Art meets Engineering

Author: Linda Thomas Terhune
The diligence of a dancer.
The care of a craftsman.
The precision of a photographer.

All come together in the work of an engineer, where art meets science, left brain meets right brain, and creativity becomes innovation that has the power to change the world. Introducing three engineers whose talents range far beyond the stage of classroom and laboratory.

The Highly Choreographed Life of an Industrial Engineer

Yuehwern Yih’s life is a complicated mambo.

Professor Yuehwern Yih and husband Daniel Dilley, a software engineer, demonstrate the style that has earned them national titles in ballroom dance. The couple, who met through dancing, compete professionally across the country in the American rhythm division, which includes cha-cha, rumba, swing, mambo and bolero. (Below) Yih is shown working with members of the Latin and Ballroom Dance Team as they prepared for an appearance in May on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.”

The fancy footwork involved in choreographing work as a leading health care engineer and nationally ranked ballroom dancer was never more evident than last spring, when Yih set aside her academic work and put on her dancing shoes to coach Purdue’s Latin and Ballroom competitive dance team for two performances on national television.

Contacted by the producers of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” at the end of April, the “Crew from Purdue” had one weekend — with finals and commencement looming — to pull an audition tape together, another week to rehearse a mambo number, and a third week to prepare a cha-cha routine for the championship dance-off against UC San Diego, Rutgers, and Utah Valley University (Purdue placed second; Utah Valley first). This involved daily rehearsals in the morning, afternoon, and evenings that stretched to 1 a.m. to perfect a formation routine (as opposed to performances by couples).

The rigors of professional, competitive dancing are familiar to Yih, a native of Taiwan, who aspired as a child to be a ballet dancer but was told by her parents to put studies first. Good thing, she says with intense sincerity, or she is sure she would be a dancer today. Instead, she studied industrial engineering, took up ballet during doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin, and today is working to streamline health care delivery systems to improve patient care quality and cost effectiveness.

A Purdue faculty member since 1989, Yih jokes that when she received the job offer, she checked the phone book to be sure the area had a ballet school. Her life, in fact, has been guided by dance. She declined to marry unless her mate shared her passion for dance, and she found a fitting partner in software engineer Daniel Dilley, with whom she competes nationally. Dilley also coaches the Purdue competitive ballroom team, which Yih founded in 1995.

Yih and Dilley have placed highly enough as amateurs that they opted last year to turn professional for tougher competition. They dance in the American Rhythm division, which includes cha-cha, rumba, swing, mambo and bolero. Once or twice a month, they travel to National Dance Council of America events as far afield as California and Florida and fit in sessions with coaches in Chicago when possible. In their down time, they dance at home — in a living room they converted into a mirrored dance studio.

Yih’s research is detail-oriented, focused and exacting. So is her chosen art form, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. “Being an engineer is a profession, but it doesn’t complete your life. You have to be happy and passionate. You need to love what you do to have a complete life,” she says.

Yih’s dancing is as precise as her engineering. In competition, one small slip — a split-second miss on connecting with a partner’s hand — can set off a perilous chain reaction. “Like any system, recovering from a breakdown takes a lot of effort,” Yih says. “Dancing is the coordination of many different things. There is no single element you can ignore. Like many systems that have many different components, when one is out of sync, the whole system will suffer.”

In health care, one small slip in the management process — be it communication between doctor and patient or errors in lab tests — and the system may suffer. The latter challenge occupies Yih’s time as a researcher.

Yih’s latest research has been focused on error modeling and quality control for clinical laboratory tests. Physicians rely on the lab results to diagnose diseases and adjust medications. Errors in laboratory process can cause misdiagnosis, ineffective treatment, drug overdose, and more. She is working with partners at Mayo Clinic and Roche Diagnostics to model the error components in the measuring process including the samples, calibrators, calibration process, and equipment components. The model will be able to identify where most of the errors occur and which quality control policies might offer the most effective protocols for clinical laboratories.

Yih, who believes firmly that engineers need to embed themselves in the environment they’re studying, has a system engineering fellowship with Mayo Clinics that provides a four-year fellowship for a Purdue industrial engineering doctoral student with two years at Purdue and two at Mayo. Mayo physicians will work closely with Yih and the student to formulate a dissertation topic with direct relevance to future clinical practice.

Yih’s research is detail-oriented, focused and exacting. So is her chosen art form, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. “Being an engineer is a profession, but it doesn’t complete your life. You have to be happy and passionate. You need to love what you do to have a complete life,” she says.

The Sharply Focused Life of a Computer Engineer

When computer engineer David Ebert travels for business and pleasure, he seeks out the nearest hiking trails, favoring those with dramatic vistas and breathtaking terrain. His favorite spot of all being the Canadian Rockies. Along with his favorite hat, he also always carries a camera to satisfy a longstanding love of nature photography.

David Ebert, a computer graphics visualization specialist, hikes whenever he can, his favorite spot being in the Canadian Rockies, where he is pictured. While on the trail, he partakes of another hobby, nature photography " particularly of mountains and clouds. The photos sometimes find their way into his cloud visualization work, as displayed in the research images at top and bottom left of the facing page.

Ebert, the Silicon Valley Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and director of a prestigious homeland security center at Purdue, began hiking and taking photographs of nature as an undergraduate at the Ohio State University. In the 20 years that have elapsed, he has amassed hundreds of images of breathtaking mountain scenery. In many of them, clouds blanket alpine valleys, blow off mountain summits, or spread like fish scales across an open sky.

This is no accident. It is a strategic melding of personal art and professional science. Since graduate school, Ebert has been exploring algorithmic representations of how to simulate natural phenomena like wood and water, cloud and fog, and the textures and patterns of lighting. As a computer graphics and visualization specialist, his research explores the effective communication of information like clouds through graphics rendering, modeling, abstraction, animation, and perceptualization.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the beauty and complexity of nature and that led me into both photography of nature and my research,” he says. “On the graphics and visualization side, everything that I do is about how to convey information from an image and generate the image; on the photography side, it is focused on representing and capturing that information. Sort of the converse.”

Ebert’s cloud and steam simulations have appeared in television commercials and films, including the 2005 Disney movie “Valiant.” He teamed with a filmmaker while at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County for a class that matched fine arts with computer graphics. And he does what he calls “hobby research” on movie special effects. Each of his creations has a unique footprint that Ebert can easily recognize — “I’ll see a commercial and say, ‘Hey, that’s my steam!’”

Ebert has long been fascinated by the intersection of art and science. As an elementary school student in Sandusky, Ohio, he made wine for a science project, inspired by the vineyards that surrounded his hometown and the draw of chemistry. As an adult, he remains fascinated by the science of winemaking and puts his imagination to the test in the kitchen.

Ever the engineer, Ebert likes creativity with a sharp focus. As director of Purdue’s Visual Analytics for Command, Control, and Interoperability Environments (VACCINE), a department of the Homeland Security Center of Excellence, he is developing specialized software to help homeland security and emergency personnel respond to and manage a variety of calamities, from disease outbreaks to economic crises.

In his own laboratory, Purdue Rendering and Perceptualization Lab (PURPL), projects include illustration and photography-inspired visualization of flows and volumes, a challenge that fellow engineer Leonardo da Vinci took on centuries ago. He also borrows directly from art, applying stippling techniques and medical illustration for best effect.

“Simulating hand drawn illustration techniques can succinctly express information in a manner that is communicative and informative,” he explains. “By combining the principles of artistic and scientific illustration, we explore several feature enhancement techniques to create effective, interactive visualizations of scientific and medical data sets.”

Over the years, Ebert has worked in and out of the entertainment industry. In 2000, during a sabbatical year at Stanford University, he joined forces with the video game company Electronic Arts to help with real-time modeling and rendering technology in products designed for PlayStation 2. Although Ebert, who doesn’t play video games, saw it as a job, several of his graduate students were elated when the company gave him its library, which includes such popular titles as Tiger Woods, Madden Football and Medal of Honor.

No matter the project, art is an integral piece of Ebert’s success.

“To be successful, you need to have an appreciation of aesthetics and design or you may come up with a great algorithm (or photograph or glass of wine) that no one will use,” he says. “It has to be well designed.”

The Lifelong Ties to Water of an Environmental Engineer

The human body is about 60 percent water. In the case of Ernest (Chip) Blatchley, though, it is more than that. He is 60 percent water inside, and nearly 100 percent water outside.

Blatchley uses his woodworking skills to build flatplate collimators for UV experimentation. He sells them to laboratories around the world.

As an environmental engineer, Blatchley works to improve water quality. As an avid water sports athlete, he has played on it his whole life. It comes as little surprise, then, that one of this engineer’s creative endeavors was building a sea kayak seven years ago that is as beautiful as it is functional.

Blatchley grew up in West Lafayette, the son of two Purdue faculty members. His father was in aviation technology; his mother, in nursing. He canoed on the Wabash River with his Boy Scout troop, sailed on Lake Freeman with his father, swam competitively in high school, and joined the crew club during his freshman year at Purdue. He rowed throughout his undergraduate years and continued during graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley.

“I have always been connected to water and always interested in water,” Blatchley says. The pull was strong enough to lead him to civil engineering studies with a focus on environmental engineering.

Blatchley’s research in the School of Civil Engineering focuses on ultraviolet disinfection of drinking water. He has also done work on swimming pool chemistry. Much of the UV experimentation is done using flat-plate collimated beam systems, which Blatchley developed in the mid-1990s. They provide a highly uniform, collimated beam of radiation that is ideal for photochemical experiments.

Flat-plate collimators, which are constructed using hardwood lumber, can be found at the intersection of craft and engineering. Blatchley’s original motivation for developing these systems stemmed from a lack of acceptable devices on the market. Unable to find collimators that produced an acceptable beam, Blatchley built several of the devices for his own laboratory. Other researchers heard about these systems by word of mouth, and as a result, he has been hired to produce collimated beams for roughly 20 laboratories in the United States, Canada and Europe. His Memorial Day Weekend was spent, in part, building a collimated beam system to fill an order.

Chip Blatchley, professor of civil engineering, studies water and plays in it. The former crew athlete used his problem-solving skills to construct a strip-built kayak, which he is holding (right) and paddling on the Wabash River (below).

Blatchley began woodworking as a hobby during graduate school in the 1980s. His first project was a coffee table built on the porch of the apartment he shared with his wife. A self-taught artisan, he has now made much of the furniture in the couple’s home: beds, dressers, bookcases, desks, tables, many picture frames. His latest project is a bed frame. Like many of his projects, he tackled the strip-built sea kayak — which was constructed in the family’s sunroom — by reading a book about how to do it. It gets its beauty from cedar strips; its strength from fiberglass and epoxy.

“I read books, make mistakes, read more books, make more mistakes,” he says, with a grin. “There is a lot of problem solving in woodworking. It’s a challenge and I enjoy learning. I have learned a lot, but still make mistakes often, which means that I’m still learning.”

Blatchley also continues to learn about engineering. In May, he and 12 students traveled to Kenya to install a sand filter for water treatment they designed and built for use at a girls school. The project, a service-learning class focused on water treatment in developing countries, is part of an agreement between Purdue and Kenya’s Moi University.

Blatchley is fascinated by such global partnerships and the growing focus on global water-quality research, which he says will require a lot of learning on the part of engineers.

“The level of student interest in this topic is very high and there are many opportunities. There is a whole different set of constraints when you are working in Africa (or other developing countries),” he says, listing the political and socioeconomic factors that come into play.

“We can pursue issues at the interface between traditional academic engineering work and the social sciences, bringing together the physical and social sciences. Engineers are not always good at that because we apply math and physics to solve a problem, but sometimes ignore the rest,” he says. “We are the ones who need to do the learning.”

When he’s not making furniture, collimated beams or water filters, Blatchley can be found on a bike or cross-country skis. An avid athlete, he recently competed in a local triathlon and each winter takes part in the legendary American Birkebeiner 50K cross-country ski race in Wisconsin (his 2010 time was 4 hours 16 minutes, though he says he doesn’t really do it to compete and is glad just to make it from start to finish). Once in a while, he can be found on the water, paddling his strip-built cedar kayak.

“There’s a great satisfaction that comes from building something and using it,” he says.