From Neutral Plasticity to Topology Optimization: A Two Day Crash Course at the UW

February 12, 2013

As a Midwesterner, I often have to justify (to myself and my coastal friends) our choice to live in fly-over country. As a creatively driven person, I desire to be near the action, in spots like Boston, Brooklyn, Seattle or Silicon Valley. Why choose Madison? The answer is almost always “quality of life” or proximity to family. But it’s time to stop thinking about places like Madison, WI as compromises to ambition and realize that the “creative class” that is drawn to the university and the burgeoning industry of Madison has reached a critical mass. Big ideas are growing here.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is at the heart of many of these big ideas. This large, world-class university has weathered the economic storm well and has looked at new revenue models that depend upon community outreach and public-private partnerships. Design Concepts' connections to the university have become very strong over the last few years, including our teaching of Design Thinking For Business at the Business School and Product Design in the Mechanical Engineering Department.

These bigger efforts are complemented by smaller opportunities to learn from and collaborate with intellectual leaders within the university. I witnessed a couple of these smaller opportunities first hand this week.


The MIT Club of Wisconsin sponsored a talk by Richard Davidson, a professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as well as Founder and Chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center. Davidson's research is focused on cortical and subcortical substrates of emotion as well as affective disorders, including depression and anxiety. He is currently popularizing the idea that based on what is known about the plasticity of the brain, we can learn happiness and compassion as skills just as we learn to play a musical instrument, or train in golf or tennis. His work led him into a partnership with the Dalai Lama. One of Davidson’s not-so-surprising findings is that simple meditative practices can make significant changes in brain structure and emotional health. This finding supports much of the Dalai Lama’s teachings.

Dr. Davidson has also translated his practices into an elementary school curriculum (in my 1st grader’s school!) to help kids with focus and emotional control. Sharing these tools and techniques with the Madison community at the cutting edge of research amazes me. The teacher leading the effort, Lori Gustafson, also spoke Monday night. She was able to capture the adult audience with the same techniques used with her kids — holding up a snow globe-esque glitter ball and asking us to watch the glitter settle while counting our breaths. 

Big ideas are growing here.


I took a trip to the Mechanical Engineering Department with Chris Strahm from our Mechanical Engineering group. Chris has been collaborating with Krishnan Suresh on a design problem and magazine publication (coming soon we hope!) that utilizes Suresh’s topology optimization software PareToWorks. The software optimizes parts for strength or stiffness given loading conditions and other constraints. For instance, Suresh’s software turned a rectangular block into this very recognizable bridge structure given the real world constraints of foundation locations and car traffic.

Chris and I visited Suresh in his office to discuss our experiences with the software on another real world design problem. We are discussing ways to evolve the software to be able to generate results that conform to manufacturing constraints such as injection molding.

The software is exciting for us since it finally turns a technology that has been expensive and slow into a useful commercial product, integrated into SolidWorks. And Suresh values the local, real world feedback that engineers like Chris can provide as beta testers and co-developers of his academic research.

This week’s reminders of the creative energy in Madison strengthen my bonds to the great community. Explore Madison’s intellectual and creative options if you get a chance. Here are a few of my favorite places to get inspired (spoiler alert — I get inspired when I’m outside, too):