Science Content & Technology Manager, The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens
By David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project
January 6, 2022
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It is Thursday, January 6th, 2022. I am delighted to be here with Dr. David Sivertsen. Dave, it's great to see you. Thank you for joining me today.
DAVID SIVERTSEN: Thank you, David.
ZIERLER: To start, Dave, would you please tell me your title and institutional affiliation?
SIVERTSEN: I am at The Huntington Botanical Gardens. Our full name is The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. I am currently the Science Content and Technology Manager for the Botanical Division.
ZIERLER: Dave, do you have a botany background at all?
SIVERTSEN: No. We're going to go way back. When I first came to Caltech, I was a new undergraduate fresh out of Iowa. But I had big ambitions. I wanted to double major in both engineering and biology and understand every aspect of logic and intelligence. I had a lot of other interests too, but let's confine it to that.
You mentioned Carver Mead. One of his classes I took during the phase where I thought I could successfully pull off a double major as an undergraduate. It was his advanced semiconductor science course. That was how I first got to know Carver. When I was taking a massive course overload, editing the student newspaper, and up at two in the morning with crayons trying to complete a semiconductor design, I started to realize it was too much. I took a leave for a little while. I came back and pragmatically got an engineering degree. Then I came back to Caltech to do a Ph.D. in biology, specifically neurobiology.
ZIERLER: Was your job at The Huntington right after Caltech?
SIVERTSEN: When I finished graduate school, I had been at it a long time. . My doctorate was in neuroethology, so I studied brain and behavior. Usually in the department most people would study brain and behavior in the same organism. In my case I came to the conclusion I had a strong interest—between undergrad and grad school I was going to do some fieldwork in behavioral biology. I'd already been accepted to graduate school. My committee encouraged me to make it part of my thesis. I did that fieldwork in the Amazon studying behavior of free ranging primates. The particular lab, John Allman's lab at Caltech, he did a lot of neurophysiology, studying this same species. John was quite encouraging of my fieldwork.
When I came back, I had a strong interest in understanding the visual system of jumping spiders. This is a much smaller system and perhaps a little easier to understand. Later on, Carver also took an interest in implementing that. I think his quote—having developed digital electronics and VLSI circuitry—was that God intended things to be analog and maybe we're missing it all with digital designs. Biological systems can do so much with so little, and they can continue to function with a fair amount of damage. Why can't we build things like that? He had a big project where he asked some biologists to help him figure out the circuitry to implement the same evolved designs in a semiconductor device. That was my thesis topic. It took a number of years. It was a difficult project to get microelectrodes inside the spider's brain and present images to them and understand what was going on in their little brains. Turns out to be quite a lot. When I finished graduate school, I decided for a number of reasons that I was more interested in getting into the workforce and doing some things outside of academics. Maybe it was a little bit of graduate school burnout, but also I didn't have a whole lot of peers. There's not a journal of spider neurophysiology.
SIVERTSEN: There's not a lot of positions in spider neurophysiology. There's not a lot of grant funding for spider neurophysiology. I looked at a couple of jobs. I looked at some aerospace ones where I'd have to drive across Los Angeles and wear a necktie. I looked at The Huntington Gardens which was a few blocks away. The way I got engaged with The Huntington Gardens, while I was a graduate student, I had done my studies in the Amazon and I came back and I told my committee, "My education's not complete. There is a lot going on down there and a lot of it has to do with plants." They kind of laughed and said, "Well, Caltech once had a lot of great plant scientists, but we haven't for many decades. Your best bet to get started is go talk to the people at The Huntington." They said I could enroll in their docent classes if I volunteered. So, I volunteered at The Huntington. That actually was a nice complement to academics when you're stressed out as a graduate student to go plant plants for a while.
ZIERLER: Yeah. [laugh] Dave, tell me a little bit about the Rose Hills Conservatory for Botanical Science. How far back does it go?
SIVERTSEN: Well, that got invented during my absence. I was at The Huntington for about five years. The director at the time I was hired for my first job and later at the time I was hired for what's probably my last job was Jim Folsom. He is quite a dynamic, engaging guy. I'm sure he was dreaming of that structure. It's built in the image of Henry Huntington's original lath house. It's designed to allow The Huntington to grow all kinds of tropical plants - you can't normally grow those plants in our climate. We've got a great climate and you can grow many plants of the world, but we don't do well on the tropical rainforest plants. He designed it as a place to engage the public. "Botany in context" was one of his phrases and also providing hands-on equipment such as microscopes and other ways people can dive inside the science of plants. I think the Conservatory still maintains that vision. Visitors and some parents who do homeschooling use that laboratory as a way to get science into the hands of their kids.
ZIERLER: Mm-hmm. What are the main galleries or exhibits of the Conservatory?
SIVERTSEN: In terms of physical layout space, there's a plant lab, there's a large round rotunda which is essentially a tropical rainforest. There's a cloud forest section and then there's a bog section that concentrates on carnivorous plants. The plant lab is where the greatest concentration of the exhibits are—microscopes and more—and it's sort of organized thematically: "What are plants up to?" The Huntington's education department and the botanical department worked together to create all those exhibits. I did not have a hand in originating all those exhibits. I'm adding to them. I've got one I'm working on right now about why plants are green. If you think about it—it's always bothered me a lot—but plants throw away a big portion of the spectrum – green wavelengths. Yet plants in the tropical rainforest are desperate for light, trying to reach up for the sunlight and grab photons for photosynthesis. The traditional botanical explanations of this hasn't been very good.
Recently there is a new theory out that's a quantum network theory that's perhaps a little beyond me; I don't entirely understand it—I'll be the first to admit. Chlorophyll grabs the red and blue portion of spectrum and transmits and reflects all the green—that is why leaves are green. To my way of thinking, simplistically they should be black. They should absorb all the useful photons that come their way. This exhibit is designed to do two different things. One, it's supposed to engage people in that it's sort of a rustically designed exhibit that uses a "Windows7" installation CD to refract light. It uses a cooling fan out of an old PC. It's sort of a home brew science type project that shows people they can build equipment out of household items. Second, it also shows what happens with white light and how it's refracted and what's reflected by the leaf and what is absorbed by the chlorophyll. It teaches the basic facts as we know them. Then there's sort of a teaser at the end to think about why plants don't use the entire spectrum, which I don't have a clear answer for that I can give to the public.
ZIERLER: Dave, to give an overall sense of the size and hierarchical structure of the Conservatory, how many people report to you? What are their technical or academic backgrounds? And then, who do you report to at The Huntington?
SIVERTSEN: There are two or three people who are involved in the Conservatory that report to me that are involved in sort of day-to-day operations—interacting with the public, keeping things running, stocking the exhibits, opening up and closing down—so that we're staffed the entire time the public is there and a little beyond that. Then there's a couple of other people who report to me. I oversee a GIS mapping program where we map the plants that are in the garden. We create web apps and use Esri's ArcGIS programs to manage collections. The person who does the database for plant records reports to me. Also, the person who makes the signage for our collections. I sort of have a catchall role. Additionally, anytime somebody's trying to do something technical whether it's sticking RFID chips into plants to track them or almost anything you can imagine—that tends to come my way.
ZIERLER: And then who do you report to?
SIVERTSEN: Our structure has changed. We have a new garden director in the last year, Nicole Cavender. At this point, I report to our nursery manager, James Brumder. He's got a lot on his plate. He handles our irrigation systems, but he also has become quite effective at keeping the physical structure of the Conservatory and other garden systems going.
ZIERLER: With social distancing and remote work, what have been some of the challenges of keeping the Conservatory operational during this pandemic?
SIVERTSEN: Well, it's interesting because The Huntington's had a pretty strict application of COVID protocols. They follow LA County's guidelines. The Conservatory presents a challenge for them because they're not quite sure whether it's an indoor space or an outdoor space.
ZIERLER: Yeah. [laugh]
SIVERTSEN: They've chosen to consider it an indoor space. They actually had it closed for a period of about eight months, which in some sense has meant less labor in our day-to-day exhibit interactions with the public. But it also meant we had to mothball the exhibits and a lot of the exhibits—when you mothball them in the rainforest—they tend to rot away. We had to do a lot of reconstructive surgery.
ZIERLER: Dave, what are some of the key funding sources for the Conservatory?
SIVERTSEN: The Conservatory was made possible in part by a grant from the Rose Hills Foundation. The educational exhibits were funded with a grant from the National Science Foundation
SIVERTSEN: Our day-to-day operations are funded out of the botanical division's budget for the science center. We have a small budget to spend money on plants and electronics that can survive in a tropical outdoor environment, and wear and tear from an active audience of all ages.
ZIERLER: Dave, does the Conservatory have a translational aspect to it? In other words, the possible medicinal uses for plants or things like that?
SIVERTSEN: Economic botany and conservation are two key areas. One of the things we've experimented with is the GIS software allows us to do story maps to present digital tours to the public. Economic plants is one of the stories we have done. We don't do a whole lot of medicinal interpretation. That might be problematic because as soon as you put a bunch of plants in front of the public and say, "This one might be good for curing what ails you," you're encouraging them to partake of that plant in an uncontrolled fashion.
ZIERLER: Who are some of The Huntington's or the Conservatory's key academic partners, both locally and perhaps nationally or even internationally?
SIVERTSEN: One of the things I should talk about a little bit is the Conservatory is a shared responsibility zone. I do the science exhibits. We have a tropical curator, Dylan Hannon, who is mostly behind the scenes, but he is a wealth of knowledge about all things tropical and plants in general. He knows quite a bit about native plants as well. He chooses a lot of the plants to go in the Conservatory. He's the one who knows what those plants are and what they do and cultivates them and finds them and does a great job on that. Then we have facilities people as well that help manage the facility.
ZIERLER: Does the Conservatory host visiting scholars, graduate students? Are there programs for people to come and research at the Conservatory for longer periods of time?
SIVERTSEN: We do not. We have high school volunteers. We have adult volunteers. Both of those programs have largely been on hold because of COVID. Occasionally, we'll get requests from other botanical gardens around the country that want to emulate some of our exhibits—around the world actually. We've had some international inquiries. We've had people who want to come and intern. At this point, we don't have funding for that. Los Angeles is kind of an expensive place for somebody to come on their own dime and work for free for an extended period. You asked about academic partners. We have a couple of researchers who study cycad genetics, and who develop and teach cryopreservation techniques for different plant families. There are partnerships worldwide in these areas, and also pooled conservation efforts. Caltech's JPL and others use our collections to ground-truth satellite imagery research.
ZIERLER: Dave, you're uniquely situated to reflect on the institutional relationship between Caltech and The Huntington and how it's, perhaps, changed over the years?
SIVERTSEN: Well, all I can say is it's great. It makes a lot of sense. It dates back a long time. George Ellery Hale, in Caltech's early days did talk to Henry Huntington and encouraged the concept of creating the public institution. We shared a healthcare program together. We piggybacked onto Caltech's greater numbers, although I understand this year that's changed. Caltech graciously extends an offer to Huntington staff to become members of the Caltech gym or the Athenaeum. There are new collaborations happening as well.
ZIERLER: Well, Dave, why don't we take it all the way back to the beginning. Let's start first with your parents. Tell me a little bit about them.
SIVERTSEN: This is a pretty comprehensive, far-ranging interview.
SIVERTSEN: I thought this was going to be talking about electric vehicles.
ZIERLER: Oh, no, no. Full life biography is what we go for.
SIVERTSEN: OK. I grew up in the Midwest, Iowa, with a mother and father. My father was in the life insurance industry because they got married and had kids pretty quickly after college. He had to pay the bills and often said he envied my opportunity to come to Caltech and get an extensive education. My mother was quite sharp as well. They raised six kids. I was the second child. I came out to California and never looked back.
ZIERLER: Where in Iowa did you grow up?
SIVERTSEN: We hopped around the state. Des Moines, Bettendorf, Council Bluffs.
ZIERLER: This is for your father's work?
SIVERTSEN: Yes. He was at a variety of insurance agencies.
ZIERLER: Dave, were you always interested in and inclined towards science?
SIVERTSEN: Yes, I was. One of the reasons I looked further afield was I was a little frustrated in Iowa. I was building electronic widgets in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, and just trying to buy a transistor was quite difficult. We didn't have the internet yet. We didn't have easy access to components and just trying to find parts to build things was a challenge. I was taking old TV sets apart.
ZIERLER: How did Caltech come on your radar for places to apply to?
SIVERTSEN: That's a funny story and it's something that the admissions folks were interviewing freshman about a few months after we got to Caltech. They said, "How did you first hear about it?" I said, "Well, gee, I don't really know." Then, I went home for my first Christmas and my father had an extensive science fiction library. I started thumbing through science fiction books and I saw Caltech come up a dozen times either as the place where the bad guy started or the place where the good guy started.
SIVERTSEN: Clearly science was an important thing. When I first started looking for college on the West Coast, I looked at Cal Poly Tech at San Luis Obispo and read about the description of the lovely campus and the ocean and, "Gosh. That sounds like a nice place. But the description here doesn't quite match up with what I was thinking about." Then I saw the description of Caltech and I said, "That's the place."
ZIERLER: Dave, what year was it when you arrived in Pasadena and what were your initial impressions?
SIVERTSEN: '74 was the initial year. I actually visited briefly with my father in '73. He had business in Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara was a lovely town and I remember running on the beach. My initial impression of Caltech and Pasadena wasn't quite as beautiful as Santa Barbara. They still had a fair amount of smog at that time. I had run cross country as a high school student. I planned to participate in that at Caltech and I did. A not very good runner on a not very good team, but we had fun.
ZIERLER: What were your academic goals at that point? What did you want to pursue?
SIVERTSEN: I wanted to pursue science and to be more specific, I was interested in how brains worked and how computers worked. I also had an interest in geology, and I was fortunate to take a class from Gene Shoemaker.
SIVERTSEN: Quite frankly, I was fairly intimidated by all the smart guys around me. I had a lot of trouble passing the required physics courses. Perhaps my high school in Iowa hadn't fully prepared me for what I needed to know. It wasn't uncommon. There was probably at that time, I think a third of the freshman class may have failed out of the required physics class my first year. I similarly found geology—Gene taught a tough freshman introductory course. You had to have a fair amount of physics to get through the finals in that as well. I sort of gravitated towards the engineering classes, that they're hands-on and pretty exciting. You get to build stuff.
ZIERLER: Dave, when did you first connect with Carver?
SIVERTSEN: I think that would've been probably my third year at Caltech. I took his—I think it may have been labeled as a graduate level course, but it was an advanced course. Laying out circuits and semiconductors. I'd had basic courses already. I believe Jim Mayer may have been the Master of Student Houses, and also an electrical engineering prof. He taught a good course. There was one course in particular where we basically designed a four-banger calculator that did adding, multiplying, dividing, and subtracting, which was about all you could do on a handheld device then. We designed that from the transistors on up.
ZIERLER: Was Carver's class—the first class—was it a lab course or more of a lecture course?
SIVERTSEN: That was hands-on, using the computer, and designing semiconductor chips while laying down transistor gates and understanding how to build things.
ZIERLER: Did you find that this was your comfort zone more than the physics or the geology?
ZIERLER: Because it was hands-on? Because you were building things?
SIVERTSEN: Yeah. Most of the electrical engineering classes, particularly the digital ones—now, I should mention there is an interesting parallel to this, which is part of my fascination with how things work included pinball machines. I fixed a couple when I was in high school at various resorts and places. People said, "It didn't work." I said, "Give me a key and let me inside of it and let me see how it works." One of the first things I did when I came to Caltech is I bought a pinball machine and put it out in front of the dormitory. It turned out that the nickels, dimes, and quarters that came through the slots of that machine were quite useful in helping scrounge up tuition each term and room and board.
ZIERLER: [laugh] How entrepreneurial of you!
SIVERTSEN: [laugh] By the time I was graduated I think I had about 40 pinball machines pass through my hands. I'd pick them up in the Midwest and set them out in front of the dorm or resell them to collectors.
ZIERLER: Dave, what was it about pinball machines that captured you?
SIVERTSEN: It was very hands-on. The circuits were right there in front of you. They were not as abstract as a transistor. There were lots of relays and you could poke your fingers around and get shocked and make things happen. It was interesting. One of the digital design classes at Caltech, I remember opening the textbook up—this was a freshman class—and the first couple pages of the textbook had a table. On one side of the table were reliable parts that you should design with and on the other side of the table were the unreliable parts you should never use. Things like relays and lightbulbs and basically everything that pinball machines are made out of.
SIVERTSEN: It really struck me. My freshman project was to build kind of some of the components of a digital pinball machine.
ZIERLER: Dave, what kind of access did you have to labs at Caltech as an undergraduate where you could just tinker and build stuff and experiment on your own?
SIVERTSEN: Well, there was great access to labs for class-related work. But I think the direction this discussion should go is towards the student shop, which was the basement of the student center. That's how Alan Cocconi and I first got to really know each other.
ZIERLER: I see. Were you in the same year?
SIVERTSEN: I think I might've been a year ahead of Alan, but I took a leave of absence after I realized I couldn't do a double major and sort of pushed a little too hard. I needed some recovery time and I went back to the Midwest for a couple months. It helped to get a job to earn a little tuition money. I came back focused on engineering. At that time, Alan and I were both on the committee with a small group of students that ran the student shop. It was our job to sort of run the place. I'd rekey it every term, which helped ensure that people would pay their dues.
SIVERTSEN: For the price of 10 bucks or so you got 24/7 access to metalworking equipment, woodworking equipment, a fume hood, welding equipment, and a space where you could do a lot of things. Another alumnus, Bill Gross, that was the space where he started his loudspeaker business. He employed a lot of undergraduates cutting up particle board for him to build speaker cabinets.
ZIERLER: [laugh] Did you work with Alan on any projects? Did you build stuff with him?
SIVERTSEN: No. I don't think we did a lot as undergraduates together. I don't have a clear memory of this. If I had questions, he's certainly the person I would've gone to figure out how to do something.
ZIERLER: Because he's such a good engineer.
SIVERTSEN: He's a good engineer and he's approachable. He had excellent insight into the nature of problems. He also had a very encouraging attitude. Sort of, "You can do this." I feel that Alan was really a cut above most undergraduates. He was a sharp, sharp guy, and it was clear.
ZIERLER: Dave, did the 1968 race between Caltech and MIT that Wally Rippel started, did that register with you? Were you aware of that heritage at Caltech?
SIVERTSEN: Not for a long time. Of course, eventually I did. The other factor that played in here who you've interviewed is Alec Brooks. As an undergraduate, probably as a junior, I took a mechanical engineering class which was sort of an independent study class. Izzy Lewis and I, another undergraduate, we were taken under the wing of graduate student Alec Brooks. He oversaw our independent research. We did human powered vehicles. The International Human Powered Vehicle Association (IHPVA) was really in its hey day and it was a lot of fun. We built streamlined bicycles. We used the student shop resources to do it. Alec helped us out with our design and implementation. There was another Caltech alum, Taras Kiceniuk Jr., who invented some of the early hang gliders - Icarus. He was quite active in the IHPVA as well.
ZIERLER: Dave, with the bike, what components were off the shelf and what did you have to build from scratch?
SIVERTSEN: We did a variety of vehicles. One was building an air shell for a vehicle that Alec Brooks had originally built which he called the bun burner. It was a pretty heavy aluminum recumbent. We fitted a streamlined shell around that. Another was a conventional bicycle with a streamlined shell – it looked like a greenhouse – we called it the Sun Burner. A third was a purpose-built vehicle which I think we jokingly called the Depressodyne. It was a packaging exercise to make something that had as little frontal area as possible. It didn't have a particularly efficient drive transmission—that was its chief fault. I couldn't even ride it. I'm too big for it. We'd find small cyclists to fit in.
ZIERLER: Dave, was the name of the game aerodynamic efficiency? Was that the way to get to the fastest speeds?
SIVERTSEN: Yes. You've got a limited amount of horsepower for a human being. Typically, you build the vehicle and then you look for an Olympic cyclist who is willing to ride it for you so you can get the best of both worlds. But obviously, reducing your coefficient of drag and reducing the frontal area were the two things where you have the greatest potential.
As a predecessor towards the electric vehicle effort, Taras Kiceniuk Jr., who I mentioned earlier, and I formed a little company called I think SKV—Sivertsen Kiceniuk Vehicles. It didn't go very far. We never successfully raised any money at it except out of our own pockets. We built a quarter scale prototype and at that point we sort of said, "If you're going to build an electric vehicle, well, lead acid batteries don't have a whole lot of energy. The thing that we can do to get the best range out of an electric vehicle is to make a fully streamlined electric vehicle." We did some tow testing of a scale prototype out at El Mirage Lake, the dry lakebed. I bought a Volkswagen van that was going to be a donor platform that we were going to put a streamlined shell around and an electric drivetrain if we ever got the money to do it. Chiefly, between the lack of money and the need to get back to work on my graduate program, we decided to end that little endeavor.
ZIERLER: Dave, did you see the initial electric vehicle endeavor as a direct outgrowth from the human powered bike projects or was it more separate?
SIVERTSEN: I think there was some outgrowth from that. It was about what can we build that lets you get from point A to point B with less energy, great efficiency? The electric vehicle platform - I found out about Alan's efforts, I had kept in touch with him and I was quite interested in that. He graduated and I stayed on at Caltech as a graduate student who was still active and running the student shop.
ZIERLER: Now, in the mid 1970s, of course, there's an oil shock, there's smog. Was part of your motivation initially in thinking about electric vehicles, did it have those sort of broader societal components to it?
SIVERTSEN: It was a certainly a factor. One of the other classes Caltech exposed me to was Dr. J.J. Morgan's environmental engineering class. At that time, one of the focus points in the class was all about the mystery of missing carbon. They looked at carbon sources and carbon sinks and they couldn't quite figure out how it all added up. There was early research taking place on that and that class was cutting edge.
ZIERLER: Now, that's where we come to understand that the missing source is the atmosphere? That that's where all the burned carbon is going?
SIVERTSEN: Well, it was balancing a checkbook at that time. They understood there was carbon in the atmosphere. They understood that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere got absorbed into water and eventually deposited in limestone. The time courses in those processes, the impacts of forest burning, we didn't have global satellites that could accurately measure what was going on quite to the extent we do now. They were trying to balance the checkbook.
ZIERLER: Now this would've been early on, but do you have any recollection in the environmental engineering class—was anybody talking about the greenhouse effect or climate change?
SIVERTSEN: Yes, they were.
SIVERTSEN: Ozone was a much bigger consideration then. It was known to be a greenhouse gas. I don't think they anticipated quite the global warming we were going to see then. If they did, it wasn't mainstream yet.
ZIERLER: Dave, did you hang out at JPL at all as an undergraduate?
SIVERTSEN: I had a brief stint there as an undergraduate doing software. I actually built a little remote terminal with a 300 baud cradle modem so I could do some of my work from my dormitory without having to bicycle up to JPL to go into the office.
ZIERLER: Just to foreshadow to graduate school, was biology at all part of your curriculum as an undergraduate? Did you see you might be headed in that direction?
SIVERTSEN: Yeah. It was. Initially, I started out wanting to double major in electrical engineering and biology. I sort of put the mainstream biology classes on the shelf when I dropped the double major, but I continued on. As an undergraduate, I did some neurobiology research projects with John Allman's lab. He eventually became my advisor as a graduate student.
ZIERLER: Dave, did you have a senior thesis or a project for undergrad?
SIVERTSEN: No, I did not.
ZIERLER: What was your degree in? What was it officially at the end of the day, the diploma?
SIVERTSEN: The undergraduate was electrical engineering. I don't know the exact words on my diploma. I can probably try to dig it up. I think it was neuroethology or neurobiology.
ZIERLER: After graduation what did you want to do at that point?
SIVERTSEN: Well, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. I looked at academics and having spent nine years working on my thesis, I understood what was involved. I loved doing the research. I wasn't quite so sure about sort of the competitive publish or perish environment that some of the academic track involved.
ZIERLER: To clarify, I'm talking about at the end of your undergraduate. This would've been 1978.
SIVERTSEN: Oh. OK. At the end of my undergraduate career, I chose graduate school rather than going into a nine to five engineering job just because I wanted to do research. I was fascinated by research. It looked like an exciting area to make discoveries in. At that age I can't really say that I was thinking beyond about a life course at that point.
SIVERTSEN: Certainly, when you go to graduate school one of the obvious role models is that you become a professor someplace and you spend the rest of your life studying a specialty.
ZIERLER: Right. Dave, were there any professors at Caltech who were helpful in navigating graduate programs, where to study, funding sources, things like that?
SIVERTSEN: Not clear on your question.
ZIERLER: Were there any professors who gave you advice about where to study, kinds of graduate programs to apply to?
SIVERTSEN: Yes. Because I'd been doing some neurobiology it was pretty much focused on neurobiology. Certainly, from John's lab, he knew well what programs were going on in what different countries. My eventual committee member, Mark Konishi, was the one who encouraged me to contact Princeton for their field study site in South America. I originally planned an independent research project in North Vietnam and Laos using night vision equipment at night which probably was not the smartest thing to take on as a project especially considering I had no language abilities in that area. One of the problems I ran into was I got a small grant for that research, and I went to Caltech and I went to my committee and I said, "I've got a problem. They can't give a grant to me as an individual; it has to be an institution. Will you guys be the institution of record for my research on this?" They said, "We have a different proposal. We have a better field site and you can make this part of your thesis." I said, "Oh!" They said, "It's not really a very big grant that you managed to land there and your graduate stipend for doing this research as part of your thesis is a much better deal for you." They were absolutely correct on that.
ZIERLER: Dave, culturally what were some of the considerations about an undergraduate at Caltech staying on at Caltech for graduate school or the importance of going to a different school, a different program?
SIVERTSEN: Caltech faculty certainly discouraged that. I interviewed at UCSF and I looked at programs at a couple of other places. There were two factors that came into play. One in particular is some of the programs I was applying to looked at things like failing freshman physics and said, "You've got a record here. We're looking for outstanding candidates and you failed some of your required courses as a Caltech undergraduate. How do you explain that?" I said, "Well, it's a competitive program and a lot of folks fail." But at the end of the day, that didn't help the interview at all. The other factor was there was a recognition that a cross disciplinary approach was an up and coming thing. Because I was coming out of the electrical engineering discipline, it's not like a case where an undergraduate becomes a graduate student and interacts with the same faculty for all of their career. I was moving from an electrical engineering degree and into the biology division. For neurophysiology that's a particularly potent crossover at the time.
ZIERLER: Was this part of an academic trend? Or were you really the first to do something like this?
SIVERTSEN: I can't say I was the first, but it became a trend and I think I recognized that there's a huge advantage to having skills from another discipline. Particularly for the project I was taking on with both the fieldwork and the neurophysiology you needed a lot of electrical engineering and programming skills.
ZIERLER: Dave, to just zoom out for a second with your graduate research. What were some of the bigger academic questions that you were after?
SIVERTSEN: The nature of consciousness. [laugh]
ZIERLER: That's as big as it gets.
SIVERTSEN: We'll say the nature of intelligence.
SIVERTSEN: My funding in the later years came from the Lawrence A Hanson Fellowship. He was quite an interesting guy. He was a Caltech alum who I think made a lot of money in real estate investment. He made a substantial donation to fund a fellowship graduate program at Caltech specifically for targeting small systems. I think he kind of felt that when you're poking around in a human brain or studying large mammalian brains, it's a hugely complex system to understand. Even now, decades later, with much more advanced tools and techniques there's still a lot we don't know.
ZIERLER: Was the field so young at that point that a certain brashness about thinking these are things that could be understood suggested a naïveté to some degree?
SIVERTSEN: No. I don't think it's naïveté. It's you don't give up on a program because it's tough.
SIVERTSEN: There was an understanding that we had a long way to go to understand how things work. But that doesn't mean not to try. The Hanson Fellowship was targeted. I suspect for most of the neurobiology programs it didn't fit very well. The development office was pretty happy to have somebody whose work really fit to a T the description of the fellowship which was to study small systems. If you look at an earthworm or a system where you just have a couple hundred of a couple thousand neurons, you might have some hope of completely understanding it.
ZIERLER: Dave, so I understand, coming from the electrical engineering approach, was your research reliant on particular instruments or sensors or even computers? Or was it more intellectually you were approaching biological systems from an engineering perspective?
SIVERTSEN: I think a little bit of both. There's a brief diversion here which is originally my plan was to work in Dr. James Olds's lab. He tragically died at a fairly young age. He was interested in building semiconductor arrays that could be inserted into brains. The approach at that time and in the lab that I worked in was to use single microelectrodes and record electrical activity at a single point in the brain. Jim Olds wanted to look at coordinated signaling in the brain. There was some crossover with Carver Mead there. There was some hope that sort of what I would learn from designing semiconductors could be used to build chips that went into brains. Jim Olds had a unique sort of physical knowledge of the brain, and you could ask a question like how much heat can these components dissipate in the brain without damaging the tissue? How much electrical currents can we cause or alter in the process of putting this in and not damage the tissue? What can we do physically in the brain and still get signals that are representative of undisturbed activity? When he passed away that sort of ended that program.
My goal in graduate school was looking at the spider brain and using standard neurophysiology techniques. It helped that I had a background and helped that I could build equipment. It helped that I could design programs to implement it. But I was not innovating and creating new electrophysiological techniques. I was basically taking techniques that had been used in mammals and trying to apply them in spiders.
ZIERLER: And why of all creatures, spiders?
SIVERTSEN: Two reasons. I have to give credit to a friend and colleague and classmate, Jack Wathey, who initially turned me on to spiders. He had tried to do research in them and he wound up at Scripps as a graduate student and after a year or so of not getting a lot of data out of them, his advisor had him go on to fish because that's what the lab he was in was doing fish. John Allman was interested in comparative neuroanatomy. That's the class that as a teaching assistant entertained me the most. He did a great comparative neuroanatomy class of brains of octopus and sheep and primates and spiders. My work became a part of that. He tolerated my low initial yield spider research. I have to say there's this curve in science where when you initially dive into a new platform you don't make a lot of progress really fast because everything about the protocol has to be developed from scratch. As you learn the path to extract data from that system you get kind of a golden era where you're getting lots of data. Some argue there's sort of a senescence phase where in a particular platform you have hundreds of researchers all studying the same thing and they're extracting kind of the last 1% that you can extract using those techniques and technologies. I think that a lot of times science is kind of biased towards that senescence phase where you've got all the journals and all the grants are all focused, and all the positions are predicated on involving a particular area. John, one time, expressed a concern, "How many researchers can the posterior parietal cortex of the owl monkey support?"
ZIERLER: Dave, walk me through the lab. Just physically what does it look like? How are you interfacing with the spiders?
SIVERTSEN: There's a giant screen. Behind it there's optoelectronic components. Little stepper servomotors and mirror galvanometers that let you take a beam of light, perhaps of a particular wavelength or not, and shape that beam of light and move it around on the screen. This is all done with a Data General Nova 13 maybe? Some horrible thing that had 18-inch by 18-inch circuit ports stuck in a large rack that had all of 64K of core memory. It's all programmed in FORTRAN. The discs were large, white cartridges that were maybe 12 inches across. It was all slow and clunky. You had to boot the machine by toggling dozens of little toggle switches to load in a bootloader to get it going. You could run a program.
Spiders are different than mammalian brains. You don't slide a small electrode through the skull and into an area of the brain as you can in a primate or rodent. In the early attempts people attempted to dissect away the top part of the spider's cephalothorax and expose the brain and look at it with a microscope and very carefully place an electrode into a particular area of the spider's brain. It turns out that's difficult to do, partly because the history of nervous systems. They start as nerves wrapped around a tube. Think of an earthworm. Over time, evolution has kind of pushed those neurons together into masses, ganglia. In the case of the spider, they're still surrounding the digestive tract. As you start prying into the spider trying to open it up to get access, you're releasing a lot of digestive fluids, which basically digest the brain. You've got a very damaged preparation.
The other thing to think about, spiders are unique in that they've got sort of a partial circulatory system. They don't have so much veins and arteries as we do. The simplistic description is the heart pumps the blood through veins and then kind of spills out and hits the sump like an oil pan in a car and goes back and is collected to pump through again. They have a very high blood pressure in parts of their system as an adaptation—they're jumping spiders. They make their living by visual predation. They jump 10 times their body length. They actuate that jump. Instead of having flexors and extensors they have flexors which they tense and then they pump up the pressure. They release that muscle to trigger a saltatory jump towards their prey. Their visual system is unique. They've got a very high visual resolution. They're right at the optical diffraction limit of their lenses. Tiny eyeballs.
ZIERLER: What does that mean? Optical limit of their lenses?
SIVERTSEN: For a small lens you can only resolve a certain image. As the lens gets smaller and smaller you hit an optical limit. They're right at the optical limit of their lens.
ZIERLER: Wouldn't evolution tell us that all creatures are at their optical limit?
SIVERTSEN: No. We've got a great, big limit—great, big lenses. If you look at what kind of resolution we have, we have better resolution than the jumping spider does. But if you scale it, you'd expect, for example, a dog or a cat has essentially the same resolution as a jumping spider. Even though their eyeballs are much larger. The jumping spider's got to do a lot of tricks to take advantage of the resolution. They don't have the space and they can't metabolically support a huge retina.
What they do, first of all, they've got eight eyes, of course. Six of the eyes perform the function of our peripheral vision. They know that something's out there. They can resolve about one degree of visual space. If a dark object moves one degree in space, that's enough for it to say, "Hey. Something's happening out there somewhere behind me or to the side of me." They've got two big lenses in the front; think of high beams on a car. They say, "I'm going to orient and I'm going to put my good eyes on whatever is happening over there on the side." The good eyes have a resolution of about a tenth of a degree of arc. It's quite high resolution.
They've got a number of other tricks. They have a retina that's about two degrees wide and maybe…off the top of my head, I don't know. Maybe 40 degrees high. These eyes actually scan what they're looking at and build up an image of the space in front of them. Sort of like when you use a Xerox machine you put your paper down and you want to scan it. There's a little beam of light and a sensor and it walks across the page, and it picks up the image sequentially in time.
They're also doing some additional tricks. They have color vision—not like our color vision—but they actually have sensors that are sensitive to ultraviolet as well as visual light. Basically, green and ultraviolet. We won't go into the reasons for that right now. They've got a third trick they play. It's very important as a visual hunter to know where things are in space. If you're going to jump on something you'd better know how far away it is. We use binocular disparity. This is again where John Allman's lab was a great place to be because that's one of the things that he studied. We also use other cues—distance, parallax, cloudiness. There's a lot of people who have had developmental problems such that binocular disparity never develops and aren't aware of the fact that they don't have that input. But jumping spiders, their eyes are so close together they don't have much of a baseline to do disparity cues to depth.
One of the things they do have is they've got a unique trick with their lens and their visual array. Our retina is essentially a flat sheet at the focal point of our lens. If you know a little optics, you know that objects in infinity are in focus at the focal point of the lens, but near field objects are focused somewhere a little different. As we age we come to discover that one lens doesn't do it all for us. What the jumping spider has is a stair-stepped retina. As they laterally move their retina, their two-degree wide strip across visual space, they're not only picking up information about the x, y imaging; they're also extracting depth information. They have a stair-stepped retina and as it sweeps across it picks up the best focal point for images which lets it extract how far away each of those items are. They do edge detection. It turns out that in the brain a few of the cells that I managed to find actually had size constancy which is even now, I think, something that's not been looked at as much in mammalian preparations.
What I like to point out doing these experiments is when you're standing on the other side of the screen, you don't know whether the preparation behind the screen is a cat, or a rat, a monkey, or a spider. You're moving bars of light and finding neurons that are velocity sensitive or orientation selective like the classic, early work of Hubel and Wiesel or later work by other neurophysiologists. You couldn't really tell whether it was a spider or a monkey or a cat. You get the same sorts of visual processing taking place of breaking down the components of the visual environment and making sense of that visual environment.
ZIERLER: Dave, I'm curious if the classic nature versus nurture debate was a relevant construct for the kinds of questions you were after in your graduate research on these spiders.
SIVERTSEN: No. I don't think so. We didn't do any specific research in that area. One of the things is that like the short-lived octopus—which also has a really fascinating optical nerve physiology—and jumping spiders, you're looking at a timetable of about a year. From the time you're born you've got to be up and running and a successful hunter immediately and you don't have a lot of time to be nurtured or developed with those skills. You're born hardwired.
The jumping spider goes through a number of instars. The life cycle of Phidippus johnsonii—which is a jumping spider found on the Caltech campus that I used extensively for my research—they're about a half inch long and they're busy mating in the springtime. By December they're senescent. Occasionally one will over winter and survive to the next year, but typically they're putting down two or three egg sacks with 300 eggs. Those little babies hatch out and they basically hide under leaves and hang out as tiny little jumping spiders eating tiny little prey throughout the winter. Then come springtime they go through several instars before they're an adult. Each one of those little instars has to be a calibrated hunting machine to survive.
They've got a good concept at 3-dimensional space. There was some early work in it done by David Hill. Like many spider researchers he eventually went on to something completely different. He did a lot of research on jumping spiders' behaviors and found that you could put them on a 3-dimensional jungle gym, and they would spot a fly and they would stalk it very much like a cat. They would freeze when the fly was looking their way. Even when occluded by intervening leaves they would still be able to make a ballistic turn and orient in the direction of the prey. They would find their way through the 3-dimensional maze and get into a good position to stalk their prey and watch and immobilize it.
ZIERLER: Dave, when did you know you had enough data to defend?
SIVERTSEN: After nine years. [laugh]
SIVERTSEN: My committee would've liked for me to have more data points. But the difficult experiments ran 36-48 hours and if I got a few cells I was ecstatic.
ZIERLER: Why, Dave? Can you explain? Why was that such a big deal?
SIVERTSEN: Well, because my preparation did not involve dissecting the spider's brain out. I would anesthetize the spider, immobilize it, put a tiny little nick in what I deemed the correct landmark location using external landmarks. I have a lot of spider sections where I embedded them in epoxy and cut them on a microtome and built an atlas of where things were in their brain including external landmarks. I'd use those external landmarks and say, "Well, if I make a little tiny hole here and slide an electrode in at this point, let the spider wake up—CO2 is an effective anesthesia for the jumping spider—and then slowly lower the electrode down and then flash different images in front of the spider—in this case the spider's frontal eyes. The interior medial eyes were oriented to the screen and anything that I flashed on the screen that triggered an electrical response within the brain I was interested in to characterize those individual cells.
Partly the question initially I was asking does it have the same properties of the mammalian preparations? Do we have velocity sensitivity? Yes. Do we have orientation selectivity? Yes. I spent awhile looking at color and didn't find a whole lot in that endeavor. This is sort of…I have no electrophysiology from spiders to go on. I had anatomy papers written in archaic German from a century ago. There was a professor in England named Mike Land and an Australian professor named David Blest who'd done some research in the retina of the jumping spider, both its physiology and some of the electrical responses. But nobody had looked at the higher centers of integration.
ZIERLER: Dave, would you say your graduate research was purely basic science—just figuring this stuff out? Or did you see possible applications or translations?
SIVERTSEN: This was pure, basic science figuring it out. Although when I graduated, in addition to The Huntington Gardens, I did look at some of the aerospace companies. One of the groups had an interest in building missiles that would basically fly along at ground level and programmed to explode when they counted a group of people of 20 or more. I had philosophical problems with that. I understand that there's a need for military, but that was a little more direct than I could tolerate.
SIVERTSEN: I could say it's an interesting problem and I think they felt that there was potential application of looking at small brains that could solve problems like this as a model towards building the necessary intelligence into a weapons system.
ZIERLER: Dave, who was on your committee?
SIVERTSEN: Mark Konishi, David Van Essen, John Allman, Mark Tanouye, and Ray Owen. Ray Owen was from a different discipline, immunology, and had been dean of students. He was quite a good influence on my committee. Interesting, for me, one of the memorable questions that came up was looking at whether I'd done the proper statistical significance on all of my datasets since it was a small dataset. That was a question that I couldn't answer. It turned out some of the other committee members, when I asked for guidance, weren't particularly tuned into that aspect either of the specifics of how to do that best. Ray Owen puffed on his pipe and suggested that I refer to a book that he'd written some 40 years earlier on statistical methods for the biological sciences and address that.
SIVERTSEN: That really eased over that sticking spot in the exam.
ZIERLER: Dave, looking back what would you say some of your principal conclusions were for your thesis?
SIVERTSEN: Principal conclusions were that despite hundreds of millions of years of separate evolution, if you look at the properties of the neurons and the higher visual centers that are processing this visual information, the properties of the neurons are the same.
ZIERLER: Which tells you what, more broadly?
SIVERTSEN: When biology keeps coming up with the same solution to a problem it tells you that that's probably one of the better solutions. There may not be a better way to do it.
SIVERTSEN: Additionally, it gave a clue of where to look for some other things. The size constancy aspect at that time had not been studied a lot in neurophysiology. I sort of stumbled on it by accident. At some point in the standard preparations, you have a screen at a fixed distance from the animal and you project your image on that. I started worrying about whether I'd be getting better results if the screen was closer or further away from the spider. I started moving it at different distances and mapping out the receptive fields where the neurons were active. I found some of the neurons behaved in a very unexpected fashion. Typically, if you mapped a neuron's receptive field, and you moved the screen twice as far away the angular subtense would remain constant and the measured dimension would be twice as much. I found that for some of these neurons when I moved the screen further away the field stayed the same physical size, which if you think about our own perception of the universe when we see a person walking down the street we know how big they are even though the size of their image on our retina varies based on how far away they are. For a visual hunter and for our understanding of the visual world we need to have size constancy.
ZIERLER: Dave, what year was it when you wrapped up? Was it '86?
SIVERTSEN: I think it was closer to '88 or '89.
ZIERLER: Now you mentioned at this point you were weighing your options. What ultimately did you choose?
SIVERTSEN: Well, The Huntington Gardens made me an offer I couldn't refuse. They were walking distance. I didn't have to wear a necktie. I knew the people; they were very pleasant. They had a lot of knowledge in areas that I didn't have which is always attractive for people who like to learn. They offered me a big computer. [laugh]
SIVERTSEN: At the time the DOS machines that were affordable didn't have a whole lot of memory to them. Memory was perhaps $1,000 a megabyte for RAM.
ZIERLER: Dave, had you kept up with Alan Cocconi or Alec Brooks? Had you thought about going back into the burgeoning electric vehicle industry?
SIVERTSEN: I had not specifically thought about it. It hadn't really occurred to me. I didn't really see it as a burgeoning industry. I'm not sure I'd call it that. Alan contacted me after I'd been at The Huntington about five years. I was pretty settled in. I was having a lot of fun using virtual machines in DOS. My DOS machine was big enough and there was a little startup company in Santa Monica called Desqview that could've been the next Microsoft.
SIVERTSEN: They had virtual machines that had client compatibility and X Windows compatibility. They were doing a lot of innovative stuff. I had a machine where I took AutoCAD as a graphics engine and Paradox as the database engine and Desqview as a multitasking, virtual engine to glue them all together. We made a fancy mapping system for an early GIS system. I got that to a point where it was a usable piece of equipment. We had electronic records early on at The Huntington Gardens before the institution even had a computer department.
At that point I got a call from Alan. He wanted somebody who sort of was a jack of all trades and a good machinist and some knowledge in computers and electronics. I fit the bill. It was a tough call because The Huntington was a very secure place and I got to do a lot of fun stuff there. I got to learn a lot there. They had a lot of benefits and security. Alan's startup company had none of the above. It had a lot of excitement and a chance to be working on something that made a huge difference for society.
ZIERLER: And this is AC Propulsion you're talking about now?
SIVERTSEN: Yes. It was pretty clear there was no instant road to riches. There was not salary for many of the early years. Alan had some innovative business ideas like negative salaries proportional to your interest in the company.
SIVERTSEN: The only reason I could participate in the AC Propulsion endeavor was I had a wife who was a hardworking nurse and mother raising our two kids and also working a steady job and paying the bills. I got to drive to San Dimas pretty early on in an electric car. For 20 years I put in about 200,000 miles of all electric commuting. I promised you a box of artifacts at some point.
SIVERTSEN: Alan's early test platform was the Honda CRX. You've gotten all of Alan's history, so you know his background innovating for the General Motors Impact with Aerovironment and building the EV1.
ZIERLER: Dave, at this point—five years in if the math is right—you come to AC Propulsion like '93, '94?
SIVERTSEN: That's probably about right. Alan already had one other partner, Paul Carosa, who'd come out of the Hughes Aircraft EV1 implementation effort. There were the three of us and we were joined after that by Tom Gage, who had both business research and grant experience.
ZIERLER: Was the main crux of the company at this point developing drivetrains for preexisting automobiles or were people already talking about the tzero? Building an electric car from the ground up?
SIVERTSEN: I think our interest was in making electric vehicles happen. As a small company, it's real hard to build a vehicle from the ground up. Some of our efforts were actually devoted to developing the market. We went to CARB (California Air Resource Board) hearings and testified about what was possible. We built test vehicles for South Coast Air Quality Management District. I think we built an electric Saturn for them. You had to get people used to the fact that electric vehicles were not just a fantasy, that you could really make something that took care of a niche in the market. We also did a few electric buses.
There were also questions about charging infrastructure to answer. I think AC Propulsion had a big success in getting electric vehicles mainstream. One of our big failures was we didn't get our concept of charging across. When Alan developed prototype hardware for the EV1 one of his fundamental realizations was that you could build an electric vehicle and that the components you used in the drive system were almost all the components you needed to build a high-powered charger. All you needed was power. You didn't need a dedicated charge station if you had a 110 or a 240 outlet of sufficient amperage. You could charge that car as fast as you wanted, limited by the available power.
ZIERLER: Dave, I'll ask you to reflect. You talked about the value of having the electrical engineering approach as you went into biology for graduate school. Having been immersed in biology for so long in graduate school and then for your first five years at The Huntington, what value intellectually, problem solving—whatever you might feel—did you bring with you to AC Propulsion?
SIVERTSEN: Well, I think all of it is problem solving. But if you go back to sort of my earlier premise that I was interested in how things work and how intelligence works and software and hardware design, that all sort of plays together. I also like building things. All of those came into play at AC Propulsion. I think Alan turned (on a lathe) the first copper rotor or the first aluminum rotors in the early days. We didn't have a dedicated machinist. I got to turn out several of our early model rotors. I remember being pleased as punch because one of our customers said, "We took your motor apart. Do you have a German machinist? It's so wonderful and precise and well-made." That just warms the cockles of your heart.
SIVERTSEN: Also, what Alan's vision for the partners was that our job was whatever was needed to have a research and development company. You need a lot of roles. We weren't a big company. He felt like our jobs were first and foremost to make ourselves obsolete at whatever we did, and pass on a well-defined task. Eventually that failed and you wind up stuck with the hard jobs that are harder and harder to offload, but I went from doing the machinist stuff—eventually we got a machinist. I wound up doing research on batteries and battery testing and software and hardware design and building a lot of the user interface for our vehicles and for our product.
ZIERLER: Dave, what was the impact—pardon the pun—the rise and fall of GM's foray into electric vehicles? What was the impact of that on AC Propulsion and what you saw as the prospect for widespread adoption of electric vehicles for the consumer market?
SIVERTSEN: Well, certainly we would've liked to have a car company come talk to us, say, "You guys have got great stuff. We see a big, rosy future. We'd like to build your technology. Help us into production with this." There was a model for that. That's pretty much what happened with Aerovironment's Impact. That was certainly one of the aspects we pursued: let's talk to the car companies, build demonstrations with the car companies, and educate them about what's possible, what's not possible. What are the limits? But we also understood, at the end of the day, we had to pay our bills. Anybody else who came along who wanted to build electric cars, we'd entertain them.
ZIERLER: Who were some other potential clients or customers?
SIVERTSEN: There were academic customers. There were utility customers. There were air quality customers. There were other miscellaneous customers which includes people like Madame Courreges. Sometime what we should do is put together a complete customer list for you.
ZIERLER: Yeah! [laugh]
SIVERTSEN: You can go through that. Madame Courreges, she and her husband were fashion designers in France. I'm not educated in the world of fashion, but people who were recognized her name. She's better known in France and Japan and England. There are people in this country who know them. She came to the conclusion that she wanted to do something environmental. That fashion runway events to promote her product were a big expense and if you didn't have good press coverage, they were a bust. She came up with the notion of building environmental, eco-friendly vehicles as a way to promote her brand. Some of our work at AC Propulsion was flying to France and helping build our battery systems and our drive systems and motors into fancifully designed vehicles that she had built and helping support her when she'd show those at Formula One races or other locales.
ZIERLER: Dave, a question I'm still trying to wrap my head around. If you look at the circumstances where Japanese auto manufacturers gained a toehold in the United States in the 1970s, it was because their cars were fuel efficient.
ZIERLER: I'm still curious why by the mid-1990s Honda or Mazda or Toyota would not have come to a company like AC Propulsion and gone all in at that point.
SIVERTSEN: Some of it was driven by the physics of lead-acid batteries. They looked at it and they said, "Yeah. No." Powered by lead-acid battery…poor vehicle designs…you're lucky to get 20 or 30 miles range. There is a small market for that, but not a very big one. The other aspect of it is you think about…OK. A little bit of history here. Why didn't GM want electric cars? I think fundamentally if you look at how car companies work, they're companies that are driven by intellectual property. If you look at the intellectual property holdings of GM or Chrysler or Ford, it's all about gas engines. If you look at electrical cars, they're all about batteries and motors and magnets and computers. A lot of patents and the intellectual property in that area are owned overseas. The American car companies say, "You're asking us to throw out everything of value in our corporate structure and go compete in an endeavor where we're at a disadvantage. Our shareholders will never go for that."
The second issue there is if you think about the 70s or the 80s—the car experience—you get in a car and you want power. You want luxury. You want to cruise the Pacific Coast Highway in a convertible like a traditional car company advertisement. As far as adverse weather, rain, if you look at how much energy it takes to move tires on a rainy road and displace all the water, if you look at what it takes to heat the interior of a car with waste heat from the engine, if you take a look at power steering, if you look at air conditioning, all of those things are almost for free in a gas car. In an electric car they all have a cost for your range and they all have a cost to developing the systems in the vehicle. You're not just saying replace the gas motor with an electric motor. You're saying throw away everything in the car and start from scratch. One hundred years of development is gone. That's a frightening thing especially if you're the chairman of the board of the major car company and you feel a short-term responsibility to the stockholders.
ZIERLER: Dave, was part of the reason for the tZero, was that recognition that there was simply too much baggage, history, investment for the legacy automakers? That this needed to be built from the ground up?
SIVERTSEN: The tZero was several things. One is a recognition that the first electric cars would have to be performance vehicles because they were low volume production. The only way.A low volume production car is an expensive car and if you're going to make an expensive car it needs to have something zippy about it.
ZIERLER: It's got to be fun for middle-aged guys, you're saying? [laugh]
SIVERTSEN: Yeah. It's got to be fun! It's got to be powerful. We recognized our technology could deliver power and efficiency and fun and a low frontal area in a streamlined body. All of those drove the tZero. Our first demonstrator that we got 200,000 miles out of was Alan's CRX Honda. Lead acid batteries and it had a good coefficient of drag. It had a small frontal area. It had decent range. It was my commuter car for quite a while for a 60-mile daily commute. It did not have air conditioning. It had limited creature comforts. It didn't have a lot of space. It had 1,200 pounds of battery. There was no footwell on the passenger's side. My youngest son grew up in a car seat perched above all those batteries.
ZIERLER: Obviously, this is before lithium-ion batteries became a possibility.
SIVERTSEN: One of our understandings was that…we did demonstrator cars we built from scratch. We took platform cars—we did a number of cars for Volkswagen. We did one for Volvo. I'm blanking…we interacted with different car companies at different levels. We tried to get Subaru to adopt, and their American rep was very interested, but the Japanese management felt that a small car company and a small development company didn't make a very synergistic combination.
ZIERLER: Dave, from a budgeting background at what point did AC Propulsion, if ever, provide a steady paycheck, financial security?
SIVERTSEN: In our later years we provided financial security. That worked out—I don't have the exact numbers down and I'm not always that on top of it. At our peak we worked with BMW and employed about 40 people, helping turn out over 600 electric Mini Coopers [laugh].
ZIERLER: But were you getting paid the first few years or were you borrowing—
SIVERTSEN: No. There were a number of years where we were not getting paid. Our drive systems were horrendously expensive for adopting. I think our early drive systems, we were selling them at $40,000. It's hard for anyone to take that as a mass market item. We'd say, "Look, these are low volume production items that are funding our research. If you look at the cost components to actually build this mass production, it's not prohibitive." Samsung was dallying with getting into the electric vehicle market at one point.
ZIERLER: Dave, do you have a specific memory of the first time you drove a tZero?
SIVERTSEN: I think it was about 1996. The first tZero was a lead acid beast. I think we eventually made three and a half tZeros. You can engage in the fun activity of tracking them down. The AC Propulsion tZero—when lithium acid batteries became available, we incorporated them.
ZIERLER: When did that happen?
SIVERTSEN: I'd have to go through my records. I don't have the precise years there. I think I recall tZero sort of happening around 1996. Again, I'm not going to guess for these numbers.
ZIERLER: What was it like to drive it? What was the sensation?
SIVERTSEN: It was a kick as a lead acid car and even more so as a lithium car. It pushed you back in your seat. We had precise traction control that kept you at the edge of a burnout.
SIVERTSEN: Yeah. We did a round trip drive to Las Vegas and back on a charge at 65 miles an hour in the tZero on lithium batteries. That really opened up the possibilities. As a background—not to get too far off the topic—we came to understand as we sold to all these different customers and tried and failed with car companies that they needed a complete package handed to them on a plate. It wasn't enough to have a drive system. They needed to see a battery system as well. We did a lot of work testing batteries, building battery monitoring systems, building battery control systems. That was something I did a lot of. We dallied with nickel sodium batteries, molten batteries. We worked on bus projects. We did entire city buses with lead acid batteries. We did a variety of lithium batteries, a variety of nickel metal hydride batteries. We did projects with car companies involving nickel metal hydride batteries that they had their hands on and wanted to try. We pitched ourselves not just as a technology originator, but a research institution.
ZIERLER: Dave, when did the idea start to come about that you should take the tZero up to Silicon Valley, show some rich guys how fun it was, and see if that would create some seed money?
SIVERTSEN: Early on, I think we did have the notion that we could build tZeros and sell them as a product. We understood the FMVSS (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards) code that we'd have to meet. I think we sort of looked at the economics of building 50 of them—what it would cost us and what we could sell them for. I think this is where we didn't have—call it what you will—the business savvy or expertise that Martin Eberhard, who started Tesla, had. My understanding was from an engineering standpoint - if you want to build 50 cars and it costs you $50 million then you'd have to sell those cars at a million dollars apiece.
ZIERLER: Yeah. [laugh]
SIVERTSEN: That's just the way the world works! I had no clue that you could spend $10 million, build 50 cars, sell them at a loss, and make a company that was worth more.
SIVERTSEN: Perhaps others in the company were more sophisticated than I was, but I was pretty simplistic about it.
ZIERLER: Were you around when Martin Eberhard first got wind of the tZero?
SIVERTSEN: Yeah. Actually, we had an early meeting with Martin and I think his girlfriend at the time. On a local mountain we have a little teepee. My wife and I had a little picnic with them up there. I think that was one of the places he suggested Tesla as an interesting name. I said, "Oh, no. That's a terrible name!"
SIVERTSEN: It's just associated with all these flaky people and you're pulling in all the wrong connotations there.
ZIERLER: Why was the discussion immediately the formation of a new company as opposed to Martin joining AC Propulsion and making that what would become Tesla?
SIVERTSEN: A little background. I think Martin's initial interest was in buying a tZero. We'd built several at this point and we'd come to understand that each one we built was more expensive and more complete. We'd also come to the understanding that we didn't see a path forward to federally certify these vehicles. While we could build them and members of our company could drive them, they weren't something we could sell to the public. When Martin came along it was sort of like, "I want to buy one of your cool cars." It was, "Well, we can't really sell you one." At that point Martin said, "Well, how about this? Could you loan me your tZero for a little while? I'm going to drive around and raise money and start my own company and license your technology." We said, "OK." Perhaps the reason we weren't more linked in as businesses was we'd seen this model before. We'd had dozens of people come to us and say, "We're going to start a new car company and we're going to use your technology. We're going to do this. We're going to do that." Most of those did not come to anything.
ZIERLER: Dave, if you knew fully well that you were not in a position to sell street legal cars and you didn't really have a pathway to get them federally approved through all of the standards that are necessary, how is that a viable path forward for AC Propulsion? Wouldn't you need somebody like a Martin Eberhard to take this to that level?
SIVERTSEN: The premise is you develop technology, patent it, license it.
SIVERTSEN: That pays for your…if you're successful in doing that model those revenues can drive your company a long way. You can continue to do research innovation because really Alan's forte is not running corporate America.
SIVERTSEN: My forte is not running corporate America. That wasn't what we wanted to do. We wanted to develop a cool technology and get it out there.
SIVERTSEN: To that end, we succeeded.
ZIERLER: Actually, what Martin had proposed was perfect for your business model.
SIVERTSEN: Yep! We were a little cynical. For example, if Martin had said, "I'll give you 30% stock in my new company or I'll give you $30,000 and 1% in my revenues," we were more interested in getting the dollars to keep our operations going and a little cynical, perhaps, about the ability of somebody to start a new car company. The cynicism was based on experience. We'd had lots of people come to us—some flaky, some not so flaky. Venturi…do you know them?
SIVERTSEN: They're a French supercar company building million-dollar sports cars. I think they'd fallen on hard times. They were eventually bought by Gildo Pallanca Pastor. An interesting guy out of Monte Carlo. He saw our vision and said, "OK. I'm going to build three carbon fiber bucket sports cars with your drive system in them and your lithium battery system and I'm going to make a knock ‘em dead sports car. The starting price point could be half a million dollars. Small volume production, high end cost." He put a lot of time and development money into that effort, and he build a successful sports car and drove it around France. We did a lot of promotions with it. It didn't manifest as a company that was going to pay us royalties.
ZIERLER: Dave, what exactly was the arrangement with Martin? What was licensed and what was the rough monetary agreement?
SIVERTSEN: I don't have any of those numbers off the top of my head.
ZIERLER: Just in terms of the business plan—what was agreed to in the licensing?
SIVERTSEN: Tesla was going to pay us a certain royalty up to a certain amount of sales. I think the revenues to AC Propulsion were capped at about $1,000,000 total We licensed our patents for the drive system, and possibly some battery related IP. We also did a technology transfer, where one or more of their staff stayed at our facility over a 3 month period, learning how things worked, and whatever wasn't documented in our schematics and drawings.
ZIERLER: Do you have a memory of when Elon Musk enters the scene?
SIVERTSEN: I don't have a year. It would be about roughly a year before Martin exited the scene.
SIVERTSEN: My understanding is that Martin gave up controlling interest in return for money to grow the company. Eventually he and Elon were at odds.
ZIERLER: Did you have any interactions with Elon?
ZIERLER: What do you think—just as an outside observer—what was Tesla able to accomplish? Did they really execute that initial vision that Martin had? Or did Elon Musk take it in a new direction?
SIVERTSEN: That assumes I know entirely what Martin's initial vision was. Martin's initial vision was to take licensed technology from Lotus and AC Propulsion and build a great sports car because he wanted one. The early production Tesla's were very much what Martin planned. Martin is a serial entrepreneur. He had prior experience. He developed an early equivalent of the Kindle. I think he felt that he could grow this into a successful company. Did he have visions of making a brand-new car company? That I can't say.
SIVERTSEN: I wouldn't have felt that it was possible for anyone to create a new car company. I have to give Elon Musk credit for having done that.
ZIERLER: What do you think it was that he accomplished that others could not?
SIVERTSEN: Others can and have done what Elon did which was to take companies that have negative revenues and a product under development and raising huge reams of money and not paying back for long periods of time. When is the breakeven point for Tesla?
ZIERLER: Yeah. [laugh]
SIVERTSEN: Have we gotten there yet? I don't follow corporate finance very much.
ZIERLER: Dave, ultimately how long did you stay at AC Propulsion?
SIVERTSEN: Until 2013, I think.
ZIERLER: What was the direction of the company after this licensing agreement with Tesla? Did it change the company?
SIVERTSEN: Well, no. Remember that money didn't come in that quickly. It was essentially royalties. The other factor that was in play—there were two other primary factors in play at that point. One is BMW and the other is we got an outside investor. Like Elon Musk being an outside investor. I think there had been some discouragement after more than a decade of banging our heads against the wall at getting a big car company to really adopt the technology, to be fair.
There was an individual named Lu Chow who came along. He's a very interesting guy. He spent most of his career as a battery expert at Kodak. He watched Kodak fail to adopt to changing technologies and that colored his outlook quite a bit. He initially came to us wanting to, I think, license or buy a drive system as a battery technology demonstrator for an Indonesian company. As we talked, eventually the focus changed. He said, "I'd like to introduce you to an investor, William Chang, who lives in Bradbury. He'd like to invest in your company which would give you the capability to expand your production." One of the things we felt like is if the car companies weren't going to build it, perhaps we could build drive systems ourselves and sell them and if we could get our volume up and sell them at a reasonable price—much less than $40,000—than that was a path to success. Lu Chow brought us access to better batteries than we'd ever had. He also brought us access to manufacturing in China. He set up a production factory in China, in Shanghai. That opened the door to arguably the biggest customer AC Propulsion had for its components, which was BMW.
ZIERLER: What was the connection between BMW and China?
SIVERTSEN: AC Propulsion. BMW came to us and basically said…I have to say BMW—of all the car companies we ever dealt with—impressed me the most. They're the most organized, most engineering-oriented, the most systematic, and the most direct. They came to us and they said, "We're at this point essentially the only car company in the world that does not have an electric vehicle research program. Our management has felt the fossil fuels era will go on forever. We have decided that's not correct and we want to get started. We want to work with your company to bootstrap the process. We're not going to adopt your technology. We're not going to license your technology. That's not the way we do business. But you could partner with us; we'll make it worth your while. We could get the experience of building a few hundred electric cars, deploying them, and collecting data for a year." This became the BMW Mini project. We were very cynical having much experience with car companies. They come, they say, "We want to build a hundred cars in one year." Eventually it becomes five cars in five years.
SIVERTSEN: You have to custom design the hardware for each of those. It's an enormous engineering investment and you don't get much payback. But BMW not only was good with their word, they came back later and they said, "One year, 200-250 cars." They came back later and said, "Five-hundred cars." They ultimately bumped it to I think 625 Mini Coopers.
ZIERLER: Would this ultimately inform the creation of the i3?
SIVERTSEN: Yes. They designed their own hardware. I believe they may have tapped Alan when they had some difficulties building their own hardware. He might've given them a couple of pointers. They got the experience with the Mini Coopers. Most cars have an onboard diagnostic system that stores error codes. After BMW started the program we had to interface their vehicle control computers with our battery and drive system control user interface systems and exchange information. One of the things that I built into our hardware at that time we were using for data collection was a compact flash (CF) slot. We had the storage card, the SD equivalent of 4 gigabytes. After they had started the project I said, "Now our drive system does have this capability. Are you interested in 10 Hz data on each battery and the motor and throttle position and the vehicle performance." They were quite surprised and they said, "Yes, of course!" Because this is far surpassed any data telemetry systems that they expected in a prototype. I later inquired, "Were they actually using that in their fleet of vehicles?" They said, "Yes." They would take the cards out at service intervals and load them onto a hard drive and fly them across the Atlantic to analyze the data.
That was an interesting program. They had a real focus on production and it was an all hands on board for AC Propulsion at the time. I think we might've been at our peak employment of 40 people. We had one of the BMW engineers living full-time at our plant. We had coordination with English production of the chassis, German integration of the entire vehicle, Shanghai production. In order to get the battery supplier to supply the cells we had to teach them how to build battery packs. The packs were being built in Taiwan. The quality control issues—we had to do complete dyno testing of every unit built in the Shanghai factory in San Dimas, before shipping it to Germany.
ZIERLER: Dave, what about other car manufacturers? When did you get the sense that electric cars were going to start being more widely adopted and no longer simply a novelty?
SIVERTSEN: Pretty much as they came out. Certainly, the carmakers were at conferences and discussing things. One of the things we did every year was the LA Auto Show. We'd get a little booth down in the car wax aftermarket section with our tZero and show videos that most people found incredible, as in unbelievable. We didn't have a product to sell to the public. People would ask, "Why are you here?" Really, we were there for press day, the first day of the LA Auto Show before they open to the public. We were there because that's the day Detroit and all the car manufacturers executives, designers, and influencers come and they walk through to check out the competition. That was one of our major marketing ploys.
ZIERLER: Dave, by the time the company was growing you had 40 employees. How had your responsibilities changed being a senior person?
SIVERTSEN: I did not do that much production. I was still primarily looking at battery systems, battery research, and user interfaces. I had a small…maybe one or two people who would work with me on producing things. I tended to farm out most of my production. When you start building more than three of something it doesn't make any sense to build it in house if you have effective production partners. There's a small assembly house in Duarte and I would work with them. I rapidly discovered that I could give them my bill of materials and they could give me complete tested boards for less than the cost of the components. That was just wonderful. It meant if I had one person who worked with me who would load in the code and do the testing and assembly and that's it. The rest of the time I was doing software design or circuit board design or battery tests.
ZIERLER: Was there any discussion as the company was growing whether to go back to that very initial idea of building in house a car from scratch? In other words, did the calculus change at all from the initial reasons that prevented AC Propulsion from taking that approach?
SIVERTSEN: What changed in the calculus is as the company started taking off, as the electric vehicle industry as a whole started taking off and the car companies started waking up and everybody said, "This is real," we wanted to grow the company aggressively. Our primary investor who had a majority share and the Kodak battery chemist both felt, "No. We don't have positive revenues. We don't want to put more money into this at this point." Increasing production and trying to develop our own vehicle didn't seem to be on the table.
ZIERLER: Dave, did you see climate change, the increasing awareness that carbon emissions and petroleum fueled automobiles were unsustainable as having a positive influence on the wider spread adoption of electric cars both through the consumer perspective—
SIVERTSEN: One of the other things—we talked about the integrated charge—that Alan had a dream of even back in the 80s—we put in our system and that allowed us to drive our electric cars everywhere even though we had no charging stations. There was another wrinkle to that which was bidirectional charging, we called it Vehicle to Grid, or V2G. We did some demos. For example, one time I think there was a power failure at Pomona, and we showed up in our tZero, plugged in a big extension cord to it and a bunch of terminal strips, and said, "Go at it. Anybody want to plug in?" We were a portable power station. Our vehicle, we could use the battery energy and we could put out 120 volts. We could also feed power back into the grid. Alan thought carefully about things like how you prevent, if the grid goes down, you don't want to feed power into the grid. How do you protect against that? You can detect the impedance of the grid, it turns out.
One of the other areas that we were trying to develop—and Tom Gage worked a lot on this—was a market for stored power. If you look at renewables—solar power, wind power—one of the big issues for renewables is battery storage so that you can provide consistent power 24/7. The other thing we looked at was production costs. In electric cars the battery pack becomes one of the more significant components in the entire vehicle. We said, "What if that battery has an added value?" You can market the stored energy and get paid for it. The simplistic notion is you have a fully charged battery, you use 10% of it driving to work, you plug in at work, and your car is there online for the rest of the day. You program into your user interface. I need 20% of my battery to get home because I'm running errands at five o'clock. Until then you can do whatever you want to do with the stored energy. Well, lunchtime comes and demand ramps up. 25 cents a kilowatt-hour, 30 cents a kilowatt-hour are much higher than night time rates. You can sell half of your stored capacity and deplete your battery, so instead of a fully charged battery you're driving home on half a battery. But you made a couple bucks. It seemed to us—and this is a big notion because you need microcredits; you need a grid. You need utility participation; you need charging stations that manage all of this. Like many of our ideas AC Propulsion patents tended to be at least 17 years ahead of their time.
SIVERTSEN: We pushed for using the battery capacity of vehicles to augment the storage capacity attached to the grid.
ZIERLER: Dave, I'm curious intellectually if you ever partnered with people like I'm thinking of Professor Steven Low at Caltech. Do you ever see opportunity to exchange ideas on some of these innovations with people not in industry, but in academia?
SIVERTSEN: Not Steven Low, but there was a University of Delaware professor named Willet Kempton. He was quite interested in vehicle to grid, and he pushed hard for it. Our hardware had the capabilities that matched the ideas he had come up with. He interacted well with utilities and he had demonstration programs and we worked with him on that. We also partnered…there was a program with UC San Diego and BMW where we took vehicle battery packs to build stationary grid connected battery packs.
ZIERLER: Dave, tell me about your decision in 2013 to leave AC Propulsion.
SIVERTSEN: I think at that time we felt like we'd done as much as a small development could do. Alan's interest in banging his head against the big car companies had somewhat waned at that time. Getting to work with Alan I have to say was part of my attraction to the company.
SIVERTSEN: I kind of felt the direction that the investor wanted to take it didn't offer much for my interest. It seemed like a good time to leave. I also have to say that during the BMW project and even early with the test project—pretty much with all the international projects—there was a ramping up. This was a 24/7 startup, high intensity activity. During my kids growing up I was in Europe a lot of the time for many weekends out of the year. There were many long nights where I wasn't as available as I would've liked to have been. Looking at health issues, blood pressure, such things, I said, "You know, 24/7 startups may not be what I want to do for the rest of my life."
ZIERLER: [laugh] Dave, I'm curious when you left The Huntington—initially obviously no one can predict the future—but did you have some sense that that might not be the last time you were at The Huntington?
SIVERTSEN: I didn't think about it. I knew The Huntington was a very special place. I loved my time there. I know JPL was a special place and I loved the time I spent there even as an intern. I certainly have a lot of friends who were what we call lifers. The Huntington has a lot of lifers, too. Its association with Caltech is well justified.
ZIERLER: In 2013, what options were available to you? Where were you looking?
SIVERTSEN: I wasn't looking very hard. I was interested in a variety of different things. Just kind of sorting things out and thinking what to do next.
ZIERLER: What came available to you?
SIVERTSEN: Well, someone from The Huntington said, "You're at loose ends. Why don't you come talk to us?"
ZIERLER: Oh, wow.
SIVERTSEN: "We have some interesting projects."
ZIERLER: What was the initial job?
SIVERTSEN: Jim Folsom had a different notion of corporate structure than a lot of people do. He sort of invented jobs to fit people rather than having job descriptions and finding people who fit job descriptions. Jim knew I had technological insight. By this time The Huntington had grown, and they had an IT department. He knew my job specifically should not conflict or overlap with what the IT department at The Huntington did. I sort of had a catchall of everything else in Botanical technology. People are always having a problem with technology or applying technology in new ways to Huntington problems. Whether it's looking at satellite data to figure out how we're watering our plants or looking at how we map things in 3D space. Unlike our library where books are well-defined and have a position on the shelf, we've got collections that are scattered all over and living and dying and replicating and hybridizing out there. How do you keep track of those? It's a tough question.
ZIERLER: Dave, it's a running theme in our conversation. As you go back and forth from these research disciplines, from these industries, having spent all of this time at AC Propulsion what were some of the skills or even wisdom that were most relevant when you returned to The Huntington?
SIVERTSEN: You could say it's a conscious process of moving from one step to another based on skillsets. You could perhaps say it's a short attention span.
SIVERTSEN: The skillset is knowing how to define a problem and knowing how to find the answer for it. I have to say again, Alan and the Caltech background of all the people I worked with there, this is something that is taught and experienced on a daily basis. You can ask a lot of questions, but asking the right question is very important. Having a methodical way of going about finding the answer to that right question.
ZIERLER: You mentioned that some of the significant changes at the Huntington took place while you were gone. In what ways did your return to The Huntington feel familiar and in what ways was the institution really a different place?
SIVERTSEN: When I left The Huntington it was pretty small. It was pretty academic. The institution had run in the red seven of the previous ten years in terms of needing to draw down on the endowment or find trustee-based funding. As I was leaving, the botanical department was moving out of their space in the library into temporary trailers to make room for a development team. They had a new university professor head of the institution who came from a fundraising environment and his job one was fundraising. Part of that fundraising was to build a new botanical building and eventually the botanical conservatory. When I left The Huntington we were in trailers. When I came back that plan had been successfully executed.
ZIERLER: You talked about blood pressure and spending all the time away. Was it nice to be back in a more local and relaxed environment?
SIVERTSEN: To some extent you create your own environment. You create your own standards of what you're working to achieve. In that sense I'm back in choosing my own stress level.
SIVERTSEN: I have a lot more tasks to achieve than I have time to achieve it.
SIVERTSEN: But I think I have a good life balance at this point.
ZIERLER: Dave, to bring our conversation up to the present. Over these past eight or nine years or so that you've been at The Huntington what have been some of your chief accomplishments and what work remains to be done that's most important to you?
SIVERTSEN: There's always mapping to do. I would say some of my chief accomplishments are helping to build this integrated mapping system that allows us to take GIS data and plant records and tie them together in 3-dimensional space. To present information to the public about that. One of the things I think a lot about is digital outreach. The Huntington started as a collections-based institution. Huntington's charge was that we use our collections in the art, library, and botanical, to enable the public and researchers to have better access to the collections and the science they represent. We have a limit. We get about a million visitors a year. Given the cities around us and the transport infrastructure and our capability to handle crowds, that's about the most we can accommodate.
ZIERLER: Dave, does the GIS database have—
SIVERTSEN: Excuse me. Where I was going to go with that was if we're limited to a million people that's the limit of our influence unless we can successfully leverage assets digitally and create a virtual tour, a virtual website, access to our collections online. Part of the GIS mapping and part of the information science and web apps and things that I'm doing now allow remote visitation and remote learning.
ZIERLER: In this socially distanced world this is becoming a more and more important aspect of all institutions.
SIVERTSEN: Exactly. So you were about to say...
ZIERLER: I'm sorry to interrupt. I was asking do you see the database, the GIS system, does it have a conservationist or a preservationist component to it as well for plant species that are threatened?
SIVERTSEN: Certainly, our collection has that and anything that gives you a better handle on the collection or a better view into the collection does that. We can highlight things. If you want I can give you a weblink to an app that will let you virtually explore our orchid collection. The orchids in particular are an area where even though we have this large tropical conservatory, remember that orchids only bloom for a short part of the year. People aren't very excited about them when they're not in bloom. We have the ability to take our entire collection and give people a window into that when it's blooming and at its best. They can explore where they come from, what they look like, what their evolutionary adaptations are, how endangered they are, and so forth.
ZIERLER: Dave, now that we've worked right up to the present for the last part of our talk I'd like to ask a few broadly retrospective questions and then we'll end looking to the future. First, out of curiosity given how deeply involved you were in spider neurophysiology have you kept up with the field at all? Do you have a sense of where that field has gone since you were a graduate student?
SIVERTSEN: It's interesting. I have kept up on it. I've got colleagues who study spider taxonomy. From them I get all the news. There was a project at Cornell a few years ago where they started doing neurophysiology in jumping spiders. They went online and said, "Yes! We're the first, we're the foremost, we've done this!" Somebody commented to them and sent them a link to my thesis. I think they were less than excited to receive that link.
SIVERTSEN: It is exciting to see that people are adopting the platform again and moving forward. I do think there's a lot of gold to be mined out of that platform. It's a tough one, but it's an interesting one.
ZIERLER: Dave, some questions as they relate to what a really unique intellectual and career path from you is obviously. From electrical engineering to biology to botany to engineering and now back to botany, how do you understand being so effective and contributing in such diverse fields? What does that tell us about perhaps the importance of being a jack of all trades or maybe having perspectives or skillsets that really are universally applicable no matter what environment you find yourself in?
SIVERTSEN: I don't know how to answer that question. I think the human brain is an amazing structure. That's part of the fascination. One of the aspects of it is the different ways it manifests, the different skillsets. You look at people who can fly over Rome in a helicopter and sit down and sketch in great detail thousands of buildings. You look at people who can retain and calculate everything about a very narrow discipline and have great insight, like a searchlight, into that one particular zone. You look at people who are a jack of all trades who maybe aren't that deeply versed in things or don't have that depth of knowledge in them, but they have sort of a wide-ranging thing. You'll find that in all human endeavors there's a need for kind of collaborative partnerships between all those different types of people. Diversity is recognized as very important at most institutions. Interdisciplinary studies have become more and more prominent. Diversity in the types of people doing the research has become more and more prominent. It's all headed in a good direction. I think it will give us better outcomes.
ZIERLER: Dave, given the winding path of your career what do you see as the connecting thread either from a technical level or even from a level of curiosity?
SIVERTSEN: I think curiosity is one of the driving forces there. The need to understand and the desire to implement and to build based on that curiosity.
ZIERLER: One thing that's so rare about what you've accomplished is that most scientists work generally either in a basic science framework or in an applied framework and you've done both. How do you compare both the challenges and even the satisfactions of working in both environments?
SIVERTSEN: I wouldn't say that's rare at all. I think there's a lot of successful people out there who work in both environments. Even Carver Mead who we started out with, there is somebody who's done a ton of research and he's been in the industry, he's done development. By bouncing around between those and gaining an appreciation of what's needed to succeed in all those areas, it's a good education.
ZIERLER: Dave, certainly for younger people who will look to this recording for some advice on what they might want to do there's certainly no chart that you plotted out that you stuck to, obviously. I wonder what you might say in terms of what you've learned along the way in terms of working with people, in terms of grabbing the right opportunity at the right time. What advice might you give to younger people?
SIVERTSEN: I would say I don't necessarily have any particular insight onto the best way to work with people. I think you're best following your passions, the things that you're interested in because who wants to work at something they don't like?
ZIERLER: That's right. [laugh]
SIVERTSEN: As far as people—work with interesting people who are driven by similar passions. The combination of those two will take you a long way.
ZIERLER: Dave, finally last question looking to the future. What else do you want to accomplish both intellectually and professionally?
SIVERTSEN: I wish to continue following my interests wherever they take me. I don't know what profession that might be or what endeavor that will be. Certainly, outside of my career there are interests whether it's music or appreciating the Sierras. Botanizing is particularly nice, so I get to combine my interest in plant science, evolutionary adaptation, and the great out-of-doors. There's a lot of interest and whether that's a career interest or an outside life interest, sometimes it's hard to tell those apart.
ZIERLER: Dave, it sounds like you're as open-minded and open-ended as when you finished graduate school and were looking for the next opportunity then.
SIVERTSEN: Thank you.
ZIERLER: [laugh] Dave, this has been a great pleasure. I'm so glad that we connected and were able to do this. I'd like to thank you so much.
SIVERTSEN: You're welcome.