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Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering


James Kirchner
HEIGHT OF INTEREST: James Kirchner ’80 Th’83 goes to great lengths to study how interacting forces shape the earth’s surface. Photograph courtesy of James Kirchner.

“If it happens within 10 meters below the surface and 10 meters above the surface, I’m probably interested in it,” says James Kirchner ’80 Th’83. “I work on a wide range of topics, basically concerned with how physics, chemistry, and biology interact to shape the surface of the earth.” A researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow, and Landscape Research just outside of Zurich, Kirchner says, “Our institute has lead responsibility in Switzerland for such issues as response of forests to climate change, protection of biodiversity, impact of regional development patterns on natural habitats and human quality of life, and management of natural hazards—a particularly interesting issue in the Swiss Alps, of course!” After heading the institute for five years, he is now a senior scientist there and a professor of the physics of environmental systems at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich. “I’m very interested in problems like how does the earth’s surface fall apart, what controls the strength and resistance to erosion of, say, a plot of land on a hillside or an entire mountainside, how do landslides happen, how do rock falls happen?” he told the European Association of Geochemistry. He also considers questions such as: Where does rainwater go? How long do landscapes store water underground, and what regulates how quickly they release water to make streamflow? What regulates the chemistry of the water we drink? “We need practical answers so that people can decide how to handle these issues,” he says. “I work in Switzerland, and half the country would be uninhabitable if we could not successfully manage the risks of living in steep mountainous regions.” After majoring in physics and philosophy at Dartmouth, Kirchner earned an M.S. in systems analysis at Thayer and a Ph.D. in 1990 from the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California, Berkeley. He serves as director of Berkeley’s Central Sierra Field Research Stations—usually from nine time zones away. Kirchner was awarded the 2013 Ralph Alger Bagnold Medal from the European Geosciences Union, which cited his outstanding contributions to “slicing through the complexity of earth’s surface systems to uncover the underlying physics.”

Jian Lu Th’93 is the new chief technology officer at Beijing-based Ku6 Media, one of China’s top Internet video companies focused on user-generated content. Lu previously served as VP of multimedia technology at tech incubator Shanda Innovations, cofounded content identification provider Vobile, and led technical development of QuickTime compression and streaming at Apple Inc. Through its website,, Ku6 Media provides online video upload and sharing services, video reports, information, and entertainment in China.

B.B.R. Medical Innovations Inc.—a startup that grew out of an ENGS 190/290 (now 89/90) capstone project by Kathryn Boucher Bi ’09 Th’09, Steve Reinitz ’09 Th’09, and Renée Cottle ’08 Th’09—has been chosen for the 2013 MassChallenge Startup Accelerator. The company will receive mentorship and space at the MassChallenge office in Boston for four months and will compete with other teams for $1 million in funding. Bi, Reinitz, and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center anesthesiologist Dr. Corey Burchman founded B.B.R. in 2011 to develop Sanit-IV, an inline intravenous fluid sterilizer that works in less than six seconds. “My goal is to one day see one of our devices on every IV pole, since I truly believe that our technology has the potential to save thousands of lives per year while also preventing unnecessary healthcare expenses,” says Reinitz, who is now in Thayer’s Ph.D. Innovation Program [see “Engineering Entrepreneurs”].

After earning degrees in engineering and economics, Fernando Orta ’08 returned to his hometown of Mexico City and in 2010 founded a financial services company called Podemos Progresar (“We can move forward”). “In an effort to solve the multi-dimensional problem of poverty in Mexico, Podemos has a mission to create products and services that change people’s lives,” Maura Pennington ’08 reported in Forbes in March. Podemos offers services such as help with navigating Mexico’s healthcare system, and has set up a microfranchise program that allows members to buy wholesale products to distribute to their communities. “Microcredit is not just about giving people money,” says Orta. “It’s about giving people a chance to pursue opportunities. We want to become the platform that provides the products and services that allow people to make rewarding transactions.”

Fernando Orta
MOVING FORWARD: Fernando Orta ’08 helps Mexicans living in poverty. Photograph courtesy of Fernando Orta.

Science has again answered one of society’s most pressing questions: Could the Ice Wall in HBO’s Game of Thrones survive? While the 700-foot-tall ice structure could hold its own against medieval weaponry in the TV show, gravity would eventually bring it down. “Even at very cold temperatures, large ice masses deform under their own weight,” Thayer Professor Mary Albert Th’84, a polar regions snow and ice expert, told Wired magazine in March. “And over long timescales, ice flows, so it would not hold its original shape for thousands of years.”

The drug-authentication service Sproxil, founded by Ashifi Gogo Th’10, the first graduate of Thayer’s Ph.D. Innovation Program, ranked No. 7 on Fast Company’s list of “Most Innovative Companies 2013.” Sproxil is lauded “For sticking it to anyone selling fraudulent goods.”

Tilting Motor Works founder and CEO Bob Mighell ’85 Th’86 put his motorcycle conversion package—which replaces a motorcycle’s front wheel with two wheels—to the ultimate test: the annual motorcycle speed trials at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Despite 100-degree temps and variable crosswinds, Mighell broke the land-speed record for three-wheeled motorcycles by more than 10 mph last year, hitting 132.342 mph over one mile. “Anything can happen at those speeds,” he says, “and every motorcyclist knows how dangerous crosswinds and rough surfaces can be. The salt was all damp and loose and pitted, so it was ideal for putting our trike solution to the test.” The lifelong power-sports enthusiast has been developing the conversion for almost nine years. With the help of a Thayer student engineering team a few years ago, he patented a front-end linkage that lets him lean into corners. Tilting Motor Works is now selling the conversion package, starting at $10,000.

Bob Mighell with his three-wheeled motorcycle
FAST TRIKE: Bob Mighell ’85 Th’86 broke the land-speed record for three-wheeled motorcycles at Bonneville Salt Flats. Photograph courtesy of Bob Mighell.

The Dartmouth Alumni Council recently honored Ken Johansen ’60 Th’62 with an Alumni Award for “long-standing and meritorious service to the College, career achievement, and other community service.” Johansen, who retired from International Paper Company after a 40-year career in paper manufacturing, served 18 years on the Montvale (N.J.) School Board, and since 1990 has served almost continually in a Dartmouth class leadership position.

Breakthrough: Biological Computers

Drew Endy Th’98 builds a computer inside a living cell

A team of Stanford University engineers led by Drew Endy Th’98, a professor at Stanford’s School of Engineering and a pioneer in the field of synthetic biology, has succeeded in making a simple computer inside a living cell.

Drew Endy in the lab
BEYOND SILICON: Drew Endy Th’98, pictured when he was a professor at MIT, mixes cells and computers. Photograph by John Soares.

“We’re going to be able to put computers inside any living cell you want,” said Endy, who earned his doctorate at Thayer School in 1998. “Any place you want a little bit of logic, a little bit of computation, a little bit of memory—we’re going to be able to do that.”

The creation completes 10 years of work and represents the final chapter of Stanford researchers’ quest to build the biological computer. It is the latest step in the new field of synthetic biology where—one gene at a time—engineers strive to design organisms unlike anything made by Mother Nature.

These tiny computers could deliver true-false answers to virtually any biological question that might be posed within a cell. For instance: Is toxic mercury present in plants or animals used for food? Scientists could introduce a detective “sentinel” organism to find out.

The internal computers could communicate by engineering cells to change. The “simplest way is to have the cells change their smell or color,” Endy said.

These cellular computers also can count, providing a useful tool when treating diseases like cancer, where cells divide uncontrollably. Suppose a liver cell carries a computer that records how many times it divides. Once the counter hits 500, for instance, the cell could be programmed to die.

Conceptually, it’s like electronics, where a transistor controls the flow of electrons along a circuit. But biology is the basis for what the team calls a “transcriptor,” which controls the flow of an important protein as it travels along a strand of DNA like an electron on a copper wire. Transcriptors are a biological version of electrical engineers’ logic gates—the building blocks of digital circuits that send and receive signals.

“Biology is not just a science of discovery, but also a technology for making things,” Endy said. “We’re not going to replace the silicon computers. We’re not going to replace your phone or your laptop. But we’re going to get computing working in places where silicon would never work.”

Last year, the team delivered two other core components of their computer. The first was a type of rewritable digital data storage within DNA. Information can be stored inside cells by flipping DNA sequences back and forth between two possible orientations to represent and store the 0 and 1 that represent one bit of computer data. The other was a mechanism for transmitting genetic data from cell to cell, a biological Internet.

These new biological computers will be slow, working on a millihertz frequency, Endy cautioned. “But they’ll work in places where we don’t have computing now,” he said.

—Lisa M. Krieger

Originally published in the San Jose Mercury News, this article is adapted and reprinted with permission.

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Categories: Alumni News, Spotlights

Tags: alumni, award, entrepreneurship, innovation, innovation program, research

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