In This Issue
Cutting Edge Research
December 1, 2004 Volume 34 Issue 4

Cutting-Edge Research for a Changing World

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: Pablo G. Debenedetti

Editor’s Note

Every year, NAE sponsors a Frontiers of Engineering (FOE) Symposium, which brings together some 100 outstanding, competitively selected, young (ages 30–45) engineering leaders from academia, industry, and government laboratories for three days of sharing ideas and learning about cutting-edge research on a broad range of engineering topics. Modern engineering is characterized by globalization, rapid technological change, and the crossing of interdisciplinary boundaries, and the emerging engineering leaders who attend FOE symposia represent a wide spectrum of backgrounds, interests, and talents. The event offers a unique opportunity for them to learn about the frontiers in engineering areas other than their own. Six of the papers from this year’s symposium are included in this issue of The Bridge. For the past two years, it has been my privilege to chair the FOE organizing committee, which selects the speakers and topics for the symposium.

The tenth FOE Symposium was held September 9–11, 2004, at the Beckman Center in Irvine, California. The program encompassed four themes: engineering for extreme environments, designer materials, multiscale modeling, and engineering and entertainment.

The opening session, organized by Mary Kae Lockwood and John Weatherly, focused on engineering for extreme environments. Laura Ray, whose paper appears in this issue, described the engineering challenges in designing scalable mobile robots for deploying instrument networks on the Antarctic plateau, an ideal location for studying the upper atmosphere at high magnetic latitudes. John Berkoe illustrated the role of simulation and modeling in extreme engineering projects through three examples, including the Tacoma Narrows Bridge mooring system and the conceptual design of the Chernobyl New Safe Confinement. Tommaso Rivellini (paper published in this issue) traced the evolution of landing technology over the last 40 years, culminating in the sky-crane system that will be used in the 2009 Mars Science Laboratory mission. The session closed with Kent Joosten’s talk on accessing the lunar poles in future human exploration. Recent robotic and earth-based studies suggest that the lunar poles may offer advantages in terms of thermal conditions, availability of solar energy, and access to resources.

Kristi Anseth and Diann Brei organized the session on designer materials. Greg Carman explained the development and potential uses of thin films of materials that exhibit energy coupling. Thin-film active materials are still in their scientific infancy but may someday be used as sensors and actuators in applications ranging from drug delivery to microfluidics. Leslie Momoda, whose paper is published here, described ongoing research on performance-tailored structures that can adapt their performance or morphology on demand and the multifunctional materials that underlie such systems. Jennifer West discussed recent advances in vascular tissue engineering. Biomimetic strategies, including genetic modification of vascular cells and pulsatile stressing of smooth muscle cells, offer hope that novel substitutes for blood vessels may be fabricated for use in coronary artery bypass graft surgery, where treatment options are severely limited.

Multiscale modeling, that is to say, the computational analysis of systems with structures and dynamics that span many length and time scales, was the topic of the third session, organized by Dimitrios Maroudas and Grant Heffelfinger. Yannis Kevrekidis discussed the “equation-free” modeling of complex systems, whereby information from microscopic (e.g., atomic-level) dynamics is used, not to derive macroscopic equations, but to perform coarse-grained computational experiments that probe the system’s behavior over macroscopic lengths and times. Rob Phillips’ presentation focused on the computational modeling of complex problems, such as protein/DNA interactions. In his paper (published here), he gives examples of cases where an all-atom approach is inadequate because it generates an enormous amount of data without providing a concomitant increase in knowledge. His elegant solution involves maintaining the microscopic physics only to the extent it is needed. Adam Arkin’s talk addressed biological models of events that occur on different time scales, from single-enzyme kinetics to the evolutionary time scale. He described how improvements in measurement technology and the abundance of genetic-sequence information are beginning to link disparate time scales. Bjorn Stevens discussed the computational challenges to simulating the climate system arising from interactions between small-scale processes, such as aerosol formation, that occur over the micrometer scale, and the planetary scale.

The relationship between engineering and entertainment was the subject of the fourth session, chaired by Chris Kyriakakis. Paul Debevec (paper published here) discussed the state of the art in the simulation of illumination in computer graphics. The accuracy of the simulation depends on re-creating the way light permeates a given scene, as it is reflected by some objects and travels through others. William Gardner addressed the challenges of accurately reproducing the spatial properties of sound, as well as progress toward the development of individualized binaural technology. His paper is also published in this issue.

The technical talks are always followed by extended, lively Q&A sessions with broad audience participation. The program surrounding this basic framework changes from year to year. The 2004 program featured presentations by representatives of three government agencies (Carey Schwartz of DARPA, Kenneth Harwell of the U.S. Department of Defense, and Doug Stetson of NASA’s Advanced Planning and Integration Office) that fund cutting-edge research. Their descriptions of current projects elicited an excellent discussion and audience participation.

FOE symposia traditionally have an evening speaker, and this year was no exception. Alex Singer, a film director who has directed more than 280 television shows and five theatrical features during his 40-year career, spoke about the integration of technology and entertainment. In his lively talk, entitled “Unlikely Partners: DARPA and Me,” he described an ongoing DARPA-funded short-film project envisioning a future of augmented cognition in the year 2030.

I know of no meeting as interdisciplinary, diverse, and stimulating as FOE, and I hope the six papers included in this issue convey some of the excitement we experienced in September at the 2004 symposium.

About the Author:Pablo G. Debenedetti is the Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science at Princeton University and an NAE member.