WHAT HE DOES
Builds virtual reality systems for insect and animal research.
The Howard Hughes Medical Research Institute’s Janelia Farm
where he doeS It
Creates novel tools that enable scientists to do groundbreaking research; can publish and talk openly about everything he does; works in a university-like environment that is free from worries about funding or making profits.
This profile is part of IEEE Spectrum's Special Report on Dream Jobs 2011.
Gus Lott pretty much always knew he would be an electrical engineer. His dad, an EE working for the U.S. Navy, brought home tales of engineering heroism, and Lott wanted to follow in his footsteps.
"His generation of engineers made the Internet and created cellphones and communications networks," Lott says. "It was awesome stuff."
Like his father, he entered Auburn University, in Alabama, to major in EE, soon adding a second major in physics. "Physics was how to ask the questions, and engineering was how to answer them. Having such synergy made it easier in a lot of ways," he says.
But in 1998, at the beginning of his third year, Lott started thinking about what he might do with all this knowledge. The big wave of electrical engineering breakthroughs seemed to have crested. He figured that instead of pushing the frontiers of technology, he’d most likely spend his career building slightly better mousetraps, designing smaller transistors, or writing abstruse algorithms for mobile phones. None of that sounded exciting. It was time to look beyond classical electrical engineering.
With Viagra and stem cells hitting the news, he decided that biology might be where his generation would make its mark. He started taking all the biology courses he could, and he asked his Biology 101 professor if he could get involved in research. The surprised professor took him on, taking advantage of Lott’s engineering background to have him create a mathematical simulation of the flagella on striped-bass sperm. In 2001, Lott entered the biophysics graduate program at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y.
The biology and biochemistry classes were oddly familiar. "They were talking about signal transduction across membranes—it was just a systems analysis problem," he says. Sometimes the vocabulary did trip him up, though. He lost points on an exam for expressing an answer in hertz instead of the "seconds to the minus one" term used by biologists. (He explained to the professor that he was using SI units and got the points restored.)
After a standard rotation through Cornell’s laboratories, Lott ended up in the neurobiology department. For one researcher’s project on understanding how flies make choices, he built a fly-scale virtual reality system, with a treadmill made out of a ping-pong ball and an optical mouse. A tethered fly would run on the ball, while the optical components would track the ball’s movement. He surrounded the system with speakers that generated enticing cricket chirps—the fly being studied uses a live cricket as a nest for its eggs. Changing the pitch of the chirp presented the fly with a choice of virtual crickets.