Open House Serves to Communicate Beckman Institute Research

Bringing Beckman research to the people who are paying the bills is part of the Institute’s mission of public outreach. Every two years the public is welcomed into the building for the Beckman Institute Open House to learn more about the work that goes on at one of the country’s top centers for interdisciplinary research.

Joe Lyding enjoys the Beckman Institute Open House because it gives him a chance to demonstrate his group’s research to the general public, test his students on their ability to explain that research for a lay audience, and, last but not least, because he too gets be an Open House visitor.

“I love these things. I have a ten-year-old daughter and I like to bring her around and let her see all these things,” Lyding said. “I think it’s a real eye opener, especially for the kids to see something that goes beyond their traditional education where everything is defined and people grade you on what is known.

“Here we are pursuing what isn’t known. The ability to work on open-ended problems is what research is all about. A place like Beckman has created the ability to work on open-ended problems and an important part of that is to be able to explain them to the people who are paying the bills.”

Bringing Beckman research to the people who are paying the bills is part of the Institute’s mission of public outreach. Every two years the public is welcomed into the building for the Beckman Institute Open House to learn more about the work that goes on at one of the country’s top centers for interdisciplinary research.

Beckman faculty member Deana McDonagh shares Lyding’s feelings about the usefulness of Open House.

“It’s an opportunity to actually share with everybody the work we’re doing that we’re so enthusiastic about,” she said.

That sharing can be a useful tool for understanding one’s own research.

“Because we have to consider the general public, it makes you very sensitive to how you communicate and on what level,” McDonagh said. “I’m a firm believer in keeping everything simple and straightforward, so the maximum number of people can understand what you’re doing. It really makes you become more fluent communicating with people on all levels what it is you are doing and why.”

“It’s a good exercise for us,” said Lyding, who leads the Nanoelectronics and Nanomaterials group at Beckman. “If we can’t explain what we do in terms that everybody can understand, then we probably don’t understand it ourselves. So it’s a very good exercise for me and the students to be able to do that.”

And it serves as a test for Lyding’s students.

“It’s actually interesting for me watching my students trying to describe stuff,” Lyding said. “It tells me a lot about how well they understand it. They’re actually being tested by me in the process of trying to convey what we do to the public. I find it very intriguing.”

The biennial Beckman Institute Open House will take place March 13-14 and will feature 31 exhibits, a larger number than in recent years. The thousands and thousands of visitors who have taken part in the Beckman Institute Open House over the years have seen little robots racing around, an up close view of an insect’s world through the Bugscope microscope, and intriguing displays illuminating the science of the brain, among many other exhibits.

Open House 2009 will again feature those popular displays, but will also include some of the research being done by newer Beckman faculty members like McDonagh. She plans on using one of her research tools in the exhibit – one that should draw lots of interest from visitors. McDonagh, an associate Professor of Industrial Design at Illinois, has worked with collaborators at Beckman to fashion a kiosk for testing product design. A light will illuminate an unusual item inhabiting the kiosk and a TV monitor will capture visitors’ unrehearsed reactions for those nearby to see. McDonagh hopes exhibits like hers will serve to fire people’s imaginations when it comes to science, especially the imaginations of younger visitors.

“I remember as a child it only takes something to really grab your interest for it to shape your career path,” she said. “We’re all very aware of how science, technology, and engineering, needs to be repackaged for the younger generation. This is one way of showing the bridge between the sciences and the arts, which is design, and it’s showing it in an applied way through the kiosk.”

Potential future applications of the research are what drive many Beckman projects. Both Lyding and McDonagh say possible real-world outcomes of research are an important part of the Open House mission.  

“If you can show people how research is applied, and how it’s going to have an impact on everyday life, a relevancy emerges that the general public can understand,” McDonagh said. “When research is very abstract and distant, it’s almost like it has nothing to do with them. But what Beckman is doing is showing people how relevant the work is here.”
“We do a lot of fundamental research but there is always a technology undertone,” Lyding said. “So if we’re doing nanofabrication we do it on silicon because chip technology is based on silicon. The idea is, while we might be working on things that may be way over the horizon, we might find something along the way that is useful.

“I also find that the public is much more perceptive than people might ordinarily think. While they may not have a Ph.D. in this or that, if you explain stuff to them in a way that it’s clear that you understand what you are saying, they get it. They don’t need equations and they don’t need to spend years of their life learning this stuff. If you explain it properly, the average person will understand it quite well.” 

Lyding has taken part in every Beckman Institute Open House. This year his lab will again be demonstrating the power of scanning tunneling microscopy, showing effects like atomic scale patterned surfaces. Lyding’s group has actually performed nanoscale writing, forming letters and words out of atoms. He said some lucky visitor may even get to see their name written in atoms and receive a printout of it.  

Other exhibits this year feature curiosity-inducing titles like Slips of the Tongue: Beyond Freud, Robot Learns Grammar and Talks, Brain Computer Interface, Seeing Speech, The Curious Case of our Changing Brain, Voice-Typing Game, and Senior Odyssey.

There’s plenty more, with 31 exhibits planned to introduce visitors to Beckman research in areas like computer simulations and scientific visualization, bioengineering, neuroscience, and nanoscale applications.
Visitors will be treated to a spectacular view of the computer process of photosynthesis through dynamic 3-D computer simulations, as well as computer-generated graphics that reveal the molecular world of proteins.

More amazing displays include demonstrations of how computer power can benefit our lives. There will be an interactive demonstration of a non-invasive imaging technique for medical applications, software that can estimate gender and age, and a demonstration of a voice-typing game.

Brain research is an important part of the research at Beckman and the Open House will feature many examples of this work. Intriguing new research into a brain-computer interface (BCI) will highlight the work of Artificial Intelligence Group member Todd Coleman. Coleman has developed a BCI that enables users to spell out sentences in English using only their brainwaves. Justin Rhodes, a member of the NeuroTech group who researches motivational behaviors like alcoholism and drug abuse, will have an exhibit that has visitors shoot baskets while wearing goggles that simulate alcohol intoxication.

Language and speech production are also key areas of Beckman research, as will be evidenced by several exhibits. Cognitive Science group member Chilin Shih will be demonstrating a rare and highly advanced instrument for measuring speech production called an articulograph that lets visitors see movements of the lips, tongue, and other parts involved in speech as it is being produced. The voice typing game is part of Mark Hasegawa-Johnson’s exhibit that features an automatic speech recognizer his laboratory is developing. Called the Universal Access Project, the technology enables people, including those with speech disorders, to enter text into a personal computer.

As always, technology development is an important part of the Beckman Institute Open House experience and 2009 will be no different. Yi Lu of the 3D Micro- and Nanosystems Group will be demonstrating the work of his lab that has used functional DNA technology to develop applications like a simple dipstick sensors for testing chemicals and biological samples for medical diagnostics and the environment. EROS, an imaging technique developed by Beckman researchers Monica Fabiani and Gabriele Gratton, uses infrared light to measure brain activity.

A special display in 2009 will highlight the 10-year anniversary of Bugscope, the Imaging Technology Group’s (ITG) popular educational outreach program.  Visitors will see how this unique program has let thousands of students in grades K-12 from around the world operate ITG’s scanning electron microscope. Launched in 1999, Bugscope has enabled students and teachers from four continents and Australia view extraordinary images of insects and other samples in ways usually reserved for trained scientists.  

The Beckman event will once again be held in conjunction with Engineering Open House on campus. Hours for the Beckman Institute Open House are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, March 13th, and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, March 14th. Admission is free.

This article is part of the Spring 2009 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.