity. Emphasis was placed on recent algorithmic and mechanical advances that have enabled the design and deployment of robotic systems where autonomy pushed to the extreme has resulted in innovation that borders on science fiction. Each of the four talks in this session engaged large segments of the attendees. In these pages, Lars Blackmore (SpaceX) describes the design considerations, technology challenges, and operational experience of safely returning first-stage launch systems for subsequent reuse.

In the session on Water Desalination and Purification, cochaired by Amy Childress of the University of Southern California and Abhishek Roy of Dow Chemical, four speakers described the global challenge of securing a reliable supply of water among growing human populations, changing climate, and increasing urbanization. The session focused on membrane separation processes to desalinate and purify a range of source waters. Innovations in materials, developments in new processes, and synthesis of novel systems were discussed for applications spanning desalination, wastewater reclamation, and treatment of industrial streams with complex solution chemistries. Papers by Manish Kumar (Pennsylvania State University) and Chris Stafford (National Institute of Standards and Technology) convey advances achieved to date and those possible in the near future.

The final session focused on Technologies for Understanding and Treating Cancer, with an emphasis on the challenges that engineers from numerous disciplines are working to address. Cochaired by Julie Champion (Georgia Institute of Technology) and Peter Tessier (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), the session addressed how cancer cells grow, methods for interfering with this growth, strategies for harnessing the immune system to target and destroy cancer cells, and methods for early detection of cancer. These talks emphasized how advances in materials science, microfluidics, and chemical and biomedical engineering are having a significant impact in fighting cancer. In this issue, Jennifer Cochran (Stanford University) and Darrell Irvine (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) report on such engineering advances.

In addition to the presentations, FOE symposia provide time for lively Q&A sessions, panel discussions, and other activities that promote personal interactions and networking. At this year’s meeting the dinner speaker, a traditional highlight of the program, was Dr. John Orcutt, Distinguished Professor of Geophysics at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the University of California, San Diego. He presented an entertaining and educational perspective on the rapid and fundamental changes occurring in the Arctic and the engineering and societal consequences of these changes.

As chair of the 2016 US FOE symposium, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the NAE staff whose boundless energy and enthusiasm made this program a success. Specifically, I appreciate the tireless contributions of Janet Hunziker, NAE senior program officer, who went to great lengths to make this event, and this community, feel so special. And I thank the sponsors of this year’s symposium: The Grainger Foundation, DARPA, NSF, AFOSR, DOD ASDR&E STEM Development Office, Microsoft Inc., and Cummins Inc.

It is an honor to serve as chair of the organizing committee for the US FOE Symposia. As a young engineer and US FOE participant in 2000, this program means a great deal to me. I recall leaving the 2000 symposium invigorated about the future of our profession. Chairing this symposium 16 years later, I can attest to the enthusiasm and promise of the emerging engineering leaders who participated in this year’s symposium. Our profession remains in good hands.

Looking forward, I encourage you to nominate eligible colleagues for the September 2017 US FOE Symposium, to be held at United Technologies in East Hartford, Connecticut.


1 All 16 symposium presentations can be viewed at

About the Author:Robert D. Braun (NAE) is a professor, Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences, University of Colorado Boulder.