From Hertz to Houston: A Trajectory Toward Making an Impact

October 3, 2017
Tony Miller
Livermore, Calif

Six years ago, I was doing research in a quantum optics lab at Stanford, located underground to get as far from the interference of the outside world as possible. Six days ago, I was working on streets strewn with soaked mildewed drywall and many lives’ worth of now-ruined household belongings.

Just days after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Houston and devastated the area, I arrived in Houston with my team from Entanglement Technologies, to analyze the environment to protect residents from unseen air quality threats posed by damaged chemical plants and refineries.

My road from Stanford to Houston was long and far from linear. But looking around at the Hertz community, it is the type of journey that many of us have made. It was a path the I began when I signed the Hertz Pledge in 2004: to make my “skills available to the United States in times of national emergency.”

First Steps on the Road to Houston

In many ways, my path began at the 2004 west coast Hertz fall retreat when I was a newly minted Caltech grad student. The retreat was hosted at a tiny conference center located hours north of San Francisco, so isolated that – even though it had been the home of one of the early Marconi Wireless stations for transpacific transmission – modern wireless connections had yet to reach there. Encamped there for 2 days with students both young and older, I learned more about the grad school experience than at any other time in the rest of my career. It is hard to overestimate the intellectual and competitive impact of the retreat environment. We all shared the desire to see the translation of academic pursuits into real-world impacts.

My Ph.D. research focused on developing robust quantum techniques for measurement, sensing, and information processing applications – a field that can broadly be considered quantum engineering. I sought to understand the fundamental limits of measurement and to develop tools that pushed beyond the semiclassical limits enforced by quantum fluctuations.

For me, grad school was much like an onion, tears and all. Developing a complex apparatus tightly integrated with theoretical developments was an exercise in working towards a solution, layer after layer after layer, with each successive improvement to the system revealing the next, slightly reduced set of problems. Both tears and triumphs were critical to the development of the problem-solving tools, focus, and motivation needed to tackle larger problems and to understand how to organize resources to address those problems.

Sharpening our Focus

Towards the end of grad school, Hertz Fellow John Stockton (’00), our friend Ari Tuchman, and I made the choice redirect our focus towards one specific problem. We realized that the tools that enabled quantum measurements could be leveraged to develop incredibly sensitive chemical analyzers. Our goal was, and remains, to heighten the world’s ability to sense our chemical environment, to make the invisible world of chemicals accessible and actionable.

Deploying a suite of optical, chemical, electrical, and signal processing techniques, we developed the AROMA sensor. The AROMA changes how chemical sensors can be used by providing laboratory-grade analysis in a portable instrument. Using the same type of optical resonators that allow the LIGO gravitational wave detector to detect strain in spacetime itself, we characterize complex chemicals in the environment to provide granular, continuous monitoring of complex molecules.

Shortly after Hurricane Harvey hit the Houston area, early reports began to come out about chemical leaks, flooding, plant shutdowns, and infrastructure damage. I realized that this was my first chance to fulfill, in a direct and concrete manner, the Hertz pledge and provide an area already reeling from the storm with a tangible benefit. We reached out to our partners at the Environmental Defense Fund to plan a response late that evening. At 7 a.m. the next day, we were on the road to Houston.

Trial by Emergency

The week in Houston was a surreal juxtaposition of community and technology. We spent most of the time in our mobile lab – a small van outfitted with AROMA – tracking the invisible plumes of pollutants in the air. These were long, 15+ hour days in the field, reporting in real time to our partners at EDF, Air Alliance Houston, and the City of Houston, while working quickly to keep ourselves safe from the toxic air. The week put our team and technology to the test. As we as we responded to one event, new concerns arose in real time: refinery start-ups, changing wind directions, the discovery of new leaks, and community reports.

It also challenged, in the best possible way, our ability to stay focused on the data. The situation on the ground was heartbreaking. We met with many residents who were balancing the risks, both short- and long-term. These included moving out of harm’s way from chemical releases, recovering from flood waters – including completing critical cleanup and disposal of flood-damaged material before mold infestation could set in and create a new and long-lasting health risk – and reconnecting with separated friends and family.

The road to Houston was both expected and unexpected. Without the experience, motivation, and challenge posed by being part of the Hertz community, I may well have remained an academic. The experience of the fellowship provided a magnetic pull that shifted my trajectory towards the area where I could have the greatest impact.

The drive to shape technologies to shape the world has always been at the heart of our work at Entanglement. Seeing a community after a natural disaster provided real perspective on the forces big and small that shapes our world. But importantly, we better understand now how we can leverage technology, resources, and networks to minimize those negative impacts and protect communities.

About Tony Miller

Tony Miller is a 2004 Hertz Fellow and CEO and co-founder of Entanglement Technologies (@ET_sensors). AROMA was developed through funding from the Army Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.