All of the speakers at the M&T 30th were interesting and enthusiastic, but NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman (M&T '91) was out of this world with an account of his experience living on the International Space Station (ISS) and presentation of stunning images taken during his spacewalks.
Garrett credited Penn and the M&T program with providing him a strong foundation of solving problems and communicating across disciplines. He has demonstrated this appreciation by bringing tokens, including a piece of the ENIAC computer and a laser-cut M&T logo into space as personal items. After Penn, Garrett pursued his Phd at CalTech, worked at TRW designing propulsion controls for NASA, and ultimately achieved his dream of being an astronaut where he has contributed to design of the ISS robotic arm and flown two missions as Flight Engineer aboard the space station.
Garrett presented highlights from his most recent mission - ranging from the thrill of launch and his spacewalks to lighthearted antics such as an attempt at juggling without gravity. He showed amazing photos, including pictures of his night launch from Cape Canaveral and a photo from space where he pointed out the location of Penn.
Lastly Garrett walked the audience through plans for his upcoming mission where he will serve as a member of the last crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis before it is decommissioned. He brought up a 3D model of the station and demonstrated each step of his planned spacewalk.
When it came time for questions - Garrett was well prepared with a back-up slide ready to demonstrate how the bathroom is used up in space. When asked about the hardest part of his job he cited the challenges of completing work in the constraints of his spacesuit, but he said his most frightening moment was actually throwing an honorary first pitch in Yankee stadium following his return.
Dr. Dan Lee was introduced by Ken Glass (M&T 82) to speak about his pioneering work exploring how to apply understanding of how biological entities learn to program increasingly sophisticated and adaptive behavior into robotic systems.
He began with a demonstration of a face recognition task which, while very easy for the audience and even primates to complete, he explained it is very difficult to program a robotic system to perform. He drew contrast between this behavior and other seemingly complex tasks such as playing chess which can be approached using brute force computation. He next went on to describe his current work with Penn’s GRASP lab including a live demonstration of a two foot tall humanoid robot capable of balanced walking, picking itself up from a fall, and the ability to follow sound moving across the room.
This robot is the second generation of Penn’s robotic team which has over the past several years been successful at fielding teams of robot dogs in international robotic soccer championships. Such competitions introduce some friendly competition into the challenging task of making robots capable of responding appropriately to their environment and working collaboratively. Dr. Lee admitted that the sophistication of play is still at a junior league level, but this represents a leap forward from primary school recess level of play just a few years ago. Whether the matches will approach the thrill of human soccer anytime soon is unlikely, but it is clear that Dr. Lee and his team are enjoying the challenge of keeping their robot teams one step ahead of their international competition.
The lecture concluded with another project representing the edge of the possible in autonomous robotics. In 2007 Penn entered the DARPA Urban Challenge which charged teams with the task of developing vehicles able to navigate city streets and interact with other traffic without human intervention. The Penn team’s car “Little Ben” was a Prius outfitted with a roof rack of sensors and a trunk of computers outfitted with software allowing it to make driving decisions up until now considered squarely in the realm of human drivers. Little Ben did his namesake proud and the Penn team was one of only six groups to finish the course despite the comparatively small budget of the team.
Overall Dr. Lee’s talk was an inspiring summary of a rapidly developing realm of technology in which M&T students are already contributing in research and are sure to play a role later in the financing and execution of bringing autonomous robots into homes, offices, sports matches, and roadways.
M&T alumni were welcomed back by Jeremy Siegel - Professor of Finance and former teacher for many of the attendees for his Honors Finance 101. Professor Siegel took the time to speak on his birthday due to his appreciation for the consistently strong caliber of students in the M&T program. In his course he says that M&T students tend to be motivated, ask informed questions, and consistently perform at the top of the class. He also states that his most influential research assistants have been M&T’s who have guided the course of his books and kept him motivated to push towards new projects.
Siegel spoke to the state of the economy, predicting that recovery would occur over the next year faster than expected and that the Fed would transition to raising rates over the next several quarters in reaction to this growth. In looking towards the future Dr. Siegel emphasized the dramatic implications of continued globalization, pointing out that over forty percent of S&P 500 revenue is outside the US, making the connection between a nation’s economy and its equity markets less direct and predictable than the past. He predicted that standards for international incorporation would be around the corner to address the growing ambiguity of corporate national identity as companies operate, produce, and sell in distributed and continually shifting global networks. He drew attention to continued growth in productivity through the recession and proposed that M&T prepared students for being agents of discovering and executing on the improvements in productivity through technology and creative business models which will drive continued economic growth in the US and globally.
Dr. Chris Murray, a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor with appointments in the Chemistry and Material Science Departments who is considered a leading researcher and visionary in the field, echoed Dr. Siegel’s appreciation for the enthusiasm and quality of M&T students who have carried out Senior Design projects under his direction over the past several years. He proposed that the nanotech arena is particularly well suited to attention of the program due to the inherently multidisciplinary nature of the research and the potential for disruptive changes in business practices from emerging fields such as nano-manufacturing.
Dr. Murray proceeded to give a summary on the state of nanotechnology, his current work, and initiatives underway to give Penn the technical infrastructure necessary to make even more exciting discoveries. According to Murray the very tip of the nanotech iceberg is currently being explored with products such as scratch and glare resistant coatings for optics. In the longer term nanotechnology will progress beyond complementing existing machines towards novel materials, machines, and methods of fabrication which will redefine all realms of technology. Professor Murray highlighted the example of current research at Penn which is revealing fundamental principles of how friction works at small scales, an understanding which will result in an improved ability to control micromechanical systems.
Lastly Dr. Murray presented several emerging initiatives on campus such as the Penn Center for Energy Innovation which aims to bring research groups from across the University including nanoscale groups to tackle challenges of energy generation, storage, and distribution in a sustainable manner. He was also particularly excited to present floor plans for new nanotechnology labs and new imaging technologies.
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