George Moore Wins Chancellor’s Award for Public Service

George Moore, an InFEWS Fellow and Development and Mechanical Engineering PhD student, has been awarded the Birgeneau Recognition Award for Service to Underrepresented Students.

George Moore, an InFEWS Fellow and Development and Mechanical Engineering PhD student, has been awarded the Birgeneau Recognition Award for Service to Underrepresented Students. The Blum Center emailed with Moore to find out more about his academic and extracurricular interests and views on the culture of STEM.  

What was it like to move to UC Berkeley for grad school after growing up in Alabama and attending University of South Alabama? 

These two places have really different cultural values. So, in addition to the excitement of being in a new physical space, there was a lot for me to learn about Bay Area culture. In general, my decision to come to Berkeley was intentional: I knew that my academic capacity and personal lifestyle would be challenged.

Why have you felt compelled to help underrepresented communities develop STEM skills or advance in their STEM careers?

All underrepresented communities are not the same. It would be foolish to think that I have something helpful to offer just because I also identify as a member of an underrepresented community. But because support for these communities is insufficient, I feel inspired to give what I have to offer. Because I have been able to navigate a piece of the STEM institutional system, it’s easier for me to feel more comfortable offering my service in these disciplines. What I think is most important is that I offer my experience and advice purely as a resource, and not a conviction, that should be imposed on someone else’s lifestyle. In other words, it’s not my place to steer underrepresented folks towards an engineering degree or, more broadly, pursuing a STEM career. Instead, one of my essential goals is to shed some light on how to navigate and leverage opportunities in STEM when the system is not designed for you to succeed. I’d hate to see someone abandon their cultural values for a career in STEM. 

Tell us about your service work—with the SMASH Academy and the Pinoleville Pomo Nation.

I have enjoyed the opportunity to meet, share, and learn from scholars at the SMASH Academy and community members of the Pinoleville Pomo Nation. With both groups, I was able to share some of the Human Centered Design strategies that I and other practitioners use to address big problems. My hope is that my work reassures and, if necessary, instills confidence in SMASH Scholars and the PPN community so that they are aware of their capacity to solve their own problems.

As vice president of the Black Graduate Engineering and Science Student Association, what kinds of programs have you implemented?

I’ve worked alongside Liya Weldegebriel (BGESS President) and several other strong black graduate students on the BGESS executive team to help provide supportive programming for BGESS members this year. A few notable programs include our Buddy Lunch mentorship program, Professional Development Workshop, Cultural Exchange Speakers Series, and attendance at AfroTech in the Fall. The Buddy Lunch program matches BGESS members based on their interests and encourages them to meet up for lunch to share experiences and advice navigating life at UC Berkeley. Recently, the program has moved to virtual lunches via Zoom in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Professional Development Workshop was inspired by conversations about figuring out how to prepare ourselves for life after graduate school. The Cultural Exchange Speaker Series have offered a platform to have culturally relevant conversations with each other. These events range from panel sessions with prominent black scholars in STEM to sharing our own cultural backgrounds—acknowledging that while we share a lot of the same values and struggles as the black graduates in STEM, our cultural backgrounds are actually quite different. AfroTech is an annual Conference held in the Bay Area that focuses on accelerating black careers in engineering, design, and entrepreneurship. Thousands of black professionals in STEM and related fields attend this conference every year. In the Fall of 2019, we had at least 15 BGESS members attend. 

Your LinkedIn page notes that you are “On a mission to thread a desire for empowering marginalized communities with a passion for sustainable design. Hence, I stay familiar, and critical, of frameworks like the Human-centered Design process and Life Cycle Analysis.” Please explain your skepticism about HCD and LCA. What issues does it fail to address for marginalized communities?

While these frameworks are constantly being modified to better serve their purpose, “service to marginalized communities” is not always included in that purpose. So it’s important that I use these frameworks with caution and understand the underlying assumptions that other researchers and practitioners have made. A good understanding of these assumptions is what enables me to refine these frameworks to better serve a marginalized community of interest.

Suleiman Halasah: Environment as a Cross-boundary Peacebuilding Tool

Titled “Innovations and Collaboration at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems: Toward Sustainability in the Middle East,” Halasah’s talk covered his role as founder and co-director of JICCER, his solar water pumping project with Palestinian and Jordanian farmers, and the lessons he has learned about community development and environmental peacebuilding.

By Jason Liu

In 2002, Suleiman Halasah graduated from the University of Jordan with a degree in electrical engineering and went on to work first as a teaching assistant for the University of Jordan’s Department of Computer Engineering and then as a control engineer for the Jordan Valley Authority on irrigation projects. Yet within a few years, Halasah came to realize the work wasn’t for him. “I would sit in an office all day being totally disconnected from life,” he said. 

Halasah was also disillusioned with the impact he was having at the Jordan Valley Authority. “Working with the government is really hard because of one main point: it’s a huge institution,” he said. “Making any change is almost impossible, especially if you’re assigned to a project far from the center of power. ”

Halasah’s frustration came with a silver lining, however. Because of the slow pace of work, he had free time to pursue other passions and became involved in several Jordan-based NGOs focused on peacebuilding, community development, and volunteering.

“One of the main projects I did was establishing a village computer lab that was the only one for 100 kilometers,” he said. “I saw how the lab brought opportunities to change people’s lives, and ever since then I’ve been focused on what I can do to directly help other people.”

In 2006, Halasah joined the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel where he co-founded a photovoltaic solar field company called the Arava Power. He went on to found the environmental service consulting agency i.GREENs; served as the acting associate director of the Arava Institute’s Center for Transboundary Water Management; and now co-directs the Jordan-Israel Center for Community, Environment, and Research (JICCER), which supports the well-being of natural and human systems of the Arava valley through cross-border community initiatives and research. He is also pursuing a Ph.D. in off-grid water and wastewater systems in the West Bank from Ben-Gurion University in Negev, Israel.

Energy & Resources Group Professor Isha Ray (right) and Suleiman Halasah discuss sustainability challenges in the Middle East at the nexus of food, energy, and water systems. © Laura Turbow

Halasah came to speak at UC Berkeley on October 29 in an event co-hosted by the Blum Center for Developing Economies, the Master of Development Practice, and the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies. Titled “Innovations and Collaboration at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems: Toward Sustainability in the Middle East,” Halasah’s talk covered his role as founder and co-director of JICCER, his solar water pumping project with Palestinian and Jordanian farmers, and the lessons he has learned about community development and environmental peacebuilding.

Discussant Isha Ray, associate professor at the Energy & Resources Group and co-director of the Berkeley Water Center, joined Halasah afterward and highlighted some of the key takeaways: how those working on development often focus on financial and technological solutions, while ignoring cultural, political, and social realities; how patience goes beyond being a virtue in development but is the very key to success; how governments at times track and control nomadic tribes under the guise of development; and how the current push for “scaling up” needs redress as communities are location-specific.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Halasah before the event at Berkeley’s beloved Yali’s Cafe to ask him about his work. While waiting for our coffee, I asked how he would describe his day job. Halasah said:

“My main focus is to bring people together, so that they can get to know each other and discuss hard questions. But if the audience focuses on water, then I focus on how water can do this. If the audience focuses on environmental issues, then that’s how I present work. Ultimately, I use different opportunities for bringing people together to catalyze peace building in the Middle East.”

During his career, Halasah said he was shaped by two factors. The first was his father. When connecting the dots on how an electrical engineer in Jordan ended up at the Arava Institute in Israel, the first thing Halasah said was: The flexibility my Dad gave helped a lot. My Dad very much believed that I should lead my own direction in life and as long as I felt like it was the right thing to do, he would support me.”

The second shaping factor for Halasah was traveling. Halasah has been to conferences all over the world to share his work in community development, peace building, and how he’s able to transcend the complicated politics of the Middle East. He has also traveled as a tourist to the US, Indonesia, China, Malaysia, Uganda, and many other countries.

“When you meet people from other nationalities, it opens your eyes,” said Halasah. “You don’t see yourself as superior to others. You see that everybody is very proud of their culture and the divisive things that separate people from different cultures and nations don’t exist anymore. It’s humbling.”

As I listened to Halasah’s talk at the Blum Center later in the day, it was clear how these experiences were reflected in both his professional choices and his outlook on development. 

“The approach today is mainly one-directional. The implementer comes to the community saying, ‘This is your problem, this is its effect on you, and this is how I’m going to solve it.’ The community itself is totally disconnected. As a result, communities don’t take ownership of the solution, they don’t see it as their system. Then comes complications with the system when some part fails and people say, ‘This is their technology. Why should I fix it? How should I fix it? The NGO needs to come to see what is wrong with it.’” 

Instead, Halasah argues, we need to “work directly with the community on defining the problem, brainstorming solutions, and figuring out what assets they have. It should all ultimately come from them.” For Halasah this means conducting interviews, holding roundtables with all stakeholders, and making sure the community has a voice at every step. “It’s their problem; they should know more about it than we do,” said Halasah. 

Another topic that Halasah is passionate about is environmental peacekeeping. In explaining how natural resources, pollution, and social spaces can play a role in peace building, Halasah said, “For any conflict, there is a core problem, but there are also so many other things that can be opportunities for peacebuilding and community development. The environmental approach works because it affects everyone. And that’s something that can be used to bring people together.”

Halasah continued: “Once you bring people together people don’t talk about each other as ‘the other,’ as an imaginary person in their head—they realize it’s a human in front of them that shares a lot of the same interests.  People ultimately care about their level of living, about securing their food and water. They care about their kids, how their kids are being treated, and the resources they have. I see the environment as not only a tool for peacebuilding but also for community stability as it gets everybody to talk about their shared interests.”

Halasah had a clear answer when I asked what the key factor in making these talks successful is: trust. He said: “There’s high potential for things to be done, but the main obstacle is that people don’t trust each other. With my work, we always have a balanced team that represents different communities. I have an Israeli partner. She brings me to all her community meetings in Israel, and I bring her to all my meetings on the Jordanian side. When people see that there’s somebody from the other side that they learn to trust, there’s more open communication.”

As our coffee cups emptied and Halasah prepared to go to his next meeting, I asked him what advice he would give students pursuing a career in development engineering. Among seeing each moment as a learning opportunity, persevering, and staying positive, Halasah ended with this: 

“I would say interdisciplinary projects are the best way to learn and get a full picture about something. If you are an engineer that looks at a technical solution, it doesn’t make sense to be isolated from the community. You need to go out there in the field to meet with people, listen to them, and see what they think. Too often, we think we have the right answer for something, but it might be for the wrong problem. We need to understand what people need in order to understand what the solution is.”

Configurable Microfactories: Autodesk’s San Francisco Technology Center

There are only a handful of Autodesk Technology Centers around the world—in the United Kingdom (Birmingham), Canada (Toronto), and the United States (Boston and San Francisco). Each location explores different aspects of the future of making, from construction to advanced manufacturing to artificial intelligence and generative design. And all of the spaces are designed to foster innovation and advance Autodesk’s vision is to help people imagine, design, and make a better world.

Autodesk’s San Francisco location, at Pier 9, serves as a hub for the exploration of the future of manufacturing. Its focus is “configurable microfactories,” also known as iterative manufacturing, and offers a range of advanced manufacturing equipment, robotics, general shop facilities, and workspace to research and develop ideas that push the boundaries of the built environment.

On April 25, the Autodesk Foundation invited Blum Center-affiliated graduate students to meet with Autodesk experts on the future of sustainable design. Fifteen Development Engineering students, InFEWS Fellows, and Big Ideas Hardware for Good participants explored ways to apply their technical skills to the future of manufacturing.

Zoé Bezpalko, who heads Autodesk’s sustainability strategy for the design and manufacturing industries, presented several tools, including CNC machines, 3D printers, woodworking tools, and laser cutters. Autodesk develops the software that runs on these tools and is developing and promoting software solutions and workflows that work either in the design phase, or with these hardware tools, in the manufacturing phase, to reduce material and energy consumption. The result is a reduction in the environmental impact of product design and manufacturing industries.

Bezpalko presented a display of 3D printed objects, including a replica of Van Gogh’s Starry Night and facial sculptures made from paper. A few highly intricate coral replicas caught the attention of several students. Bezpalko explained the coral model was an output from Autodesk Foundation grantee The Hydrous, a startup that uses reality capture and photogrammetry to create high resolution 3D models of coral reefs as part of a multi-pronged conservation effort. Given the severe impacts of climate change on marine ecosystem health, the 3D printed coral reefs help The Hydrous raise awareness and provide ways to collect data, analyze, and monitor coral reefs without the risk of exposing them to further damage.

Autodesk’s Zoé Bezpalko displayed a 3D printed object to the Blum Center group.

The Blum Center group also visited the robotics lab where two large robotic arms were building a tower from Legos. The group discussed the future of robotics and the many challenges in teaching a robot to complete simple human tasks. Bezpalko showed the group a photo of a 3D printed bridge in Amsterdam, called MX3D, which will soon be installed at one of the city’s oldest and most famous canals. The 3D printed MX3D bridge is a fully functional stainless steel bridge, completed in just six months through robotic additive manufacturing technology.

Over lunch, the group was joined by two senior staff members from Autodesk. The first was Michael Floyd, Autodesk’s AEC Sustainability Strategy Manager, who incubates and promotes novel and existing solutions, largely for high performance buildings, zero-waste construction, and smart, resilient cities. Floyd explained that to decrease the environmental impacts of construction, Autodesk is supporting integration of BIM 360, Autodesk’s building design & construction platform, with EC3, an embodied carbon calculator for buildings. EC3 provides data about the “cradle-to-gate” embodied carbon of locally available building materials, providing data on greenhouse gas emissions associated with raw material extraction, logistics, and manufacturing of specific in-market materials. Green building practices, now widely adopted across the United States and European Union, are still nascent in many developing countries. Floyd hopes that by helping building professionals make informed decisions to minimize the embodied carbon of their projects, Autodesk can catalyze green building practices in the global North, and in developing countries alike.

Morgan Fabian, who leads machine learning research and development for Fusion 360 at Autodesk, talked to the Blum Center group about generative design and how it relates to sustainability. The recent Cal Industrial Engineering graduate explained how the fusion of machine intelligence and creative work can maximize innovative design and function. For example, Autodesk’s Fusion 360 software has generative design capabilities allowing designers to explores alternative design permutations. By providing designers and engineers with a wider array of options, they can select a final design that reduces environmental impact by filtering for specific constraints including materials, cost, and manufacturing methods.

To demonstrate the impact of generative design, Fabian used the example of WHILL, a client that designs and manufactures electric wheelchairs. According to WHILL’s market research, users wanted lighter wheelchairs that are both more affordable and portable. To meet these standards, WHILL used Fusion 360’s generative design capabilities to output dozens of alternative designs that would meet these demands while maintaining the device’s mechanical integrity. The result exceeded expectations; WHILL was able to lighten the frame by more than 30 percent, making it easier to lift and load the wheelchair into the trunk of a car.

George Moore, a UC Berkeley PhD student in Mechanical and Development Engineering, said that the highlight of the Pier 9 visit was learning about Autodesk software to support collaboration and joint decision-making for sustainable design solutions.

Dr. Yael Perez, a researcher at the Blum Center, noted that there are many students like Moore who collaborate with communities, such as the Pinoleville Pomo Nation in northern California, to develop sustainable designs for housing, energy, and education.

“By making software available to students for free, as well as providing other types of supports, Autodesk is bringing local and professional knowledge to the design table for collaborative innovations,” she said.

—Lisa Bauer