Face of CALIT2: Deep Down

By Anna Lynn Spitzer

Bill Tomlinson is a Professor of Informatics  
at UC Irvine, and a CALIT2 researcher.

Irvine, May 05, 2017 — This story appears in the Spring 2017 edition of Interface, the magazine of CALIT2.

A self-described “nerdy” kid, Bill Tomlinson has been a nature enthusiast as long as he can remember. His mother, a former college zoology major, filled their Philadelphia home with creatures large and small. “There’d be monarch caterpillars hanging from the chandeliers,” Tomlinson says, “and lots of pets.” 

It’s no surprise then, that the UC Irvine informatics professor has placed the environment at the heart of his career, seeking ways to use information technology to improve sustainability. He has written extensively on the subject, including a 2010 book, “Greening Through IT.” He’s developed apps for children, created a series of research projects aimed at improving the environment and is an active participant in sustainability organizations. 

What’s a little unexpected, however, is the circuitous route he’s traveled. There was a little wandering and a setback or two, but now, Tomlinson says, he is exactly where he belongs.  

After studying animal behavior at Harvard College, it was time for the soon-to-be-graduate to plot his next move. Tomlinson had taken several media arts classes at Harvard, and now, he found himself wavering between a career in biology and one in the arts. 

In a creative twist, he tossed a virtual coin, applying both to art schools and biology Ph.D. programs. His strategy – ?to attend the best school that would accept him, regardless of discipline – led his Harvard career counselor to opine: “That’s a lousy way to plan your life.” 

“I did it anyway,” Tomlinson says, laughing. 

UC San Diego’s marine biology department invited him for an interview. He arrived in Southern California on a beautiful February day, “and I was coming from Boston, which was miserable and wretched,” he says. 

This could be it, he thought. That is, until one interviewer asked Tomlinson to explain his mediocre grades. His reply: “I’ve been putting on plays and stuff.” In perfect hindsight he quips, “That ultimately isn’t the right answer for a tuna fish biology Ph.D. program.” 

Another asked him to explain why he also had applied to four art schools. That one stumped him. “I didn’t think they’d have that information,” he says sheepishly. “I was outed. They didn’t admit me.”

But the California Institute of the Arts, known as CalArts, did, and thus began a foray into animation. Tomlinson planned to get a master’s degree in computer animation, but the 1994 Northridge earthquake damaged the school’s computer labs. So he opted for experimental animation instead, or as he calls it: “making puppet films.”

Seed Cycle, an iPad app Tomlinson developed, teaches kids about plant growth and pollination. 

 In Dunedin, New Zealand, Tomlison records kelp drifting with the waves.

Serendipitously, this decision, coupled with many hundred hours of tedious work, resulted in an award-winning film called “Shaft of Light,” which he wrote, animated and produced. The nine-minute take on worker oppression in post-industrial society starred robots made from metal tubes. It earned international acclaim, screening on several cable channels, at Sundance and the Director’s Guild of America, and at more than 20 other film festivals worldwide. 

Tomlinson earned a master’s degree in 1996 from CalArts, finishing the three-year program in two years. But an unsuccessful attempt to find work made him realize, “I really wasn’t employable. There aren’t very many stop-motion animation jobs in the world.” He moved back to Philadelphia and worked for a temp agency. “I was floating in the wind,” he says.

Then a friend told him about the Media Lab at MIT. A quick internet search convinced him to delve deeper. He bought a train ticket from Philadelphia to Boston, excitedly appearing at the Media Lab’s front desk, where he was summarily dismissed and told to come back when he had an appointment.

Three weeks later, requisite appointment in hand, he returned and was introduced to Bruce Blumberg, a recent MIT doctoral graduate who was forming a research group focused on artificial life and computer graphics. Blumberg was seeking animators, biologists and computer scientists, and Tomlinson fit neatly into two of those three categories. He snagged a spot in the program. 

Five years later, he graduated with a doctorate in media arts and sciences. In 2003, he was hired by UCI to plan and implement a now defunct master’s program called ACE: Arts, Computation and Engineering. 

Debra Richardson, UCI informatics professor, founding dean of the computer science school and fellow sustainability researcher, hired Tomlinson into the ACE program and worked closely with him afterward. “Bill is an eminently collaborative scholar who does high-quality research and imparts his expertise to students through excellent teaching and mentoring,” she says. “He works on extremely important topics – such as sustainability – and shifts direction if he doesn’t view his work as having significant impact. It is this forward thinking that has made it so much fun to work with him.”

ACE’s cross-disciplinary focus ultimately introduced him to CALIT2, where he says he found an intellectual home, “similar in many ways to the Media Lab.” He also found financial support that allowed him to dive back into his passion.

“I had started thinking more about environmental topics and sustainability,” he says, and in 2005, a CALIT2-administered $80,000 Nicholas Foundation Prize for Cross-Disciplinary Research gave him the opportunity. He partnered with Lynn Carpenter (pictured above), a UCI professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, on an interactive exhibit called EcoRaft, which used computer tablets and animation to teach environmental concepts to children.

Tomlinson had found his calling. “Ultimately, the thing I care deeply about is the living world and the ecosystems we live in,” he says. “Given my experiences, my intellectual background and the contexts in which I had embedded myself over the previous decade, I wondered how I could bring those to bear on what I cared deeply about. The CALIT2 grant gave me a chance to do that.”

The institute nurtured his career in other ways, too, he says gratefully, specifically “hugely instrumental” multidisciplinary collaborations and the opportunity to demonstrate his work to a steady stream of visitors. “That is a really important part of the educational experience at all levels in research … having to think about how your work relates to lots of different people.” 

He adds: “You know how there are situations in your life where something happens and then you have undying loyalty to that institution or person? That’s how I feel toward CALIT2.”

Over the past decade, his Green IT Lab in the CALIT2 Building has spawned a host of environmentally focused, human-computer interactive projects. In addition to EcoRaft, the restoration ecology project, the list includes (but is far from limited to): GreenScanner, a database for helping shoppers understand the environmental credentials of consumer products; WebBEST (web browser environmental sustainability toolkit), which highlighted the impact of everyday choices on the environment; E-waste tracking, which traced the movement of discarded computer components; Plant Guild Composers, an effort to create a functional ecosystem by integrating IT with agroecology; and Better Carbon, a web-based carbon footprint calculator.

With his wife, Rebecca Black, an informatics associate professor, Tomlinson also developed Seed Cycle, an engaging iPad app that teaches kids about plant growth and pollination. It has sold more than 11,000 copies since its 2011 release. 
Tomlinson and Black met at UCI in 2007, and CALIT2 played a supporting role in their courtship. “Immediately upon meeting her, I asked her if she wanted to come back to my lab in CALIT2 and see one of my demos,” he laughs. “It’s the academic version of ‘Do you want to see my etchings?’”

The couple married in 2008, and are parents to 7-year-old Miles and 2-year-old Addie.

Tomlinson exudes passion about his work. “If we are going to cause civilizations to become sustainable, we are going to need to do things differently,” he says. “Even in the presence of the will to live sustainably, without appropriate information resources and tools, we would still not be able to [succeed] because there are too many of us for the resources that we are attempting to share.”
“Bill has been a champion of sustainability research at UCI, on the national level and even internationally,” says Don Patterson, computer science associate professor at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., and a visiting UCI informatics professor. “His book ‘Greening through IT’ planted a flag in the space. He has repeatedly convinced me of the value of working on this problem because the implications of ignoring it are scary to consider.”

Tomlinson’s research, though, has imparted some unsettling lessons about the limited abilities of humans. “Sustainability deals with problems that are outside the ranges that humans can cope with. People largely make decisions based on narrow concerns, like, is this delicious? Or can I park there? They don’t think about habitats they may never visit, where the effect won’t be felt for 50 or 100 years.”

Information technology is the link that could make sense of these complex causal relationships, he hopes, ultimately leading to “better decision-making and more sensible action from a global perspective.”

This, above all else, is the lesson he strives to pass on to his students. “Whether they know it or not, they are all embedded in complex causal chains with the rest of the world. Becoming more aware of these chains can help them live lives that are more in line with how they would like the world to be.” 

One former student says Tomlinson was instrumental in shaping his awareness. Jack Pan, who graduated in 2013 with a degree in Earth systems science, worked with Tomlinson in the Green IT Lab. He is now in a doctoral program at UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. (Tomlinson, who wrote a letter of recommendation for his student, says when Pan got accepted, he himself felt that he had come full circle. “I didn’t get to go, but one of my people went.”)  ?

“Bill fostered a welcoming and productive environment,” Pan says. “I learned to embrace ideas from other academic disciplines while critically thinking about ideas from my own. 

“More importantly,” he concludes, “Bill’s pioneering work … has profoundly transformed my view on sustainability and climate change.”

Does Tomlinson see ultimate success in humankind’s pursuit of sustainability? He admits to having good days and bad days. “We’re getting bigger and faster in a malignant kind of way, and we need instead to arrive at sustainable ways of supporting quality of life for humans and other species on this planet,” he says.

So he perseveres. “I feel like I’m on the right track, and I continue to be excited about it. I have an opportunity to do something every day that is well-aligned with how I would like the world to be for my kids.”