UCLA astrophysicist Andrea Ghez is known by some as the person who took the twinkle out of the stars. Her pioneering techniques to eliminate how the Earth’s atmosphere blurs telescope images of stars are what allowed her to discover evidence for the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy.
Though she’s a bit of a science rock star now, that wasn’t the case when she made her first proposal to get observation time at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii.
“And this group, the time allocation committee said, ‘No, you can’t have any time because your technique won’t work. And even if it does, you won’t see anything at the center [of the black hole] and the fact that you’re proposing to see the motion? That’s above and beyond,’” Ghez recalled during the Fast Company Innovation Festival.
Eventually, Ghez’s research proved that committee’s reservations were unfounded.
“But look,” she told the audience. “You can do it, and there are stars!”
Ghez was one of five speakers with UCLA connections who spoke at the third annual event produced by Fast Company magazine. The conference, held from Oct. 23 to 27 in New York City, was titled “Leading with Optimism.” It brought together influencers from business, entertainment and technology to explore the role that new ideas play in advancing industries and fields of study.
“Mind you, every step of the way, there was criticism,” Ghez said in her interview with journalist Jason Kersten. “This is how science works. You doubt and you question. What else could it be? That’s our responsibility as scientists. A key piece of innovation is one’s ability to withstand the criticism and struggle that goes on behind it.”
Ghez said that her journey to world-class scientists began when she was mesmerized by the moon landing at the age of 4.
“I thought I wanted to become a ballerina,” she said. “I discovered I had no talent for it. I have a huge passion for it today, but where that fascination led me was into an interest in choreography. I think of choreography as an art of putting together the pieces.
“Today as a scientist, I often think about [what I do as] basically choreography of information. It’s interesting to think about how to disrupt the information that you have, because I think that’s how you make progress.”
Jeff Burke, associate dean of technology and innovation at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, and Jaime Nack, a UCLA alumna and the founder of environmental consulting firm Three Squares, Inc., were interviewed by Chuck Salter, a Fast Company senior editor, about the ingredients in their recipes for innovation.
Nack reflected on the importance of appealing to the values of a diverse range of people when working on sustainability and reducing environmental impact. She talked about making the 2008 Democratic National Convention more eco-friendly and working with the Environmental Protection Agency to create standards for “green” events.
“We have to sweet talk a lot of people, and a lot of it is speaking to them in the language they understand,” Nack said. “Right away, I thought that if we just told them that it’s good for the environment and it will lessen our impact and it’s good PR for them, that they’ll jump on board. And that wasn’t always the case.”
In her work with chefs, Nack makes sure food waste is collected for composting and recycling, and ingredients are locally sourced.
“One example I like to use is of a chef up in Montreal. When we started talking about sourcing locally and featuring a menu with local produce, initially he was very resistant. He was like, ‘No, no, no. There’s nothing in season,’” she said. “So it started out with, ‘No, no, no. No changes,’ but then I started talking to him. I said, ‘This is my first time in Quebec, tell me a little bit about it, where should I go to eat? What’s good here?’ He started talking about his wines and his cheeses and his honeys and he … was super prideful about all the great, yummy things that are Quebecois. So I said, ‘What if we do a whole reception featuring all Quebecois food and wine?’ And he said, ‘Of course I can do that.’”
Burke’s latest project involves developing a live theater event during which an actress will interact with an artificial intelligence machine learning system. His goal for the three-year project is to write the story and computer code simultaneously.
“It’s a play about a woman who suffers from a traumatic brain injury [and] receives a brain implant to help her with her short-term memory,” Burke said. “Part of what we want to do with that story is actually try to tell it through machine learning and AI, or a piece of it. So the actress will be the main part of the character, but she’ll have a relationship with a real AI machine learning system that is with her all the way through from rehearsal to performance to help her create that story on stage.”
Two other Bruin experts who shared their perspectives were Sadie Lincoln, who graduated in 1994 and is co-founder and CEO of barre3, and Dave Fanger, who got his M.B.A. from the UCLA Anderson School of Management in 2015, and is founder and CEO of Swell Investing.
Barre3 offers fitness classes and has grown to more than 100 studios worldwide in less than 10 years, and Lincoln said she has integrated lessons she learned at UCLA into her business.
“Guidance is important,” she said. “We give guardrails and clear structure and foundation. And then make it your own.”
Fanger attributed the success of Swell — whose investing strategy considers environmental and social implications — and its ability to innovate to his team’s supportive and collaborative nature. His advice: Go to the experts in the fields in which you lack expertise, hire them as consultants and learn their processes and routines.
“One of the things that I’ve found at Swell is that you have to be incredibly optimistic and your team has to be optimistic,” Fanger said.” Sometimes you might think, ‘Well, it’s good to have somebody who’s a pessimist on the team.’ No, that’s not true.
“All your capital providers … are going to tell you your idea’s not going to work. It takes a tremendous effort to build a startup, and you need that team to believe and have passion and drive and have this optimistic, ‘how-might-we’ attitude to keep it moving.”