UCSC builds on landmark NASA contract to expand UC presence in Silicon Valley

With over 100 employees and funding for current research tasks at about $18 million, the University Affiliated Research Center (UARC) at Moffett Field has quickly become a dynamic center of activity for the University of California, Santa Cruz, in the heart of Silicon Valley. Managed by UC Santa Cruz in partnership with NASA Ames Research Center under a 10-year, $330 million contract between UC and NASA, the UARC has received an excellent performance rating from NASA during its first year of operation.

UC researchers, both at UARC facilities and at several UC campuses, are now working together with NASA Ames researchers on a broad range of NASA projects in areas such as air traffic management, human space exploration, and nanotechnology. UC Santa Cruz is planning to build on the success of the UARC by establishing a technology and management complex for research and education in the NASA Research Park.

"UCSC is working with NASA and Silicon Valley companies to develop plans for a permanent facility, with the UARC as the anchor tenant and its focus aligned to the interests of Silicon Valley companies," said William Berry, managing director of the UARC and deputy director of UCSC's Silicon Valley Initiative.

The new facility would serve as a direct extension of UCSC's Baskin School of Engineering, which is already creating new programs based in Silicon Valley. A key focus area for the engineering school, as well as for NASA Ames, is nanotechnology and its fusion with biotechnology and information technologies.

"The economic revival of Silicon Valley industry and the education of future workforces critically depend on our success in research and education in bio-info-nano technologies and in the management of technologies. The matching of research foci between NASA and the Baskin School of Engineering is not only timely, but also reinforces the strategic planning of our engineering program to be on the frontiers of research and education," said Steve Kang, dean of the engineering school.

Most of the UARC research tasks are currently being carried out in shared facilities at NASA Ames, but the UARC has also begun placing research tasks at UC campuses. A project to develop technology for human space exploration involves investigators at the Santa Cruz, Davis, Irvine, and Berkeley campuses. The UARC is also about to receive its first funding from NASA for aligned research programs--$400,000 of discretionary money that will be awarded to UC researchers for new projects related to UARC activities.

"We're very excited about that because it allows us to pursue new research directions. The research will be broadly aligned with the mission of the UARC and focused on building future collaborations with NASA," Berry said.

UCSC researchers working at Moffett Field are currently carrying out research tasks for the UARC in three areas: aerospace systems, information technology and computer science, and nanotechnology. The UCSC employees hired to work on these projects include both staff researchers and project scientists with academic appointments, said Larry Hogle, research project director for the UARC.

In aerospace systems, the majority of the work focuses on air traffic management as part of a long-term NASA research effort to develop advanced air traffic management software and support tools. "The goal is to improve air traffic flow so as to optimize capacity both in the air space and on the ground at the airports," Hogle said.

The UARC's information technology and computer science mission encompasses a range of research tasks, most of which provide support for human space exploration. For example, spoken dialogue systems are a key technology for many NASA projects, promising to enable astronauts and others to interact with complex diagnostic and control systems using spoken-language interfaces.

In nanotechnology, part of the research effort involves computational approaches, such as large-scale computational simulations and theoretical modeling of the properties and behavior of nanostructured materials (materials made from nanometer-scale building blocks). Computational nanotechnology complements and supports the experimental nanotechnology research carried out by UARC researchers in collaboration with the NASA Ames Center for Nanotechnology. This work focuses on the design and manufacturing of devices such as nanoelectronic sensors that NASA could use in the exploration of the solar system and the possible detection of extraterrestrial life.

The integration of nanotechnology with biotechnology and information technologies promises to yield innovative solutions to NASA's needs, Berry said. "The bio-info-nano convergence is an area where we expect to see significant growth over the next few years," he said.

In addition to the UARC's research mission, its Systems Teaching Institute (STI) is helping to build NASA's future workforce. UCSC and San Jose State University are partners in the institute, which provides mentoring and other programs to recruit and support students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Since its formation in early 2004, STI has begun an internship program with ten students currently working as interns on a variety of research projects at NASA Ames. Each student is partnered with a NASA scientist who serves as his or her mentor and oversees the internship. Students range in academic level from high school to third-year Ph.D. candidates and come from a variety of institutions throughout the region.

The natural alignment between UCSC's strengths in science and engineering and NASA Ames's research mission is yielding benefits for both partners in the UARC, Berry said. A similar alignment with the interests of Silicon Valley industry is leading to growing ties between UCSC and leading Silicon Valley companies. The UARC is playing an important role in building industry relationships for UCSC, in concert with a new academic program in Information Systems and Technology Management (ISTM), Berry said.

ISTM is an interdisciplinary field at the nexus of engineering and business management, and the ISTM program will eventually be a new department in UCSC's Baskin School of Engineering. ISTM faculty have offices on campus and at UCSC's Silicon Valley facilities. The graduate program, as well as some upper-division courses for undergraduates, will be based in Silicon Valley, said Ram Akella, professor and director of ISTM.

"Our laboratories are the high-tech industries. We are like anthropologists, only the tribes we study are here in Silicon Valley," Akella said. "We look at issues such as supply chain management, new product development, and how you can use information technology to improve the way companies do business."

Akella has worked extensively with the semiconductor industry, U.S. software companies, and many other companies in the U.S., Europe, and Japan. He said the ISTM program at UCSC is unlike any other program in the country.

"Engineering schools don't teach management, and management schools don't teach engineering. We combine everything, and that's what makes it unique," Akella said.

Two new faculty are joining the program this year, and Akella said he is using his connections with Silicon Valley industry and NASA Ames to bring in industry professionals to help teach courses and as adjunct faculty.

"The talent pool is tremendous, and everyone is very excited about UCSC's Silicon Valley Initiative," he said.


Note to reporters: You may contact William Berry at (650) 604-0511 or wberry@ucsc.edu.