Research News

SUNY chief, Hollywood, Erich Bloch and more at materials science symposium

SUNY Chancellor Kristina M. Johnson visited the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences on June 5 to deliver the plenary talk at the Erich Bloch Symposium, part of the 2018 MDI Summer Institute. Photos: Douglas Levere

By CORY NEALON

Published June 6, 2018

“We had the best blues in the business.”
SUNY Chancellor Kristina M. Johnson

SUNY Chancellor Kristina M. Johnson had a role in the highest-grossing film of all time.

She didn’t appear in “Avatar,” but a company she co-founded was responsible for its Academy Award-winning visual effects, specifically the 3D images of the blue Na’vi people.

“We had the best blues in the business,” Johnson told roughly 120 people Tuesday morning at the second annual Erich Bloch Symposium, a materials science conference named in honor of one of UB’s most distinguished alumni.

The Avatar anecdote was part of a broader story Johnson shared that centered on her efforts to commercialize the aforementioned optoelectronic technology. It was a quest that, in its early stages, brought her into contact with Bloch, director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) from 1984-90.

Bloch, who graduated from UB with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1952, had worked for decades at IBM, leading the company’s efforts to develop mainframe computers and supercomputers. At NSF, he is credited with transforming how the agency conducts business, focusing on cross-disciplinary research and collaboration between industry and academia.

He created research centers on college campuses, including UB’s earthquake engineering research center, MCEER, and the Optoelectronics Computing Systems Center in Colorado, which Johnson co-founded. Her leadership at the center coincided with her pivot toward entrepreneurship.

“Erich Bloch revolutionized academic research,” said Johnson, who holds a faculty appointment in UB’s Department of Electrical Engineering and stressed the importance that federal, state and local resources play in helping engineers and scientists turn their discoveries into thriving businesses.

The Department of Materials Design (MDI), the chief organizer of the symposium, builds upon Bloch’s legacy of encouraging interdisciplinary research, she said. The department — a collaboration between the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the College of Arts and Sciences — is led by Krishna Rajan, Erich Bloch Chair and Empire Innovation Professor.

The symposium’s theme, “Accelerating Innovation for a Regenerative Economy,” focuses on developing sustainable solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems. Johnson, who prior to joining SUNY co-founded a business that develops hydropower plants, credited UB with its innovative approach to reducing its carbon footprint.

“There’s a lot of what we can learn from what’s been done here at the University at Buffalo,” she said, noting her goal to have SUNY source all of its electricity from renewable energy sources and constructing net-zero buildings.

She also lauded MDI’s research efforts, including grants the department received to apply artificial intelligence and machine learning to the materials discovery process, an award from Toyota Research Institute to find new materials to make vehicles emission-free, and the Collaboratory for a Regenerative Economy (CoRE), a partnership between MDI, Clean Production Action and Niagara Share to make manufacturing safer and more environmentally friendly.

Following her talk, in a question-and-answer session facilitated by Liesl Folks, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Johnson discussed a variety of topics, including her time spent as undersecretary of energy in the U.S. Department of Energy during President Barack Obama’s tenure.

The symposium also included a daylong workshop led by CoRE on Wednesday that focused on solar and advanced manufacturing, as well as advancements to create more sustainable economies and communities.