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From Gyroscopes to Gecko Glue: An Inventor’s Guide to Loving Life

Meet Kimberly Turner, a fashion plate, competitive cyclist, and dog trainer...who also happens to be an engineer.
by Cameron Walker
29 September 2010 Comments 0 Comments

From Gyroscopes to Gecko Glue: An Inventor’s Guide to Loving Life
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You won’t find a pocket protector in mechanical engineer Kimberly Turner’s closet, but you will find cute wedge sandals and race jerseys for cycling. Today, the head of UC Santa Barbara’s mechanical engineering department is cruising between the equation-covered white board and her lab’s shaker tables—they measure how things respond to vibration—wearing a sparkly shirt and a flowered skirt. Tomorrow, she might put on her running shoes to take one of her Irish setters out on the trails—or buckle into a life jacket to go kayaking.

Turner’s research focuses on the tiny machine she shows a visitor through a microscope. Underneath the lenses is a chip that looks as if it could be part of a very complicated tic-tac-toe game: a big square with a bunch of arms, each of which has even smaller fingers branching off it. Even though it looks like just a series of lines, this chip actually holds a extremely tiny gyroscope. Remember the childhood toy with the spinning wheel? That spin helps gyroscopes resist forces that might send them tumbling. As a result, they’re commonly used to maintain orientation during motion, and Turner’s version might someday appear inside a cell phone to help you navigate in tight spots where GPS doesn’t work.

The tiny machines she’s showing off are called microelectromechanical systems—or MEMS, for short. This one may some day be able to get you where you want to go. Other MEMS can be designed into sniff out a single bad molecule, making them likely candidates for devices that detect everything from carbon monoxide to explosives to environmental toxins.

These machines are what transformed Turner, 37, from a disillusioned PhD student to an engineer powered by passion. One of the problems with engineering is that most people—particularly budding engineers—don’t really know what an engineer does. Even though her father was an engineering professor at Michigan Tech, Turner once wondered the same thing herself. When she was a kid, Turner wanted to be a veterinarian, not only because she’d grown up with dogs and worked at an animal clinic, but also because it was clear what a vet did—help animals.

At Michigan Tech, she had plenty of advice from her dad and from his colleagues, many of whom she’d known since childhood. “People tell you, ‘You’re good at math and science, you should be an engineer,’” Turner says.  Sure, she was good—but she still wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do.

During her first year as an engineering grad student at Cornell, she’d sit in on lectures at the university’s renowned vet school. But that spring, she stumbled upon a group working on MEMS. She was first intrigued by the high-tech appeal—the specialized equipment needed to etch the moving parts on a chip’s surface, the skills required to design tiny systems and then build them in the clean room. Then she saw the far-reaching applications of these microscopic marvels, which might work anywhere from inside a doctor’s office (MEMs can be designed to recognize tiny changes in mass, so could sniff out a particular compound on a patient’s breath to look for potential diseases) to high above the earth, keeping a satellite stable.

Studying something that could impact almost every aspect of society, Turner says, made her realize that an engineer could make as much of a difference in people’s lives as a veterinarian or a doctor. Now, when people ask what she does, she tells them she’s an inventor. Along with MEMS-based projects, she’s been working on a nanoscale synthetic adhesive inspired by a gecko’s sticky foot. A gecko can stay plastered upside-down on the ceiling—or it can scamper as its feet un-stick and then re-stick to a wall. Turner’s adhesive uses magnets to create the same reversible properties, so that unlike regular glue or tape, it can switch its stickiness on and off. (The lab group even has a gecko mascot named Dude.)

Invention, and re-invention, shows up in her life outside the lab, too. A few years ago, she’d been racking up too many miles in her running shoes and risking injury. A friend suggested she try cycling. Within a few days, she’d linked up with a group of local cyclists. And within weeks, she was in her first race. The course was hilly, the temperature hit triple-digits, the pack dropped her—she reached the finish thinking that she’d done terribly. Then she looked at the standings—she’d made fifth place in her category.

Turner kept training, and in 2009, she won the Southern California and Nevada State Criterium Championships in her category. She’s since switched her focus to cyclocross, a sport where riders race hybrid bikes on courses that combine road, dirt, jumps and obstacles that force riders to dismount and carry their bikes.

Science comes into focus when she’s on her bike. When she has students in her lab that are into cycling, they have weekly meetings while climbing up 1100-foot-plus Old San Marcos Pass Road. “I’ve gotten a lot of ideas while riding,” she says. Her favorite part: going fast. “I do think I’m probably more insane about it because I understand the physics,” she says. “When I’m going down the hill, I know exactly how far I can lean over, and I’ll never miss an apex.”

Students in her classes get drawn in by problems related to bike-racing. But Turner, who loves mentoring both undergrads and graduate students, has several other tricks up her sleeve to engage students. Her second year at UCSB, she brought her new Irish setter puppy into her office with her—and had the best-attended office hours ever. “People are automatically at ease, they ask better questions, they show up more because they want to see the cute little puppy and play with him,” she says. “My teaching evaluations were so good that quarter.” (A shopper with a closet-full of snazzy shoes, she’s also proud of another evaluation that read, “Professor Turner is a really good dresser.” She tells a visitor that one of her weekend activities might be checking out the Patagonia sale in nearby Ventura.)

Her dogs no longer come to work with her, but Turner wants to start training the younger one to run agility courses. “I’m hoping that’s going to satisfy my need for competition,” she says. Her enthusiasm—perhaps not that of unlike her Irish setters, which she loves for their goofiness and up-for-anything personalities—is contagious. After meeting Turner, this visitor was inspired to bike to the farmers market, take her own cooped-up dogs on a hike, and, yes, buy a skirt at the Patagonia sale.

Having all of these things going on could be crazy-making for some. But for Turner, a kaleidoscope of projects means that it’s not as hard to deal with the challenges of both work and play, from an especially tough ride to an email bearing news of more university budget cuts. Why? She grins. Because with so many things happening at once, she says, “something’s always going good.”

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