Women is...: Elizabeth Downing, Scientist & Futurist

Elizabeth Downing, Scientist & Futurist

profession: Founder/CEO of 3D Technology Labs. From her Mountain View, Calif., basement lab, she's striving to be the first to create a product that would allow the viewing of true, moving 3D images for such applications as medical imaging (MRI), radar (air traffic control) and, eventually, entertainment.

born: Feb. 17, 1962 in Columbus, Ohio.

education: B.S., Mechanical Engineering, Carnegie Mellon; M.S. and Ph.D., Mechanical Engineering, Stanford.
claim to fame: Downing's been able to produce true 3D images within a one-inch glass cube. Her moving, transparent images exist in the three dimensional space defined by the cube. Unlike with TV or computer screens, people can walk around the cube and view the images from all sides.

how she did it: She hit upon the idea in 1988: use the energy from crossing invisible laser beams to "light up" atoms within a volume of material. It took five years of research on her own time -- experimenting, scrounging for equipment and funding, while working for local high-tech companies and studying for her doctorate -- before she created her first red volumetric pixel, or "voxel," a light point in 3D space.

how it's done: Multiple infrared lasers sweep through a glass cube specially treated with rare earth ions, which are excited by absorbing the laser energy. When the ions return to their unexcited state, they give off light, a voxel. Voxels are redrawn in red, green and blue from 30 to 60 times a second, resulting in a clear image to the viewer.

hurdles: In the 1970s, scientists had similar ideas. But the technology of the time couldn't support the 3D vision, and work was stopped. Downing's images, like her unicorn are monochromatic and transparent. 3D imaging still requires incredible computer processing, so technology has to catch up with the idea.

her kudos: Industry Week Magazine -- 25 Technologies of the Year (1996). Discover Magazine Award for Technical Innovation -- Sight category finalist (1997).
her family: "When I was a kid, I had a grandmother who had four sisters, plus a mother and an aunt who were always encouraging me, and I developed a natural curiosity and creativity."

on being a tech whiz: "My dad is a doctor, but he could build anything, wire anything. He raced cars when I was in junior high, and I helped him on the pit crew. Today, I do all the work on my boyfriend's Honda and my own wreck."

on Legos vs. dolls: "Society does strange things to girls. As a child, I went to day care because my parents worked. The little boys played with Tinker Toys and all the cool stuff. Girls had to play with dolls and toy plates. I hated it. I used to sneak away to play with the Lincoln Logs and Legos. Every day I thought I'd be caught and get in big trouble for playing with the boys' toys. Society encourages boys to be creative, to build and to think. Things are changing, slowly."

personal role models: "My parents taught my two brothers and me that you have to go out and do your own thing. Happiness comes from within, not from someone else -- like a husband."

professional role model: "Roger Macfarlane is a world reknowned physicist at IBM's Almaden Research Center. I called him up out of the blue -- I know Stanford students who would give their right arm to work with him -- and for whatever reason, he liked this project. He's given me samples, helped me with the physics and he's come into the lab to do experiments. Roger basically supervised my thesis. My own professor didn't do this stuff. By helping me, lending his worldwide reputation to this technology, Roger gave me strength that I don't think I would have had myself."
favorite quote: "Failure is simply a reason to strengthen resolve." -- Winston Churchill

on wheeling & dealing: "Everybody wants something. I will always trade. I make everyone a winner when they join my team. I go after people who have expertise, equipment, knowledge that I need -- that this technology needs."

on learning and looking to the future: "A lot of things I learn the hard way. I put out fires every day. I also do a lot of thinking ahead -- looking at what is coming, and preparing for it. I give talks at universities and companies to see what customers want. This technology has gone beyond my skill set, but I know what has to be done. I need good scientists, a good CEO and more funding. Every single day, I make a little bit of progress."