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A can-do spirit fuels passion for music and engineering

Bassist and USC Viterbi professor George Ban-Weiss sets himself apart on musical and academic levels

Whether playing fusion, bebop or modern jazz, bassist George Ban-Weiss loses himself in the passion, creativity and freedom of music, finding transcendence in his art.

His willingness to push boundaries has made him a much in-demand musician. Ban-Weiss has appeared on dozens of albums, touring and playing with scores of bands featuring different sounds and styles.

In my mind, the best results come from being willing to take risks.

George Ban-Weiss

“Improvised music has shown me the value of letting go, pushing creative frontiers and not worrying about possibly failing in the end,” Ban-Weiss said. “In my mind, the best results come from being willing to take risks and not being hampered by one’s own comfort zone.”

He has taken that same can-do spirit to academia. The assistant professor in the Sonny Astani Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering tackles major research projects with policy implications such as climate change and urban air quality.

The 33-year-old faculty member has already made an indelible impression. MIT Technology Review selected Ban-Weiss as one of the world’s 35 top innovators under the age of 35.

“It’s quite a distinction to be on a list of recipients with people like [Facebook’s] Mark Zuckerberg and [Google’s] Larry Page and Sergey Brin,” he said. “These are people who have transformed people’s everyday lives.”

Happy days

Ban-Weiss has much to feel happy about these days. He has undertaken groundbreaking research on how dark and other non-reflecting residential roofs contribute to “urban heat islands,” a phenomenon in which cities are several degrees warmer than surrounding areas. His research on roofs, which began four years ago at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, also appears to have influenced local policymakers.

Scientists have long known that dark roofs absorb lots of heat, transfer it to homes and heat them up, leading to blasting ACs and wasted energy. For people without air conditioners, especially the elderly, scorching days can pose health risks. Dark roofs also transfer heat to the air above, making it warmer and in some cases exacerbating air pollutants such as ground-level ozone.

Until now, there was no good way to measure the solar heat absorbing properties of roofs at the city scale, Ban-Weiss said. Researchers could potentially go building-to-building with special instrumentation, a time-consuming process that would require permissions from building owners, who aren’t always forthcoming. Or they could rely on “coarse” satellite imagery that measured too large of an area to distinguish roofs from other urban surfaces.

Taking a different direction

Ban-Weiss thought there had to be a better way.

After a lengthy search, he found highly detailed aerial imagery taken by a subcontractor of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That same company, he later learned, had employed a special sensor that could measure light intensity at four different wavelengths, similar to sensors found on satellites. While the data was originally acquired for other purposes (and at a high cost), Ban-Weiss developed methods to convert that information into solar reflectance data, which is the fraction of sunlight that is reflected away from the roof.

Ban-Weiss leveraged that knowledge to create a map of Los Angeles that showed all roofs, along with their sunlight absorption properties. The imagery revealed that roofs cover about 20 percent of the city. And the majority of those roofs were very absorptive and inefficient.

Armed with his large map of Los Angeles rooftops, Ban-Weiss made a presentation about his work at a spring 2013 conference, organized by the advocacy group Climate Resolve, on ways to improve the city’s climate resilience. He told the attendees that replacing dark roofs with lighter or reflective ones could cut air conditioning usage by 10 percent and position the city to better deal with climate change. Then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa gave the opening remarks at the event.

“The maps that I created made it very clear that the current state of residential roofs in Los Angeles is very inefficient and that there’s room for a lot of improvement,” he said.

Through his staff, Villaraigosa was already aware of Ban-Weiss’ research, said Craig Tranby, environmental supervisor at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. A few months after the conference, the Los Angeles City Council passed an ordinance, signed in January by Mayor Eric Garcetti, mandating that roofs on new homes have light roofs or ones that reflect in the near-infrared part of the spectrum so that they maintain their dark appearance without absorbing heat.

“George definitely played a role in all this,” Tranby said.

Later this year, Ban-Weiss plans to publish a research paper that takes an in-depth look at roofs throughout California. Although most cities regulate roofs on commercial buildings, most regions do not control residential roofs, Ban-Weiss said. He hopes his research findings might encourage other cities in the state to follow Los Angeles’ lead in regulating them to make them cooler. (LA is the first major city in the nation to pass legislation on residential roofs.)

“It’s fulfilling to know that the research I’m doing could have an impact on actual policy and help result in reductions in air conditioning energy use and heat in cities,” Ban-Weiss said. He is currently researching ways to mitigate dark pavements’ impact on city warming.

Fear of flying

Ban-Weiss joined the USC faculty in August 2013. He said he has found his colleagues “extremely supportive, collaborative, friendly and excellent partners for research.”

Growing up in Northern California, he exhibited the same fearless streak that would later make him a rising star in academia.

As a young child, watching 747s take off fascinated him and sparked an interest in engineering. However, airplanes also terrified him because of his fear of flying. No matter. Ban-Weiss not only overcame his phobia, he has logged hundreds of flight hours after receiving his pilot’s license at age 17

“I wouldn’t call myself fearless. I’m afraid of a lot of things,” he said. “But when I get a bee in my bonnet, I go for it 100 percent until I really make it happen.”

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A can-do spirit fuels passion for music and engineering

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