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UC San Diego Undergraduates Team Up with National Geographic to Co-Innovate New Technologies

San Diego, CA, June 17, 2010 -- University of California, San Diego, undergraduate Rivan Paulos still remembers the first — and only — issue of National Geographic magazine he owned as a child growing up in Iraq.

"To have the National Geographic magazine there was rare," he recalls of Telkaif, the town in Iraq's northern city of Mosul where he was raised. "When I saw it, I thought, 'This is a beautiful magazine.' I can still remember an article inside about research being done on Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper."

At the time, Paulos never imagined he would one day have the opportunity to work with a team of National Geographic Society (NGS) engineers, explorers and fellows, including one affiliated UC San Diego faculty member who is using non-invasive technology to pinpoint a lost masterpiece by none other than Leonardo Da Vinci.

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A student participates in a videoconference between UCSD and the National Geographic Society at Calit2's Atkinson Hall Auditorium.
As an aspiring member of the new UCSD-NGS Engineers for Explorers program, Paulos — an electrical and computer engineering (ECE) major — will join a team of other UCSD undergraduates from a variety of disciplines to develop ruggedized systems and devices for NGS projects. The program is the first of its kind between NGS and a university, and UCSD students will be actively engaged in the design process, from concept to prototype. Where appropriate, the technologies could eventually be implemented in the field by NGS explorers such as UCSD's Maurizio Seracini, the man behind the quest to find Leonardo's lost painting, the Battle of Anghiari.

Spearheading the Engineers for Explorers program is Albert Yu-Min Lin, a research scientist with the Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3) at the UCSD division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2). Lin, who was named NG Adventure Magazine's Adventurer of the Year for his high-tech search for the hidden tomb of Genghis Khan, says that interdisciplinary collaboration at the undergraduate level is key to "pushing the limits of where we can go as explorers."

"From my experience, so much of project development has been about having a vision, combining the expertise of many different people and then finding the resolve to pull it through together," he says. "A lot of people think of themselves as 'just' a mechanical engineer, or 'just' a computer engineer, but in the real world you can't just be that one thing. You have to be everything. We need to be able to combine many different disciplines to create the most successful project."

The program, which is funded by National Geographic and private donors, is currently accepting applications for undergraduate and graduate students interested in leveraging existing project ideas — such as the underwater modem being developed by a team led by UCSD Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) Professor Ryan Kessner — or novel ideas for technologies that would assist explorers on the ground, in the air and underwater. Lin’s own research, for example, would benefit from improved aerial technologies that could help him pinpoint Khan’s tomb in non-invasive ways.

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Says UCSD undergrad Jeannette Cobian (pictured here): "The whole reason I study mechanical engineering is to create technologies that help people explore the places they can't easily go, either into space or deep water, or places that are too hot or too cold."
"We're trying to create ruggedized systems that don't cost tens of thousands of dollars,” Lin notes. “The problems are defined, the solutions are not defined."

Paulos says that as a member of a joint UCSD-NGS team, his skills as an electrical and computer engineer could translate to helping NGS develop low-power devices, such as an improved "critter cam" that minimizes power consumption (it's not always easy to change the battery pack on the camera worn by a great white shark, after all). Paulos says his 10-week internship with Viasat, where he worked to enhance Matlab code to track helicopter missions, also provided him with relevant project management experience.

But it's Paulos' part-time job running a small retail business with his older brother that could prove equally beneficial – he says he's responsible for managing everything behind-the-scenes: "the finances, the payroll, everything."

That type of project management experience is exactly what Lin and his counterpart at NGS, Mark Bauman, are looking for.

"We're convinced that these students are the right people to work with," notes Bauman, who is executive vice president of National Geographic Television and vice president for of media strategy for National Geographic Mission Programs. "There are some really cool projects we can do together, and these undergraduates will bring fresh eyes to everything we do. We're really excited to work with UCSD."

Adds Lin: "What we need is consistency and what we need is dedication. The ideal student is self-motivated, disciplined, an independent thinker, self-directed and able to inspire others. We need someone who can bridge the concepts from their classes with real-world design and apply things that are way outside their comfort zone."

Mechanical engineering undergrad Jeannete Cobian is confident she fits the bill. Originally from Tijuana, Mexico, Cobian says she watched a lot of public television as a child (including National Geographic specials) and saw NGS as representative of the broad spectrum of opportunities studying and working in the U.S. could provide.

As a student at UCSD, Cobian and some of her classmates helped design a sustainable, solar-powered computer training center for a rural region in Kenya. She says the time she spent in the MAE introductory lab and machine shop courses also gave her a lot of experience in project managament and working with hardware.

"The whole reason I study mechanical engineering is to create technologies that help people explore the places they can't easily go, either into space or deep water, or places that are too hot or too cold," she explains. "I ultimately want to work in robotics for space exploration or deep sea water exploration,  ideally with NASA's Mars Rover project or with the coral reefs along Mexican Riviera, where some species are going extinct."

Cobian says the chance to work with NGS would be the "opportunity of a lifetime for an engineer, and for a female Hispanic engineer."

Students who are chosen for the program will collaborate with professors and other students in the existing UCSD engineering design curriculum — including Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering 156 and 155, CSE 145 and ECE 191 — and use UCSD lab space. Both paid and unpaid positions are available. The students will collaborate on three different projects during the program's inaugural year, with one leader and 5-10 students per team. Representatives from National Geographic will visit the teams on a periodic basis, and will also collaborate with the students weekly via videoconferencing.

"We want students to participate in this program because they've grown up watching and reading National Geographic," says Lin, "and because they want to do something exciting with their degrees." 

 

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