Feb 15, 2019
Danielle Feinberg, director of photography for lighting with Pixar Animation Studio, will speak on campus Thursday, February 21.
When it comes to recruiting females to the male-dominated computer science field, Danielle Feinberg is a bit of an ace in the hole. After all, Feinberg works at Pixar Animation Studio, which has created many of the most beloved films of the past two decades, including “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo,” “Brave,” and Monsters, Inc.”
You can make movies with math, science and code! Feinberg tells them, then shows them all the cool things she does for a living.
“It’s an easy sell,” said Feinberg, who is a director of photography for lighting at Pixar.
But studying computer science in the 1990s wasn’t always easy at Harvard, where Feinberg found herself outnumbered by males, who accounted for close to 90 percent of the classes.
“It was clear to me why some women were like, ‘Forget it – I’m out of here,’” she said. “When you walk into the room, and you’re one of the few people who look the way you look, you immediately feel like you don’t belong there.”
Feinberg will discuss her experiences Thursday (Feb. 21) at 11 a.m. in the Advanced Technologies Lab. The highly visual presentation, titled “The Art and Science of Bringing Imagined Worlds to Life,” is part of the College of Engineering’s Diversity and Inclusion speaker series.
While being underrepresented seemed to magnify every mistake in college, Feinberg had been enamored with programming since she was an elementary school student who took an after-school programming class.
“By the time the people started telling me, ‘Girls don’t do that,’ I didn’t care what they had to say because I loved it,” said Feinberg, who mentors girls on STEM careers.
She might have pursued a more traditional computer science career had a computer graphics lecturer not shown the class some Pixar short films – precursors to “Toy Story,” the first full-length Pixar movie, which became a game changer for computer animation.
“As soon as I saw those short films, I thought, ‘This is 100 percent what I want to do,’” she said.
After graduation, at 22, she actually landed a job at Pixar, first in an entry-level technician on the movie “A Bug’s Life.” She quickly rose through the ranks, learning her trade from a mentor named Sharon Calahan.
“I got to learn from the best person in the world,” she said.
Lighting was carefully used to set WALL-E apart from his background. (Courtesy Pixar Animation Studios)
In her inspiring TED Talk, Feinberg used before-and-after visuals to show how lighting greatly enhances the dramatic look of Pixar films – from the way sun beams move with the water in “Finding Nemo” to the way reflections off an inner lens on Wall-E’s binocular eyes provides human-like emotions.
The lighting is the last step in the creative process, she said, and at times, lighting experts can be indecisive.
“We do obsess over it – completely,” she said.
The team gets visuals cues from real life – they usually take research trips and document images with photos and video. But they also avoid being overly realistic.
Pixar’s most spectacular use of light might be from the movie “Coco,” which explored the Day of the Dead holiday with a fantasy afterlife. One memorable scene featured over 8 million lights, creating a visually stunning illuminated world viewers were absorbed into on big screens worldwide.
As awe-inspiring as the scene was, it was intimidating for those who had to create it.
“This thing had been looming over us for months and months – maybe years,” Feinberg said.
“You walk around and think, ‘What makes this Mexico?’”
This scene from "Coco," featuring over 8 million lights, is Feinberg's proudest achievement. (Courtesy Pixar Animation Studios)
Despite having seen “Coco” about 1,000 times for work, she still teared up when she saw it in the theater.
“The moment at the end with Mama Coco still gets me even now,” she said.
After 20 years of working at Pixar, she views the world differently than many, often noticing nuances of light in the real world.
“There’s a little voice inside my head that’s annoying,” she said.
That voice might notice how room light nicely bounces off someone hair, she said, or how someone’s teeth could be brightened.
“If people could hear it, it would be really embarrassing.”
Feb 14, 2019
Learn more about the Cal Poly Digital Transformation Hub (DxHub):
Feb 8, 2019
Last year's concrete canoe team swept the nationals with an artistic entry.
Cal Poly’s concrete canoe team, which has won five national championships this decade, will compete on home turf this year as it pursues its second 3-peat -- back-to-back-to-back titles.
Cal Poly, which also holds the national record for points – 96.5, in 2010 – will host the Pacific Southwest Conference April 3-6. Display day and presentations will be held on campus, while a paddling race will be held at Nacimiento Lake in the North County.
Each year, some 200 colleges and university teams are challenged to design and produce a canoe made of concrete. Last year’s Cal Poly canoe was an art piece, with a theme honoring Vincent van Gogh, the post-impressionist painter, and some of his famous works, including “The Starry Night” and “Sunflowers.”
Cal Poly, which swept last year’s event, now has titles from 2010, 2011, 2012, 2017 and 2018.
The team recently cast its 2019 canoe and is expected to begin sanding and finishing toward the end of this quarter. The team has decided on a theme, but they have not yet publicly revealed it.
The finals will be held in Melbourne, FL, June 6-8.
Feb 4, 2019
Color Coded founder Simon Ibssa poses with Lindsay D. Grace, the first speaker in a Diversity in Tech series.
Often the only black student in his classes, Simon Ibssa felt culturally isolated on campus. So he created Color Coded, which promotes the academic and professional success of historically underrepresented minorities in the tech field.
“We do this by inviting guest speakers to inspire students, host resume workshops to aid in professional success, as well as host social events to boost a sense of community for our students of color in tech,” said Ibssa, a software engineering major.
Last week, Color Coded hosted its first speaker in a 3-part Diversity in Tech series when Lindsay D. Grace, a University of Miami professor, spoke about diversity in games. The next two will feature Beatris Mendez Gandica, a Microsoft security program manager, in a talk titled ”My Tech Journey” (Feb. 21), and Avi Lonny Brooks, professor of strategic communication and media studies as CSU East Bay, who will discuss Afrofuturism (March 7). The series is supported by the Sprague Family Foundation and arranged with the help of faculty adviser Foaad Khosmood.
While the topics are timely in the diversity debate, the gatherings also provide a forum for underrepresented students to meet and mingle. Nationwide, African-American students in tech programs are rare – reflecting a similar disparity in industry. (Only around three percent of Silicon Valley tech workforces are African-American or Latino.)
Ibssa was inspired to pursue software engineering by his older brother, who completed his software engineering degree from Cal Poly in 2013 before joining Google as a software engineer.
“He had an awesome idea to show his 13-year-old little brother at the time what HTML and CSS was,” Ibssa said. “That gave me the creative outlet to express myself as a teen by making websites about my personal interests.”
While creating websites about his favorite video games (including FIFA and NBA 2k13), his favorite soccer team (Manchester City F.C.), his family and role model (LeBron James), Ibssa decided at 15 that he wanted to major in computer science and software engineering. But once at Cal Poly, the Sacramento native had to adjust to classes that were dominated by white students.
“As a proud first generation Ethiopian-American, my strong cultural ties to Ethiopia – and its great food – have been difficult to maintain,” he said. “I haven’t always felt included or welcome, so starting Color Coded was a way to help others avoid the experiences I had.”
The group, which emphasizes students who are black, Latinx and Native-American, had its first meeting last spring, kicking off with an ice cream social attended by San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon and Microsoft software engineer Calin Washington, both Cal Poly alumni.
Lindsay D. Grace, a University of Miami professor, speaks to students about diversity in games.
While the university and College of Engineering has launched several initiatives to improve diversity and inclusion, student initiatives like Color Coded add a different perspective.
“This group has helped me immensely,” Ibssa said. “It taught me how to be a leader and proved to me that Cal Poly has hope when it comes to fixing the issues as hand here.”
Ibssa hopes to eventually land a job as a software engineer, but he plans to continue to promote diversity in tech as a volunteer in the field.
“It has been a pleasure getting to know and connect with all the students of Color Coded, and I hope that Cal Poly admits more students who can carry on Color Coded’s legacy and continue to challenge the status quo,” he said.
Jan 31, 2019
Fortunately, heartburn didn’t inspire a Cal Poly team to build a rocket that would be launched with “fast acting” Alka-Seltzers. But there was plenty of relief when a panel of judges invited the team to the national Alka-Rocket finals at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida.
Cal Poly was one of five universities represented in the contest, held in December. Created by Bayer, a pharmaceutical and life sciences company, the challenge invites students to create rockets powered by Alka-Seltzer effervescent tablets, made famous by the “plop-plop, fizz-fizz – oh, what a relief it is” commercial jingles. While the tablets can provide heartburn relief, they can also produce a reaction strong enough to launch small rockets, which is why the so-called Alka-Rockets are often used in American science classes to demonstrate the principles of chemistry and physics.
A panel of judges, including former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison, invited Cal Poly Space Systems to compete in the challenge after seeing the design, execution and creativity of its rocket, which the team spent four months designing and building with a launcher.
“We found the optimum ratio of Alka-Seltzer to water in order to optimize the pressure by adjusting the volume of the pressure chamber,” said Lauren Fukaye, Cal Poly Space Systems’ PR officer. “We also made the rocket as thin as possible, while still able to contain our electronics and recovery mechanism in order to minimize drag.”
During the Dec. 12 contest, the Cal Poly rocket went roughly 200 feet high.
“The judges were supportive of our efforts to ensure safety for everyone at the competition, including our decision to prioritize our recovery system over our altitude,” Fukaye said.
Brigham Young University broke the world record for rocket height – 883 feet, more than doubling the previous record set by students from the University of Minnesota. Other finalists came from University of Georgia, Texas Tech and University of Minnesota.
The challenge was launched to create awareness for science, engineering and innovation. For the Cal Poly team, it also provided great hands-on experience, Fukaye said.
“Many of the newer members worked on the project to help them get more involved in the club, which was a great experience, especially with all of the more knowledgeable members as mentors.”
Jan 24, 2019
Microsoft Senior Researcher Mary L. Gray will speak at the ATL Feb. 19 about how computer science is being used to help social sciences.
A Facebook study that manipulated the news feeds of close to 700,000 users caused considerable outrage a few years ago. At the same time, it provided intriguing data, with a large sample group, about the emotional contagion that can occur through social networks.
Whether you were incensed by Facebook’s secret efforts to control emotions or fascinated with the empirical results, the project illustrates how computer scientists can become involved in humanities research – and the issues that result -- said Mary L. Gray, a senior researcher for Microsoft Research, who will speak at the ATL Feb. 19, from 11 a.m. until noon.
“It’s a new world for computer science and engineering to have to think about the social implications and needs created by technology,” said Gray, who will discuss the Facebook experiment during her discussion, “When Social Media Companies, Research Ethics, and Human Rights Collide.”
In addition to her role with Microsoft, Gray is a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society and an associate professor of Informatics, Computing and Engineering at Indiana University.
Historically, Gray said, computer scientists and engineers have primarily built systems and focused on making things more efficient. But over time, more possibilities emerged in the area of human research.
“To me, this is the beginning of a new era of having technology serve society,” she said.
Algorithms based on our past behaviors already impact most of us, whether it be the recommendations Netflix makes or how your credit score is calculated. But computations are also used to make significant decisions on college admissions, foster care placement and criminal court sentencing.
However, the computer science tendency to focus on efficiency can prove problematic when applied to humans.
Nationwide, many superior court judges use a computer program called COMPAS, a risk assessment algorithm, to help guide their sentencing decisions. Yet an algorithm can reflect biases – and lacks the ability to individualize. One critical ProPublica study concluded that COMPAS predicts African-American defendants will have higher risks of recidivism than they actually do, while white defendants are predicted to have lower rates than they actually do.
Meanwhile, major colleges receive tens of thousands of applications for admissions (Cal Poly had over 65,000 in 2018), making it necessary to use software as a part of the early screening process. But that software might ignore key components of a candidate’s background, achievement and skills.
“The challenge is when we start believing those numbers are an effective stand-in for somebody’s potential,” Gray said.
So while data can certainly help decision makers expedite their choices, it comes with a word of caution.
“In most cases what we need is to see the limitations of data,” Gray said.
From a research perspective, engineering offers a potential for a new human data research paradigm, Gray said. Yet, ethical considerations will arise -- as they did when Facebook employed its users as unknowing guinea pigs.
Collecting data for social media is nothing new, of course. But gathering social media data to gage the human condition is.
“When computer science was applied to those domains, it wasn’t with an awareness of what those worlds were creating,” she said.
Jan 22, 2019
Riley Quine, a MATE alumnus, is bicycling the entire African continent.
During his adventurous bicycle tour of the African continent, materials engineering alumnus Riley Quine has flown over Egypt’s Valley of the Kings in a hot air balloon, hiked an active volcano and seen baboons and elephants up close. But he has also witnessed extreme poverty, was forced to alter plans to avoid violent conflict and frequently found himself dodging rocks hurled at him by threatening locals.
“The mental aspect of traveling through Africa has proved to be much more of a challenge than the physical stress of bicycling,” said Quine, who earned his MATE degree in 2016.
After graduation, as he notes on his website, Quine avoided office jobs. Working seasonal gigs, including a fire crew job with the U.S. Forest Service, allowed him to travel during the off season. After hiking the Continental Divide and the Appalachian trials, he spent five months mapping out an African adventure that would take him through ten countries, starting at the Mediterranean Sea in Alexandria, Egypt and ending in Cape Town, South Africa.
Quine took this photo while flying over Egypt in a hot air balloon.
“I chose to use the Tour d’Afrique route as my guide for the trip,” he said. “Every year TDA organizes a race along this route. It is well researched and avoids most conflict countries and regions.”
Still, he acknowledged on his blog: “There has been a lot of voiced concerns from friends and family about the safety of this trip.”
That didn’t stop Quine’s quest for a challenge.
“Having grown up in Los Angeles and spent most of my life in California, I was ready for a change,” he said. “I wanted to travel through a place wildly different from what I’m used to in order to challenge my preconceived notions of the world.”
He also wanted to meet people with different beliefs and witness more self-sufficient, traditional ways of living.
“I like the idea of homesteading and would like to attempt being self-sufficient at some point,” he said.
Quine, sixth from left, poses with new friends in Sudan.
Traveling with his buddy Arthur, Quine took off from Alexandria in early November. In Egypt, they partook in exotic food, snorkeling and ancient landmarks.
“I will always remember the hospitality I encountered in Sudan and Egypt,” he said. “When people invited me to stay with them in their homes and share meals. People often pulled over in their cars and stopped to ask if I was okay and if they could take a photo with me and exchange contact information.”
As he traveled south, however, he found the locals to be less cordial and more threatening.
“I frequently worried for my safety riding through Ethiopia,” he said. “I had a number of close calls when people threw boulders at me and they came crashing down feet away.”
At one point, Quine actually purchased a bamboo stick he could carry on his bike for protection.
He also witnessed extreme poverty, people waiting in long lines to get fuel and limited access to bathrooms and medical supplies.
“Recently, in Uganda, a woman asked me if I would take her baby with me back to America,” he said. “I can’t imagine what it must take for a mother to offer up her child so he might live a more prosperous life. It made me very uncomfortable and sad when I looked into her eyes and saw the sincerity in her request.”
At the same time, he said, poverty has made communities close out of necessity and shared sympathy.
“People look out for each other,” he said. “There have been a number of occasions where people who didn’t have much insisted that I share their meal.”
During his trip, Quine has encountered wild camels, elephants and baboons.
But not everyone is getting along in Africa. Quine and his friend finished riding through Sudan just before riots occurred. After hearing recent reports of tribal violence in southern Ethiopia, an Ethiopian government official convinced them to fly around the rest of the country. And when they arrived in Kenya, a terrorist attack there killed 21 people, including an American 9/11 survivor.
"The political climate in many of these countries is dynamic and can deteriorate rapidly,” Quine said.
Quine has been traveling with a tracking device that allows anyone to follow his course. As of January 17, he was in southern Kenya.
When his 6-month tour is over, he plans to return to wildland firefighting this summer, and he might consider returning to school for a graduate program in natural science.
"This trip has made me feel very grateful for the wealth of opportunity in the United States,” he said. “I am fortunate to live in a place where jobs are plentiful and food even more so.”
Still he plans to simplify his life, living with less excess.
"I also have thought about how I could make travelers to the United States feel more welcome,” he said. “The kindness and shared humanity I’ve experienced from complete strangers is part of what makes this trip meaningful.”
Jan 17, 2019
Randell Iwasaki announces a partnership with AAA Northern California at the GoMentum Station in Contra Costa County. The facility is one of the nation’s largest secure testing facilities for connected and automated vehicle technology.
When he earned his civil engineering degree from Cal Poly in 1982, Randell Iwasaki didn’t think he’d ever find himself planning infrastructure that would support autonomous vehicles.
But today’s transportation planning entails much more than interchanges and overpasses.
“These days, people employed in transportation are likely to know just as much about big data and wireless networks as potholes and pavement,” said Iwasaki, who is the executive director of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority (CCTA).
Iwasaki’s efforts to modernize California transportation is one reason he was recently presented with the Engineering Award by the Beavers, a heavy engineering construction association founded in 1955 to promote and encourage the field.
“It is such an honor to receive the Beavers Award for Engineering because the nominations come from your peers, and the selection panel is made up of your peers,” Iwasaki said. “These are people who know the work, know the industry, and are building the transportation infrastructure we use every day.”
Randell Iwasaki, pictured on the right, stands inside the fourth bore of the Caldecott Tunnel in Oakland. The modern tunnel was built to ease traffic and improve safety.
Iwasaki’s interest in the field came from an uncle, a former civil engineering professor at Colorado State University.
“When I visited, he used to take me on tours of the labs,” Iwasaki said. “I was amazed at what civil engineers got to work on.”
He eventually applied to Cal Poly because of its strong engineering record. After earning his bachelor’s from Cal Poly, Iwasaki joined the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans),where he rose through the ranks, culminating in 2009, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed him director. Frequently honored, in his current role, he often seeks partnerships with technology and automotive companies to develop the next generation of transportation solutions.
“One of the most challenging parts of my job has been working to change people’s opinions about technology and transportation,” he said. “I worked on the first fog warning system, or Intelligent Transportation System, project in the nation for Caltrans when I was with the agency, and I’ve helped lead both an autonomous vehicle test facility and a shared autonomous vehicle pilot program here in Contra Costa County.”
Last fall, California voters opted to keep a recently enacted gas tax hike to pay for a major infrastructure program -- a move Iwasaki said will greatly improve transportation.
“Transportation has not had a steady, reliable investment for many years – which makes it very difficult to plan for the future when you don’t know how much money you’re going to have for bus service or to complete projects,” he said. “Hopefully, this funding will be used not only to fix the most vulnerable parts of our system, but also to plan for the future.”
Iwasaki has remained connected to Cal Poly, where he was named Honored Alumni in 2017. Iwasaki donated an Intelligent Transportation Systems Laboratory to the College of Engineering and serves on the advisory boards for both the college and the Civil and Environmental Engineering department. He also supports the student chapter of the Institute of Transportation Engineers at Cal Poly through visits to campus, guest lectures and mentorship.
“He’s just an amazing example of an innovative leader,” Ellen Cohune, executive vice president of the Cal Poly Alumni Association, said in this video spotlighting him for earning the Sandra Gardebring Ogren Leadership Award.
Cal Poly, Iwasaki said, provided him with experiential learning.
“You didn’t just learn about how to survey,” he said. “You were required to go out and do it.”
That Learn by Doing approach, he said, prepared him once he began his distinguished transportation career.
“I remember in my very first job surveying with Caltrans, the old timers would try to test or trick the newer employees, and having had the experience of actually doing the work really paid off for me,” he said. “I knew how to do the work.”
Jan 15, 2019
Cal Poly Computer Science student Rutu Samai.
As one of more than 400 interns from around the world, Cal Poly computer science student Rutu Samai didn’t expect her Microsoft Explore Internship in Software Engineering and Program Management last summer to include so much individual attention.
“I was surprised they treated you like a regular Microsoft employee,” said Samai, a junior from Pleasanton, Calif. “Executives would make themselves available to answer all of my questions. We could sit down in the Lunch and Learn program and talk with experts. I wasn’t expecting to be able to meet one-on-one with people in such a big company.”
Samai, who described the internship at the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Wash., campus as “four weeks of program management and eight weeks of development,” was a member of a four-student pod tasked with writing open-sourced software designed to simplify the company’s Azure Container Registries, part of the Microsoft Azure cloud service.
“It was definitely intimidating at first, but the casual approach and ability to get help made it a great learning experience,” said Samai, who will do a second Microsoft internship as a Program Manager this summer.
In the following video, Samai discusses her internship project on Microsoft's Channel 9.
Samai details her project in the article "Azure Container Registries/Docker Extension Project," from medium.com.
Jan 14, 2019
Diversity encourages innovation, according to a panel of visiting Google employees. Members of the panel included (left to right) moderator Zoë Wood, Bria Sullivan, Halli Santarelli and Anthony D. Mays.
Anthony D. Mays, whose unlikely path from Compton to Google was detailed in a popular Buzzfeed documentary, offered simple advice for African-American students who find themselves significantly outnumbered in class: “Just get used to it.”
“It’s gonna take some of us being in these uncomfortable spaces for a while to pave the way for the next generation of folks,” said Mays, a software engineer. “Looking at black history, it has taken a long time to get to the point where I can sit in front of you as a software engineer, talking about working at Google. I have no allusion about how long it’s going to take for that next level.”
Mays was part of of diversity panel that spoke to computer science students at the ATL Thursday. Other panelists were Cal Poly alums Halli Santarelli and Bria Sullivan, who also work at Google. The event, sponsored by Color Coded and the Women in Software and Hardware club (WISH), was moderated by computer science professor Zoë Wood.
Women and minorities are still significantly underrepresented in tech, as well as university computer science programs. But the panelists represent a trio that have bucked the trend – and they’re working to encourage more diversity to the field.
“I feel like this is what I was put here to do,” said Sullivan, a software engineer who earned her computer science degree in 2014.
While the field continues to search for ways to diversity its workforce, Mays represents a dramatic example of someone who battled considerable adversity to get to tech. He grew up in Compton, he says in his BuzzFeed short, where he feared getting shot and regularly saw police helicopters – “ghetto birds” – hover his neighborhood.
“Even if you didn’t know the details, you knew there was something to be afraid of,” he says in the short, titled “How I Went From Compton to Google.”
Also a victim of physical and sexual abuse, he and two siblings were raised by caring foster parents. Yet, even though he took to computers at a young age and graduated from UC Irvine with an information and computer science degree, his hardscrabble background presented obstacles in his career.
“I was very risk averse because I grew up in the ‘hood,” he said, wearing a Compton hat. “Risk meant prison or death. Homelessness. As a foster kid, I’m very risk averse.”
Yet, he was told, risk and failure are important for innovation.
“That change of mindset is so important,” he said.
Lack of diversity also discourages innovation, Mays said.
“This leads to a homogenous culture that really doesn’t lend itself to creativity and innovation because everyone thinks the same way,” he said.
Bria Sullivan talks to a crowd of computer science students while friend and co-worker Halli Santarelli looks on at the ATL. The two Cal Poly grads, who now work at Google, talked about diversity in the field.
Despite Google’s efforts to diversify, all three panelists still find themselves in significant minorities.
“The benefit and challenge is that you’re noticed all the time,” said Santarelli, who finished her master’s in computer science in 2014, after earning a bachelor’s in software engineering, both from Cal Poly.
While being different can be a benefit if you’re doing well, it’s also intimidating, she said. That can also be the case in school, where African-American students like software engineering major Simon Ibssa, co-founder and president of Color Coded, looks different than their peers.
“I’m used to walking into my classes – whether that’s a 30-person class or a 100-person lecture hall – and being the only black person there,” he told Mays.
But Mays said his best advice was to “just suck it up.”
“One of the things that I had to learn coming from Compton is just how to work with and interact with these people that were different from me and come from different backgrounds,” he said.
Despite being underrepresented, the three panelists said they felt welcome and respected in their workplaces. And they’ve found success by networking, problem solving and working hard.
Now they hope to encourage others, spreading the word about their positive experiences.
“Maybe there’s somebody in the room who is like me when I was in school,” Mays said. “I try to make it a point to reach as many of those people as possible.”