The UC Davis College of Engineering features notable Innovators each year in the Bruce and Marie West Lobby of Kemper Hall. Individuals associated with the College of Engineering who have made ground-breaking contributions to the field are featured in a series of museum-quality exhibits and photographs. This program was initiated in 2013, and features a new class each year, which are installed during the annual Engineers Week in February.

Nominations for Innovators display may be submitted online at:



Bill Colston completed his PhD work in biomedical engineering at UC Davis in 1997, by which time he was absorbed by the challenge of developing “fieldable” biomedical instrumentation. He joined the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory’s Medical Technology Program and helped develop a painless, noninvasive optical dental scanning system. He then switched gears and, in the years following 9/11, rose to become division leader for Lawrence’s Chemical and Biological Countermeasures Division. This led to the 2008 founding of his startup, QuantaLife, which quickly became known for its high-speed, low-cost digital PCR (polymerase chain reaction) technology. Today, as the CEO of HealthTell, Colston continues to develop powerful new tools that can help individuals monitor their health status, and detect illnesses ranging from cancer to infectious diseases, all from a single drop of blood.

Laura Liptai (PhD '96), featured as an Innovator in the lobby of Kemper Hall.

Laura Liptai (PhD ’96), featured as an Innovator in the lobby of Kemper Hall.

Laura Liptai earned her doctorate in biomedical engineering at UC Davis in 1996, and since then has become world-famous as a biomedical consultant in the field of forensic engineering science. She specializes in medical accident reconstruction — the kinetics and kinematics produced by traumatic incidents — with the goal of mechanically dissipating forces and accelerations, in order to better shield the human body. Her San Francisco-based company, BioMedical Forensics, specializes in impact biomechanics, accident reconstruction, and the mechanism and causation of trauma. As a board member of the world’s largest forensic organization, she has broadened accessibility to the largest-ever collection of forensic case study proceedings. By documenting this “brain trust” from more than 980 expert authors, she has created a historic legacy for the next generation of forensic scientists.

Karen McDonald, a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, joined the UC Davis College of Engineering in 1985. She quickly built a research focus on a desire to “put plants to work.” Her UC Davis lab employs techniques in chemical engineering, plant sciences and molecular biology to optimize a plant cell’s ability to behave as a bioreactor: work that is likely to revolutionize how biofuels, vaccines and pharmaceuticals are manufactured. As just one example, McDonald’s work with tobacco plants could vastly improve upon future U.S. government responses to pandemics such as the 2009 H1N1 flu crisis. As lead faculty member of the UC Davis start-up Inserogen, McDonald has been helping her research team “train” tobacco plants to produce a treatment for alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, a genetic lung and liver disease.

Niels Nielsen completed his master’s degree in materials science and mechanical engineering at UC Davis in 1979. He then spent 28 years with Hewlett-Packard: a productive and fascinating career that today finds him dubbed the pioneer of inkjet technology. His efforts also brought HP a dozen patents. He was one of the key members of a tiny team based at HP’s then-new campus in Corvallis, Oregon, which embraced the challenge of creating a compact, quiet, reliable and affordable thermal inkjet printer. Over the next few years, Nielsen and his colleagues developed prototypes with parts “liberated” from other HP projects, or simply purchased at local hardware stores. The eventual result, HP’s ThinkJet, debuted in March 1984. Along with its 1988 descendant, the DeskJet, the ThinkJet completely re-defined the home computer market, as customers quickly realized that a personal computer wasn’t much use without a printer attached to it. Nielsen left HP in 2007 and now pursues several part-time activities.

M. Allen Northrup earned his doctorate in biomedical engineering at UC Davis in 1990, after which he spent seven years as a researcher and scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He subsequently partnered with Kurt Petersen and Thomas L. Gutshall to found Cepheid, a startup they hoped would become the reference standard for DNA analysis. In the wake of 9/11, Cepheid became part of a consortium tasked to develop and install biodetection threat systems at U.S. Postal Service mail-sorting facilities. By then, Northrup had left Cepheid to found MicroFluidic Systems, which quickly became known for its development of fully integrated systems for the automated detection and identification of air-borne pathogens. Northrup sold MicroFluidics to PositiveID Corp. in 2011; he then founded the Northrup Consulting Group, as a vehicle to help large and small businesses grow in the biological detection field.


Alfred Chuang earned his master’s degree in computer science from UC Davis in 1986, with a specialization in distributed data management. His graduate thesis remains one of the California State Library’s most frequently used reference materials on relational database development. Chuang spent nine years at Sun Microsystems, Inc., before leaving to co-found BEA Systems, Inc., which quickly became one of the world’s leading e-business infrastructure software suppliers. He became CEO in 2001, and in 2008 sold the company to Oracle for $8.5 billion. He then founded and became CEO of Magnet Systems, Inc., a new mobile middleware platform player that Chuang expects will revolutionize business software. He has been known to arrive at industry conferences by riding a motorcycle onto the stage, in order to deliver a keynote speech.

Richard Chuang built his first computer in 1976, one year after graduating from high school. After obtaining an engineering degree at UC Davis, he took at job at Hewlett-Packard, where he met Carl Rosendahl; the latter founded Pacific Data Images (PDI) in 1980, and Chuang became the fledgling company’s first employee one year later. The company grew quickly; a major breakthrough came when PDI created a CGI Bart and Homer Simpson for the show’s 1995 Halloween episode. This led to a movie deal with DreamWorks, which resulted in the 1998 film Antz; for that animation triumph, Chuang, Rosendahl and Glenn Entis shared a Technical Achievement Academy Award. Chuang left PDI/DreamWorks in 2008 to unveil Cloudpic Global, a startup designed to allow artists from all over the world to collaborate, without ever leaving the comforts of their respective homes.

Davor Hrovat began working at the Ford Motor Company a few years after earning his doctorate in mechanical engineering at UC Davis, in 1979. His early work on various aspects of chassis, power train and overall vehicle control quickly made him a well-recognized expert in these fields, and in 1996 he was honored with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ first Dynamic Systems & Control Division Innovative Practice Award. In 2006, he was named a Henry Ford Technical Fellow, the company’s highest technical recognition. To date, Hrovat has his name on more than 70 U.S. patents, many utilized to improve the safety, fuel economy and performance of millions of vehicles, and he remains an internationally recognized authority on automotive controls. He also contributed to a 1999 study that explored the causes of some Boeing 737 accidents, which further enhanced the safety of the world’s most popular commercial aircraft.

George Tchobanoglous, a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, began his teaching career in the UC Davis College of Engineering in 1970. He soon became an international authority on wastewater treatment, management and reuse, and is widely recognized for promoting new technologies in wastewater filtration, UV disinfection, aquatic treatment systems, decentralized wastewater management systems, and solid waste management. He has written more than 500 publications, including eight reference books and 22 textbooks, the latter translated into 10 languages and used by engineers throughout the United States and around the world. Tchobanoglous — affectionately known by colleagues as “George T” — was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering in 2004, and in 2013 was selected as the American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists’ Kappe Lecturer.

Jerry Woodall, a Distinguished Professor in the UC Davis Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is a National Medal of Technology Laureate and a pioneer in the research and development of compound semiconductor materials and devices. He is best known for having invented the high-efficiency red LEDs used in remote control and data-link applications such as TV sets and IR LAN, and the super-bright LEDs used in CD players and short-link optical fiber communications. When President George W. Bush presented Woodall with the National Medal of Technology in 2001, roughly half the annual $5 billion in sales of gallium arsenide-based semiconductor devices could be traced to his work. Other projects include the “pseudomorphic” high electron mobility transistor (HEMT), a state-of-the-art, high-speed device used in cell phones and satellites; and a weight-efficient solar cell. Woodall has authored more than 350 publications, and has 85 U.S. patents to his credit.


Andrew Frank joined the UC Davis College of Engineering in 1985, after a stint in aerospace engineering that included work on the X15 hypersonic flight research project. His road toward becoming known as the “father of the plug-in hybrid car” began in 1991, when he and a team of students completed their first plug-in car: AfterShock, which took top honors in an alternative fuel contest sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. Since then, Frank and his student teams have built a dozen such cars, becoming famous in college engineering circles as the only team to bring hybrids to Detroit’s “car of the future” competitions. More recently, Frank has become as familiar as his vehicles, thanks to appearances in the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? and 2008’s “Car of the Future” episode of the PBS series Nova.

High school teenager Francis Lee knew not one word of English when he and his family emigrated from Hong Kong to Sacramento in the late 1960s, but the young scholar wasn’t about to let a trifling language barrier get in his way. His math and science skills soon led him to the UC Davis College of Engineering, where he graduated with an electrical engineering degree in 1974. A two-decade stint with National Semiconductor was followed by a few years back in Hong Kong, where he founded NSM, a joint venture of National Semiconductor and S. Megga. All this was mere warm-up: Lee made his industry rep in 1998, when he returned to Silicon Valley and became director and CEO of Synaptics, the Santa Clara company now best known for the touch-sensing technology present in the majority of leading smart phones, tablets, notebook PCs and other personal electronic devices.

Adam Steltzner supplemented his 1990 UC Davis undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering with graduate degrees from Caltech and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. By the time he obtained a doctorate, in 1999, he’d already been working for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for eight years. Early projects included Galileo, Cassini and the Mars rovers Spirit and Pathfinder. Steltzner’s current fame results from his efforts as team leader of the Mars explorer Curiosity’s Entry, Descent and Landing System: in particular, the extraordinarily unusual rocket-powered “platform” that hovered over the planet’s surface and lowered Curiosity down on a cable.

Bruce White, a member of the UC Davis faculty since 1975, is a well-recognized authority in the fields of wind energy engineering and the physics of air flow over surfaces. His wind-tunnel studies assisted NASA and played a strong role in the orientation of Pac Bell Park, home of the San Francisco Giants; his newest project is the external wind turbines designed to help power the new California Public Utilities Commission headquarters, in downtown San Francisco. White augmented his research work by serving as both vice provost for academic personnel at UC Davis, and as interim dean of the UC Davis College of Engineering, holding the latter position for a two-year term that concluded in January 2011.

Ruihong Zhang brought her passion for value recovery from trash when she joined the UC Davis faculty in 1995. Her work in bioenvironmental engineering has led to impressive breakthroughs in organic waste management and air quality control, most notably as director of the revolutionary UC Davis Biogas Energy Project. Her high-rate anaerobic digester technology has been successfully demonstrated at a pilot plant on campus that can transform eight tons of food waste — per day — into enough electricity to power 80 California homes. This prototype led to her work as chief technical advisor for CleanWorld, a Sacramento start-up formed to bring her technology to a wider market. Zhang’s ultimate ambition, which would have sounded far-fetched even a few years ago, now seems increasingly probably: to achieve zero waste in our lifetimes.