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Engineering professor delivers TED talk

Published: Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Updated: Tuesday, March 15, 2011 07:03

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Courtesy Fiorenzo Omenetto

Professor of Biomedical Engineering Fiorenzo Omenetto spoke at the 2011 TED conference about silk technology.

Professor Fiorenzo Omenetto of the Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME) joined some of the world's foremost leaders and thinkers at the TED2011 conference, presenting his research developing new applications for silk technology.

The Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) conference is an annual four-day event that brings together a world-class roster of speakers, ranging from scientists to musicians to CEOs, to share their insight in their fields of expertise. This year's conference, themed "The Rediscovery of Wonder," was held in Long Beach, Calif., between Feb. 28 and March 4.

Omenetto delivered a 10-minute talk on the program's third day during a session titled "Threads of Discovery" about his work on the uses of silk.

"I gave an overview of the whole technology, from optics to medicine to implantable devices to cups that you can throw away that degrade," Omenetto said.

Much of Omenetto's work involves using silk to study biophotonics — or the study of biological items and photon particles — and optics, according to senior Mark Brenckle, one of Omenetto's advisees.

"It's mixing light with silk to do cool things, as well as with electronics," Brenckle said. "The silk allows these optical devices and electromagnetic devices to be implanted. It gives them a higher degree of utility than they would otherwise have, and it helps them to be more useful for medical applications."

During his talk, Omenetto showed demonstrations of this technology to the audience, including pointing a laser pointer through a small square of pure silk that projected "TED" onto the wall. This technology is called a "diffractive optical element," according to Brenckle.

"What it does is it creates interference between the light beam and itself, so where there's interference you get black, and where there's no interference you get laser," Brenckle said.

Omenetto performs much of his research alongside BME Department Chair Professor David Kaplan, who began working on reverse engineering silk 25 years ago, according to Omenetto.

"We started working together by chance, and then we opened a whole new set of applications for silk," Omenetto said.

Omenetto said that the nature of his work is complicated, making his TED talk particularly challenging given its time constraints.

"It was the hardest talk I've ever given, especially because the things that we do are a platform technology," he said. "It's not one specific application, so it's hard to summarize the whole breadth of the silk in 10 minutes. … It was a total rush. It walked the fine line between incredibly exciting and incredibly terrifying."

TED Talks are traditionally 18 minutes long, but misinformed, Omenetto prepared to give an eight-minute speech. "We compromised for ten and a half," he said.

Video of the TED2011 conference will be posted online at an unconfirmed date.

Professor of Philosophy Daniel Dennett, who has given four TED talks in the past, also attended this year's conference, although he did not deliver a speech, according to Omenetto.

Lauren Klinker, a junior who works in Omenetto's lab, says his invitation to speak at the TED conference is a testament to his dedication to the subject.

"He's truly passionate about what he does," Klinker said. "He has so many cool ideas and so many cool concepts. There really is no end to the possibilities that he thinks of with silk and optics. You can feel his passion and excitement for what he does when you talk to him, and that really shows in his work."

Omenetto said that despite the difficulties he encountered, he had a positive experience at the conference.

"It was fantastic," he said. "They try to propagate the message of thinking big and being unafraid of big ideas and big endeavors."

This year's conference showcased several high-profile speakers, including Bill Gates and New York Times columnist David Brooks, which Omenetto said made the experience an unforgettable one.

"There's a bunch of incredible special moments that you get out of that conference that range from having a live feed from the International Space Station to having the Google executive that pretty much started the revolution in Egypt have a piece on stage via live feed," he said. "It's all very intertwined, and I think very stimulating. In the end, it's like a sensory overload. It kind of gets to be too much, but it's cool."

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