The Institute - March 2007 - 13

M em b er Pro fi le

Claire Tomlin:

Genius Engineer
By Anna Bogdanowicz

W

hen it comes to helping others, Senior
Member Claire Tomlin covers a lot of
ground: she's a teacher at two
California universities, and she's
making flying safer.
Tomlin, an aviation engineer
who teaches electrical engineering and computer science at
Stanford and aeronautics and
astronautics at the University of
California, Berkeley, has developed an airplane collision avoidance system for NASA. The
technology can automatically
steer a plane away from a collision when radar detects another
plane flying too close. And her
research for the military is helping pilots on the ground control
unmanned vehicles flying into
dangerous areas.
For her research in aviation
engineering, in September she
received the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, popularly
called the "Genius Award," and a
US $500 000 no-strings-attached
grant. The annual fellowship
is given to about 25 people for
their creativity, originality, and
"potential to make important
contributions in the future."
Tomlin was chosen for
"expanding the abstract mathematical principles of control
systems theory to address practical problems in such areas as
aircraft flight control and collision avoidance," according to the
foundation. Her research promises broad applications in military operations, business strategies, and power-grid control.
"It was a huge surprise and
an honor," Tomlin says. "It's
been fantastic." She says she
will use the grant money in part
for tuition to study genetic biology, her other love. She has five
years to use the grant.
For Tomlin, the leap from

engineering to biology at age
37 is all about fulfilling dreams
she's had ever since she was a
teenager interested in the two
fields. "I always knew I wanted to
do engineering, but I also wanted
to study biology," she says.
A TOUGH CHOICE Tomlin has
always been a math whiz. As a
teenager growing up in Ottawa,
she was one of 250 high school
students chosen from all of Canada to participate in the Shad
Valley program, which enables
teens to spend the summer
before their senior year studying advanced math, engineering, and computer science at
one of a dozen universities.
"It's a geeky thing to do,
but it's wonderful-mostly because of the people you meet,"
Tomlin says.
Students also get to do an
internship at one of the companies that sponsor the program.
Tomlin interned at Gandalf
Data, a switch and modem
developer in Nepean, Ont. The
experience helped steer her
toward engineering, she says.
Working at Gandalf, she met
people who shared her love of
math: electrical engineers. "I
liked solving math problems-
that's what brought me to electrical engineering," she says.
When it came time to choose
her field of study, she was torn
because she also was interested
in solving medical problems. In
the end, she decided on electrical engineering and attended
the University of Waterloo, also
in Ontario. She went on to earn
a doctorate in control theory
in 1998 from the University of
California, Berkeley.
ENGINEERING SAFETY While
still working on her doctorate in
1994, Tomlin took NASA up on

an offer to conduct research on
air traffic control. Her research
involved programming different airplane control modes,
which vary and maintain a
fixed velocity and altitude automatically when the autopilot is
turned on.
In 1998, she started working
as an assistant professor at Stanford but continued her research

The collision avoidance system has been successfully tested
on a T-33 training aircraft f lying alongside an F-15 fighter
jet. The system is not yet being
used, but Tomlin is already
working on a similar one for
commercial airplanes.
In 1999, she tackled another
research project, this time helping automate the control of
unmanned airborne vehicles
by fewer pilots on the ground.
Today, a number of pilots are
required to operate each UAV,
but Tomlin's research is changing that.
TURNING TO BIOLOGY As different research opportunities
popped up, Tomlin began to
wonder whether she was in the

which. The aim is to determine how tissues develop.
That's important for biologists
because many genetic disorders
are caused by a defect in a cell's
polarity mechanism.
Axelrod already had an idea
about how cells determine polarity, but he wanted Tomlin to use
her math skills to verify his
hypothesis with cold, hard calculations. Now their research is
helping biologists understand-
and perhaps one day prevent-
certain genetic disorders.
The MacArthur grant will
give Tomlin the money she
needs to take a break from
teaching and to study experimental genetic biology. What
she will learn in her biology classes will help take her

Claire Tomlin with the quadrotor aircraft that her Stanford University students designed and built
for use in unmanned vehicles. It features autonomous sensing and multiple control systems.

for NASA, this time on aircraft
collision avoidance systems.
Along with one post-doctoral
and two graduate students, she
designed a system that uses
algorithms to analyze the conditions of a possible collision and
then chooses the right avoidance
maneuver. When the plane's
radar detects a dangerously close
aircraft, the collision avoidance
system automatically turns on
and relies on Tomlin's software
to guide the plane to safety.

right field. "Even though I was
really happy to be an electrical
engineer, I kept asking myself,
'Should I have gone into biology?'" she says.
An opportunity in 2000
made up her mind: she would
do both. She met Jeff Axelrod,
an experimental biologist in
Stanford's medical school who
was working on a hypothesis
about how cells in developing
organisms figure out polarity-which side of the cell is

research with Axelrod to new
heights, she says.
"I think studying biology
will be fun," she says, "but also
I think it's necessary for my
research." She adds that she
plans to continue solving problems-both engineering and
biological-as long as she can
be of help.
"I'd like to accomplish something where the usefulness can
be measured by how it helps
people," she says.
*
The Institute | March 2007

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