Science for all

STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — makes careers blossom

John Holdren shares his insights into science with President Barack Obama as his science advisor. Credit: Pete Souza
John Holdren shares his insights into science with President Barack Obama as his science advisor. Pete Souza

Quick, what does a real scientist, engineer or mathematician look like? If someone from the cast of television’s The Big Bang Theory pops into your head, then keep reading. Here we go beyond the stereotypes to meet some real-life experts in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — the so-called STEM fields.

The work these experts do takes them everywhere, from your neighborhood movie house to inside the White House. They are up in the air, helping high-flying military aircraft spy on the enemy, and down on the ground, inventing mobile applications blind people can use to type notes. Sometimes, what these STEM experts do isn’t about seeing at all — it’s about looking good. One is even world famous for his contributions to the science of shampoo and conditioner. Smooth!

And who knows, you might just be inspired to join them.

A change of plans

On the last day of high school in his native Scotland, Robert Lochhead (LOK hed) promised a friend: “Two things I will never do: I won’t take chemistry and I won’t teach.” So much for promises: Today, Lochhead directs a chemistry programat the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, where he teaches. Earlier this year, the American Institute of Chemists even gave him its Chemical Pioneer Award.

How did this happen? An early career choice, accounting, didn’t offer the real-world challenges Lochhead craved. So he took a job as a lab assistant in a brewery while attending evening classes in science. Soon he moved on to analyzing explosives and silicones (substances used to make everything from Silly Putty to waterproofing materials) at a large chemical company. And Lochhead did this all before starting college full-time.

The man found he loved science because it lets him produce useful things.

His main interest is polymers, materials formed from long chains of linked small molecules. Polymers form the soft rubber in sneaker soles, the hard plastic in car bumpers and just about everything in between. One polymer Lochhead invented keeps sunscreen from running into your eyes. Another is a hand-sanitizer gel that releases germ killers when it mixes with the salt from the sweat in your hands. He even developed a hair-care product that uses “smart” polymers to first wash and then condition your hair. Scientists now refer to this 2-in-1 property as the “Lochhead effect,” after its inventor.

Among his other inventions: a product to help break up oil spills using ingredients that he describes as “similar to those in chocolate and peanut butter.” And just a few months ago, Lochhead unveiled special camouflage makeup that he developed to protect soldiers and firefighters from burns in explosions or fires.

Camouflage makeup helps soldiers blend into the environment. Now, a new type of makeup developed by polymer chemist Robert Lochhead may also help protect them from the scorching heat of bomb blasts. Spc. Gerald James, U.S. Army

Where does he find inspiration for such products? Not just in his lab! Laboratory scientists should take a tip from geologists and marine biologists, he says. Such scientists often work outside the laboratory, conducting field studies with their students. Even a trip to the store can turn up new discoveries: “We need to be taking kids on field trips to Walmart,” he says. Checking the ingredients on package labels can show you a lot about the chemicals that make up the things you use every day. Once you understand what these chemicals are and how they are used, you can make better decisions about what to buy. You might even come up with your own ideas on how to make these products better, safer or less expensive!

Super computers

Pat Teller’s horses run strong — and so do her computers. Teller is a computer engineer at the University of Texas at El Paso. She designs supercomputers that can outpace even a whole herd of ordinary laptop computers at solving problems. When not hard at work, Teller hangs out at her ranch, taking care of her horses. Although she may show up at science conferences wearing a cowboy hat and boots, she’s all business — but having fun doing it. “It’s exciting to solve problems that actually impact people’s lives,” she says. It helps, she adds, to be “passionate about solving problems.”

Teller’s computers run programs with the least amount of wasted effort — and energy. These machines can tackle a problem that used to take weeks to solve, and now complete it in just a few hours. She also works on packing more computer power into less space. For one project, she built a computer small enough to tuck aboard military aircraft. Airborne crews can now immediately analyze detailed radar images of the ground — instead of zipping the raw data to even larger computers on the ground and then waiting for them to do the heavy work.

Other experts would like to use Teller’s designs to create computers to figure out how hurricanes, earthquakes, disease outbreaks and other natural events unfold. The complex computer programs that tackle such problems are referred to as models, because they allow experts to model — or simulate — events that are often dangerous or unpredictable. Complex computer models also can permit scientists to test new ideas before they become real products. For example, researchers can “fly” a new airplane in a computer model before they even build it.

If not at work, you can usually find computer engineer Pat Teller enjoying the outdoors. Here, she poses with a stuffed bison’s head. Credit: Courtesy of Pat Teller
If not at work, you can usually find computer engineer Pat Teller enjoying the outdoors. Here, she poses with a stuffed bison’s head. Courtesy of Pat Teller

Teller anticipates designing even more powerful computers to work on problems that cannot be solved today. One example: new computers that could make sense out of even more immense amounts of information, including details of how our bodies work at the level of atoms and molecules. She is also investigating how to display the numbers crunched by computers in more easily understood ways. That means creating programs that translate pages and pages of figures into pictures and animations.

Engineers frequently work with Teller. These are people who design and build machines, structures and other products. They’re “not just the guys with the white socks and pocket protectors,” Teller says of these colleagues.

While relatively few women enter engineering, Teller thinks that is because many don’t realize that engineers are professional problem solvers. Indeed, the field would benefit from a greater participation by women, she says. The reason: The greater the variety of people who look at a problem, the more likely someone will come up with a good solution.

And forget the old image of a researcher toiling away in some musty lab by himself; like Teller, most of them today work on teams. “That’s what I love the most,” she says “the brainstorming — how you’re able to build on each others’ ideas and come up with something that’s much grander than you would have done on your own.”

He’s got the touch

For engineers like Adam Duran, the world is full of problems awaiting discovery — and solutions. Even on weekends, he says, “I’m thinking about: ‘What if I try this? It’s instant gratification when something works.”

Adam Duran demonstrates his Braille note-taking app on an Android tablet at the Army High Performance Computing Research Center exhibit at Supercomputing 2011 in Portland, Ore. Credit: Nancy McGuire for the Army Research Laboratory, public domain
Adam Duran demonstrates his Braille note-taking app on an Android tablet at the Army High Performance Computing Research Center exhibit at Supercomputing 2011 in Portland, Ore. Nancy McGuire for the Army Research Laboratory, public domain

And he’s already begun racking up noteworthy achievements, even though he isn’t yet done with school.

During a 2011 summer program at Stanford University, Duran helped design a mobile application, or app, that allows blind people to take notes on many types of tablet computers. The app uses Braille, an alphabet that relies on variations of six dots to encode letters, numbers and other characters. Those dots are raised above the surface, so blind individuals can read them by running their fingers over the bumps. Blind people can also type in Braille by punching in the patterns.

Braille note-taking devices exist, but can be very pricey, costing up to $6,500. So Duran and his team set out to create an alternative that may cost as little as $200. You don’t have to be blind to see the savings!

Traditional Braillewriters have an eight-key keyboard and no monitor. Tablet computers, of course, are all monitor — just a smooth glass touch screen. So how could a blind person make the switch?

The secret to Duran’s Braille app is that your fingers don’t have to find the keys. Instead, the keys find your fingers. When you are ready to type on the screen, you tap all your fingers on the screen once. That lets the app know which finger is where — and ensures there will be a virtual key ready to identify each keystroke.

Duran had never designed an app for a tablet computer before. Nor had he ever used Braille. Still, his background in science and engineering taught him how to solve problems in any area. For this project, Duran didn’t rely just on books and the Internet. He also befriended blind students at Stanford who shared ideas for making the app easier to use.

To understand the world — both at work and at play — “It’s good to know the why,” Duran says. For instance, he notes, “A perfect pass is one of my favorite things.” So even when taking a break to watch some football, Duran stays focused on how speed and direction can combine to take the wobble out of the best throw of the ball.

Although Duran is now studying aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, he feels confident his problem-solving abilities will enable him to now comfortably work in many different areas as well.

Cinema science

In the STEM world, not every expert can win a Nobel Prize. Some, like Ron Fedkiw, have to make do with an Oscar. In 2008, this computer scientist at Stanford University won a special Academy Award for his work helping to create watery special effects in movies, using his computer program PhysBAM (FIZZ bam).

Shake it! An average human head has more than 100,000 hairs. It takes an expert like computer scientist Ron Fedkiw to make a digital simulation of all those locks look real. Click here to watch a video of the hair waving in the wind. Credit: Ron Fedkiw, Stanford University, used with permission
Shake it! An average human head has more than 100,000 hairs. It takes an expert like computer scientist Ron Fedkiw to make a digital simulation of all those locks look real. <a href=””>Click here to watch a video of the hair waving in the wind</a>. Ron Fedkiw, Stanford University, used with permission

Special effects that mimic the movement of water (or any other fluid) can be difficult to make seem real. Fedkiw helped create a special computer program that creates simulations good enough to fool the eye. His work made possible the waves in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, lava flows in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith and the dragon’s flaming breath in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Hot stuff!

But Fedkiw’s work isn’t intended just for entertainment. His computer programs serve practical uses as well. For instance, they can help researchers model the spread of fires or the effects of explosive impacts.

If you’ve seen the roaring ocean waves crashing in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, you’ve seen Ron Fedkiw’s work. Credit: Ron Fedkiw, Stanford University, used with permission
If you’ve seen the roaring ocean waves crashing in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, you’ve seen Ron Fedkiw’s work. Ron Fedkiw, Stanford University, used with permission

Science in the house — the White House

Neither of John Holdren’s parents finished college. “But they encouraged me to believe I could be whatever I wanted to be badly enough,” he says. And growing up in San Mateo, Calif., “I had some superb teachers, STEM and otherwise, who reinforced that belief.” That encouragement paid off. Today, Holdren works across the street from the White House.

“My job as the science and technology advisor to the president of the United States is the most interesting and exciting STEM job in the world,” he says. The advice he provides helps the government use science and engineering to improve lives not only in the United States but also across the globe.

Holdren notes there are plenty of challenges ahead. In the future, the world will need more food, jobs and energy, without depleting Earth’s resources or poisoning the environment. STEM will play a role in addressing those issues, he says — and in reducing the suffering and high costs associated with severe illnesses, including cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, heart disease, influenza and malaria.

Holdren also sees exciting opportunities ahead for experts who study weather, including extreme events. Take Superstorm Sandy, which recently devastated much of the United States’ East Coast. Scientists, engineers and others predicted where the storm would hit hardest and how bad its damage likely would be. To do this, they relied on satellite images, temperature and wind speed measurements, as well as computer models of how hurricanes behave. They then assembled this information to create a picture predicting what likely would happen. This information helped government agencies, electric power companies, fire departments, hospitals and individuals prepare for the storm. For instance, it helped communities evacuate people in the massive storm’s path — and then quickly jump-start recovery efforts after its winds knocked out power to millions and its associated storm surges flooded thousands of homes.

Although scientists and engineers can have fun solving interesting problems, this superstorm points to how their research can also save lives. And that’s a pretty great job to have.

Power Words

STEM An abbreviation forscience, technology, engineering and mathematics.

app Short for application, or a computer program designed for a specific task.

engineer Someone who uses science and math to design, build and maintain machines, engines and public works.

polymer A molecule made by linking many smaller molecules. Examples include plastic wrap, car tires and DVDs.

silicones Chemical compounds based on chains of silicon, carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. Hair conditioners and Silly Putty both contain silicones.

materials science The science of how the structures of materials on an atomic or molecular scale relates to their everyday properties.

computer model A program that runs on a computer that creates a model, or simulation, of a real-world phenomenon or event.

stereotype A widely held belief that certain people or groups of people look, think or act in a fixed and oversimplified way.

Braille A writing system, used by blind or visually impaired people, that relies on patterns of dots to represent letters, numbers and other characters. When formed of raised dots, Braille may be read by scanning a fingertip over the patterns.

Word Find (click here to print puzzle)


More Stories from Science News Explores on Tech