TEDxUCLA 2016: Push. Pull. Stretch.

Making grass greener


About Jonathan

Jonathan Massachi is a second year undergraduate student at UCLA studying Bioengineering with a focus on Medical Device Development. He currently conducting research in the UCLA Integrated Bioelectronics Research Laboratory with the hopes of developing an implantable system to help paralyzed patients with spinal cord injuries walk again. His passion for bio-inspired design and engineering led him to the idea of developing a solar panel that mimics nature’s original solar panel— grass. His idea utilizing a novel turf conformation of flexible solar cells recently won the grand prize in the XPRIZE and UCLA FuturizeX Student Innovation Challenge.


So where does our energy come from?

Today, most of it still comes from burning fossil fuels which are the remnants of organisms that lived long before us. But how did those organisms get their energy?

If you trace it back far enough, most of that energy came from photosynthesis, or plants harvesting energy from sunlight. Unfortunately, grass doesn’t have outlets for you to plug your iPhone charger into. But what if there were a way to make grass that did?

What if we cut your lawn could power your entire house, or a football field could power the whole stadium? What if we could take inspiration from nature to design better solar technology?

For too long, problems have been solved by just biologists or just engineers working independently. But more and more often we’re faced with problems that require knowledge from both fields, or at the very least we’re beginning to recognize that we arrive at better solutions when we look at a problem from both perspectives.

We’re beginning to apply our knowledge of biology to improve technology in a wide assortment of fields. And this is what biomimetics is all about.

So how can we use biomimetics to power this entire building from the field we see outside the windows behind me? In recent years, through huge breakthroughs in material science and electrical engineering, flexible polymer solar cells have been developed which are lighter, cheaper, and easier to manufacture than existing silicon-based technology. Most interestingly though, these polymer solar cells are flexible, allowing them to be shaped into three-dimensional structures. However, these polymer cells suffer from one major drawback, and that’s that they’re not as efficient as existing solar technology.

So we’re faced with a dilemma: we have a really promising technology that needs the last little boost to reach its full potential, and this is where the power of biomimetics truly becomes evident because biological systems are tremendously efficient.

Nature is often called the greatest engineer because living things must constantly optimize their traits in order to continue to survive. And we can take advantage of this optimization to improve the technology that we design.

Let’s examine the human digestive system for a moment. Inside the small intestine, there are structures called microvilli which look like little hairs poking out of the intestinal wall. They also look a lot like a field of grass. And what these structures do inside the intestine is they increase the surface area so that we can absorb enough nutrients to continue living while keeping the intestines small enough to fit within our body.

If we look inside a plant cell, we’ll see the same kind of structure in thylakoid membranes inside the chloroplast which allow the plant cells to absorb enough sunlight to produce the energy they need to grow. So why not make 3D solar cells that mimic this structure?

Until recently, we’ve been facing a problem with materials. The silicon-based technology just can’t be formed into anything other than a flat panel. But now, thanks to those flexible solar cells I mentioned earlier, this is now a possibility. And not only that, but it presents a way to boost the efficiency of these solar cells by collecting more sunlight per square foot than the silicon-based flat panels. And so in this way we’re able to take an advance in one field of technology and apply our knowledge of biology to it, to make something better.

And the innovations that revolutionize our worlds come from things that have been around for much longer than us, and there’s a huge list that you can look through. But I wanted to close with this thought: the ideas for tomorrow’s biggest innovations won’t come from out of the blue. They come from looking at the world around us and realizing that the solutions are here today.

So I challenge all of you to look around and find something that can help change our world for tomorrow. Thank you.

Jordyn Wieber, How One Olympian Turned Devastation into Inspiration

Two thousand eight hundred and eighty minutes. That was the amount of time between the picture you see on the left and the picture you see on the right.

The picture on the left was undeniably the worst moment in my life. It was the moment I realized all I had dreamed of, all I had worked for for the past 14 years, was not going to happen. There were no do-overs, no second chances. Just like that, my dream was gone.

It was the moment I realized I would not qualify to the finals of the Olympic Games and not be able to vie for the all-around title. At the time I was the reigning world champion, so not only did I expect myself to reach that goal, but the world expected it of me too.

That picture on the left was spread across every TV screen and social media platform in the world. 38.7 million people watched me in that raw, devastated state. There was no hiding, no chance to process and put up a brave front.

It was two tenths of a point. A slight wobble, a barely bent knee, or maybe an elbow bent so slightly only a judge would notice. That was all it took to end my dream.

Two thousand eight hundred and eighty minutes. That was the amount of time I had to pick myself back up and bounce back from one of the lowest points in my life. That was the amount of time I had to leave the devastation behind and muster the courage to get back out on the competition floor and compete for Team USA as we vied for the team gold medal.

That picture on the right was two days later, and it was unequivocally the best moment in my life. It was the moment that Team USA had discovered we won gold in the 2012 Olympic Games.

The question I’m asked over and over again is, “How did you come back from that disappointment? How are you so resilient?” At first I wasn’t even sure. But when I finally decided years later to dig deep and find that answer, I realized that what I had learned was something that was worth sharing, something that might help others when life doesn’t go exactly as planned. And we all know life never goes exactly as we plan.

I first stepped into a gymnastics club at the age of four. Anyone in the audience who’s ever been on a balance beam like this one knows exactly how many times you have to fall off in order to learn how to stay on. Between seven-hour practice days and 35-hour weeks, I would fall off this balance beam more times than I could count.

The beauty in that was that each time I fell, through the guidance of my coaches and examples of my teammates, I was taught to take a deep breath, reset, and get back up. I could get frustrated and quit, or I could tie my ponytail a little bit tighter and get back on the beam. In gymnastics, you have to fall over and over again in order to learn how to be successful.

During that 2880 minutes between the picture on the left and the picture on the right, my mind was spinning with questions of self-doubt. Why did this have to happen to me? I worked so hard. But I had learned to give myself time to sit with my emotions and feel it all.

When the tears finally started to dry, I realized I was left with the same choice I had each time I fell off this balance beam since I was four. I could get frustrated or I could once again tie my ponytail a little bit tighter and take one step forward.

Two thousand eight hundred and eighty minutes later, when I walked back into that arena for the team finals, I knew I was going to be okay because I could make the choice, to continue moving forward, thinking only about what was ahead and leaving the past behind.

You see, the essence of gymnastics is rooted in predictability and perfection. Every single day is spent striving to get a perfect 10.0. You practice your routine a thousand times, and when you finally salute your arms in front of a humongous crowd and a panel of judges, you are expected to perform exactly what you practiced perfectly.

It doesn’t always work out that way. In fact, most times it doesn’t. While gymnastics does teach an athlete to strive for perfection, to me the most valuable lesson is the practice of resilience. I finally realized the answer to the question I’d been asked over and over again: How did I come back two days later and compete to the best of my ability? The answer was that I made the choice to be resilient.

The beauty in gymnastics was that I had the benefit of learning how to do this. And I spent 14 years in a sport learning how to get back up after the smallest and biggest of mistakes.

What is resilience? To me, it’s the ability for us all to feel the emotions of things that happen to us and then make a choice in how we respond. It’s the ability for us all to make that choice, to continue moving forward, thinking only about what’s next, despite the things that have happened. When I experienced that major failure at the Olympics, I drew upon those small moments of resilience and I knew I was prepared to handle this one.

What if we apply this idea to our lives? How many of you have thought why me? Why now? This wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Or how am I supposed to get past this? Maybe you’ve never been on a balance beam or done a flip in your life, but I can bet that at some point each of you has had an experience that made you think why me or why now.

I can almost guarantee that most of us in this room has once set a goal that we did not reach. Maybe you wanted to be a lawyer, but you didn’t pass the bar. Maybe there was a school you always dreamed of going to, but you didn’t get in.

Things and experiences will happen that are out of our control. What if we allowed ourselves the time to sit with those negative emotions and process them, however long it may take? It may 2880 minutes. Maybe longer.

What if then after, allowing ourselves time, we make the conscious choice to move forward? In our daily lives we have this incredible opportunity to continually make that choice. You get in a fender bender on the way to work. Your boss reprimands you because you made a mistake. Maybe you forgot to pick up your kids from school. Maybe you fell off the balance beam. It doesn’t matter how big or how small. We all have the ability to choose resilience.

Little did I know this practice of resilience was something that I would need later on in my life. On January 18th, 2018, I stepped foot in a courtroom in Lansing Michigan. Sixteen months and six days earlier I had read an article in The Indy Star that accused my Olympic team doctor of sexual abuse. During that 16 months and 16 days between the time I read that article to the time I stepped foot in that courtroom, I had undergone a journey of processing and understanding that I too was a victim of that doctor’s sexual abuse.

It took me a year and a half to be able to swallow the words, “Me too.”


This doctor was someone who I trusted with my well-being and my body. He was viewed as a savior in the world of gymnastics that is often very intense and restricting. He gained my friendship and my trust over the nine years he treated my injuries.

When I was 14 years old, I suffered a torn hamstring and he began sexually abusing me through the guise of a medical treatment that I was told was supposed to heal me.

Over the course of those 16 months and six days, I went all the way from denial that I was even a victim to acceptance. This was a shock to my system because this was not something I could overcome in a matter of seconds or minutes like I had done so many times before in gymnastics. What I did know was that I had learned I was in control over the amount of time I was going to live and feel like a victim.

This was the moment, that day in that courtroom, when I read my victim impact statement. I said the words, “I am a victim but I will not live as one.” As soon as those words left my mouth, I made a choice. That was the very moment I decided to move forward with a new purpose, sixteen months and six days later.

I could not have predicted that I’d be a victim of sexual abuse. But because of that daily practice of resilience that gymnastics gave me, and the choice I made that day in that courtroom, I’ve been able to use that experience as a way to become an advocate for other sexual abuse survivors. And I now have a new role of preventing abuse in the sport of gymnastics.

In life, we’re often not in control of the things that happen to us. And we often set these expectations and goals for our lives that we don’t meet. What we are in control over is the amount of time we give ourselves before we make a choice to move forward.

Gymnastics had trained me to turn myself around after the smallest and biggest of failures and disappointments. You may need a few minutes. You may need a few days, or even a few weeks. You may need 16 months and six days.

What matters is not that amount of time, but that you decide when that time is over. The more you practice this, the more resilient you’ll become. And what happens next could be the best moment in your life. Thank you.