Del Mar resident earns prestigious engineering leadership award

By Megan McVay

When asked about his research ventures at UCSD as an electrical engineering graduate student, Del Mar resident Joshua Windmiller casually mentioned that he had developed the world’s most intelligent wetsuit.

Such accomplishments are just the beginning for the former Torrey Pines High School student who was recently selected as one of the 2011 Graduate Gordon Engineering Leadership Awardees by UCSD’s Bernard and Sophia Gordon Engineering Leadership Center.

Windmiller’s passion for engineering began at an early age as he has always taken a special interest in how things worked. As an elementary school student, he played with computers and tried to decipher their parts. And as high school student, he supplemented this natural curiosity with an elevated education by enrolling in math and science courses so advanced that college professors often came to Torrey Pines High School to teach them.

In 2003, he graduated from Torrey Pines High School and began his education as an electrical engineering major at the UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering. During his undergraduate years, Windmiller persevered through rigorous five-class schedules that left little time for relaxation.

“Quantum Electrodynamics was definitely the most challenging course of my undergraduate education. Sometimes it took me one day just to grasp what a question was asking. Even though it was my most difficult course, it was probably my favorite because I learned a lot about my capabilities by being pushed so hard,” said Windmiller.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree and completing his undergraduate education, Windmiller enrolled in the UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering as a graduate student to pursue his master’s degree and PhD.

“The most difficult part of becoming a graduate student was making the transition from only focusing on doing well in classes to having to pose and solve my own questions and become an independent researcher,” said Windmiller.

Indeed, Windmiller successfully transitioned into an independent researcher — one who could fuse together entrepreneurial ideas and innovative engineering to develop technology useful for everyone.

Windmiller joined a research group comprised of 20 UCSD graduate students who were also focused on electrical engineering and became the senior Ph.D. student of the group. The group served as a support system in which each student was engaged in his or her own thesis research and was guided by the group’s advisor, Joe Wang, the UCSD Professor of Nanoengineering.

Over the last five years, Windmiller has succeeded in researching and developing a breakthrough printable sensor technology that allows biomedical devices to be printed on textiles and plastics, and also has longevity — despite constant wear. Perhaps the most advantageous aspect of these printable biomedical sensors is that they cost only cents to produce and can be printed at a fast pace, thereby fulfilling Windmiller’s goal to make healthcare more affordable.

These sensors are as thin as paper, yet are capable of sensitivity at a parts per trillion level. Hypothetically, this means that they can detect one- 20th of a single drop of water diluted into an Olympic size pool.

Windmiller focuses on innovating technology that is universally useful, and these sensors are exactly that. They have a multitude of functions, each function helpful to a different group of people in society.

Athletes can buy clothes with these sensors attached to the sleeves and, in turn, the sensors will alert the athletes of any lactic acid or electrolyte imbalances in their sweat. Likewise, surfers, divers and swimmers can wear biomedical-sensor wetsuits, which can assist them in identifying harmful pollutant levels in the ocean.

Windmiller plans to complete his thesis this year and finally present his technology to a committee in order to receive his Ph.D. However, over the last couple of years, Windmiller has already traveled to Washington D.C. several times to present his advancements and prove his satisfactory improvements to the Office of Naval Research, who has funded Windmiller’s $1.6 million project.

“I applied to be funded by the Office of Naval Research by creating a proposal that showed them that my technology allows me to do something they can’t do. Because I develop technology for them, I have to travel to Washington D.C. to present my progress to high-level military officials,” said Windmiller.

Windmiller’s printable sensor technology is beneficial to the Office of Naval Research because it allows the biomedical devices to be printed on military and Navy uniforms. The sensors enable Navy Seals and military personnel to detect the presence of TNT and Improvised Explosion Devices (IED) and consequently prevent more security hazards.

“One of the best aspects of my experience is that it has been interdisciplinary. A lot of things we use today aren’t a product of a single engineering discipline, so I like to tie in a bunch of different fields into my research. In addition to being an electrical engineer, I’ve had to be a chemical, bio, mechanical and software engineer at the same time,” said Windmiller.

In 2009, Windmiller further expanded his diverse engineering lore by joining the Bernard and Sophia Gordon Engineering Leadership Center, which has the goal of identifying, educating and training “the most promising of engineering leaders who will create new products and jobs that benefit society.” Windmiller was one of the 30 students selected from the Jacobs School of Engineering to be a member of this prestigious center. The members come to the Gordon Center a couple of days every week to engage in focused classes, workshops, leadership forums, keynote speaker presentations and summer schools that integrate exciting engineering and leadership challenges.

“I wanted to join the center to foster my capability of engineering leadership. Studies have shown that engineers who work in a cohesive team with a leader are nine times more efficient at carrying out a task and developing a product in line with the customer user. The center has allowed me to supplement my technology courses with training regarding product management and customer relations,” said Windmiller.

Due to his outstanding research, innovations, leadership qualities and extensive science journal publication record, this year Windmiller was honored as a recipient of the prestigious Gorgon Engineering Leadership Fellowship award. As a Gordon Fellow Award recipient, Windmiller embodies the characteristics of vision, integrity and innovation and serves as a successful leader and positive role model for Jacobs School of Engineering students. On Oct. 25, Windmiller attended the Gordon Engineering Leadership Center’s awards ceremony and received a medal and a $10,000 check.

“Most people who receive Ph.D.s pursue an academic passion and dive into the research or the education industry. However, I want to take my education and electrical engineering Ph.D. in an entrepreneurial direction. I hope to start my own business dealing with biomedical advances or alternative energy where I can transform my research into actual products. I think that the leadership-based education I got from the Gordon Center will help me accomplish this,” said Windmiller.

Courtesy photo of Joshua Windmiller