Governor Gray Davis - Digital Library
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New UC labs focus on ideas useful to society

Charles Burress, Chronicle Staff Writer

Saturday, February 28, 2009

UC Berkeley staged a festive coming-out party Friday for a new science building that culminates a nine-year vision for an academia-industry marriage devoted to improving human life.

Designed to turn research into socially useful commercial applications, the $127 million facility filled with labs and classrooms was christened not only by dignitaries giving speeches and the Cal band, but also by fascinating displays of the new technology that it is meant to foster.

A cell phone fixed to a microscope illustrated how a sick person in a remote village with no clinics or other means of communication could be diagnosed by medical experts far away. Using the phone's camera and the attached microscope, grad student David Breslauer showed a blood smear detailed enough to reveal a malaria infection that could be viewed around the world.

A flying sensor array - about 2 feet square - had four tiny helicopter-type blades that lifted it off, sounding like a hive of angry bees. A project headed by engineering Professor Claire Tomlin, the machine is programmed to take off, perform measurements, and cope with changes in conditions and land, without a human controlling it.

The seven-story Sutardja Dai Hall - located in the northeast quadrant of the campus and named after three former Cal engineering students who founded a highly successful semiconductor firm and donated funds - will serve as headquarters for a UC-private industry partnership initiative launched by former Gov. Gray Davis in 2000.

Davis' plan, then called the California Institutes for Science and Innovation, created four institutes, each of which consisted of several campuses working together on different research themes.

The most sweeping of the four is the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society, commonly called CITRIS, with Cal serving as anchor for a collaboration with UC campuses at Santa Cruz, Davis and Merced.

"This is a dream come true," Davis told The Chronicle in an interview before addressing Friday's assemblage.

Davis said the idea originated when the state was flush because of the biotech and dot-com booms, so he and Richard Lerner, head of the Scripps Research Institute, conceived of the plan "as a booster rocket to attract new money, new enthusiasm, and bright people and ideas from around the world."

"Even though this is the last institution to come online in terms of this new building," Davis said of Cal's new home for CITRIS, "it probably has the broadest and most exciting mission."

The other three multicampus institutes belonging to what's now called the Governor Gray Davis Institutes for Science and Innovation are devoted, respectively, to quantitative biosciences, nanosystems and telecom/IT.

Also at Friday's ceremony was building namesake Weili Dai, a major donor along with her husband, Sehat Sutardja, and his brother Pantas. The three studied engineering together at Cal and co-founded Marvell Technology Group in Santa Clara. She said that all three received "a great education" as immigrants and that their gift was motivated in part to help ensure "equal opportunities for future generations."

Noting the current economic crisis, CITRIS Director Paul Wright and Cal Chancellor Robert Birgeneau said CITRIS can provide much-needed economic stimulus.