2016 Rose Parade Grand Marshal Ken Burns.  Photo courtesy Pasadena Tournament of Roses.

Tournament of Roses Pres. Mike Matthiessen made an inspired choice for the 2016 Rose Parade Grand Marshal when he chose award-winning documentarian Ken Burns.  Burns, who won an Emmy for his PBS series The National Parks: America's Best Idea, is a great choice for this parade.  Themed "Find Your Adventure," it is a collaboration between the Tournament and the National Parks Service in celebration of the NPS' centennial.  Burns accepted the honor via video.  "I would never have imagined getting to watch the Rose Bowl Game as Grand Marshal," he said. "I'll see you in Pasadena and in one of our parks."

Here iGreg Weiss credit UCIn Irvine, Greg Weiss finds his adventure in the Weiss Lab at UCI, but he also is a Rose Parade fan and watches the event every New Year's Day with his family.  He understands, as Burns said, "The Rose Parade is an annual tradition woven into the fabric of America."  Weiss spends the day making waffles and watching the parade start to finish.  He's only gone to the parade once, as a kid in Palos Verdes.  The city provided a bus and grandstand seating, but as a grown-up, his research has kept him busy.  "I should see it this year," he said.

 As a professor in chemistry, Weiss likes the idea of "Innovation Rocks!" with its blocks from the periodic chart and Erlenmeyer flasks.  And Peter the Anteater, of course.  "Everyone loves anteaters," he said.  An anteater mascot is approachable and not intimidating.  "Anteaters are extremely appropriate for Irvine.  I don't know if you know, we live on a big anthill." He added, "I'm really excited about the float being about chemistry this year." 

What Weiss is working on is a rather amazing process that will aid in diagnosing cancer through untangling proteins so their structures can be studied and diagnostics created.  He tests the process using hard-boiled egg whites processed in a machine called a vortex fluid device, as demonstrated in this YouTube video.  He says this research is "right at the interface of physics, chemistry and engineering.

"Proteins are kind of like origami," he explains.  The paper can be folded and unfolded, but the unfolded paper doesn't have the same beauty.  "Unfolded proteins still have the ‘creases' in them.  They can figure out how to get back into shape if they are given the right conditions."  The raw egg white is like the folded origami, and the boiled white tangles up the protein strands with each other, like crumpled origami paper.  The device pulls them apart and then refolds them by applying the pulling action of shear stress. 

Just as it takes energy to refold origami paper, it takes energy to refold the proteins.  "We apply a kind of energy, called mechanical energy," Weiss explained.  "It drives the proteins to refold.  When the protein is unfolded, it still has enough information to refold, like creases in origami paper.  The mechanical energy and shear stress can drive the refolding."  The practical application of unfolding and refolding proteins is to develop diagnostic tools.  "It's something I'm passionate about," he said.  "My father died of cancer, my wife fought off breast cancer last year."

Vortex Fluid Device UCIHe said, "Cancer results from proteins run amok. Those proteins become like pirates that take over the cancer cell," Weiss stated.  "When we study these pirate proteins, we often get a thing like a rumpled mess.  We need to produce the actual folded protein that is causing cancer, so we can study them and produce diagnostics.  Cancer is a disease that results from an assault on the DNA itself, like spending time in the sun or some chemicals. When DNA gets changed, its code gets changed and that means proteins do, too.  Sometimes such changes cause cancer, which makes them good targets for diagnostics and research."

Vortex Fluid Device, courtesy UCI  

Whether or not Weiss can get away from the lab long enough to take a trek to Pasadena, he's enthusiastic about "Innovation Rocks!" and raising the profile of UCI, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary.  "Many people don't know what a world-class university they have in their midst," he said, which includes the arts, humanities and social sciences as well as hard science.  The float, he said, celebrates the university and the accomplishments of both the school and the city of Irvine.  He said he is extremely honored that it's part of the Rose Parade.  "I'm excited to have UCI and my research presented."

 See the Rose Parade floats before and after the parade

Rose Parade pre and post parade viewing If the Rose Parade is impressive, the events surrounding it are pretty exciting, too.  The most popular are Decorating Places, Dec. 27-31, where the floats can be seen in their final stages of flowering, and Showcase of Floats, Jan. 1-3, the post-parade display of all the creations.  Food and beverages are sold at one of the decorating locations and all throughout the post-parade viewing area.  Free parking is available both places, but most parking is in paid lots that benefit schools or scouts for Showcase of Floats. 

Bandfest presents all the Rose Parade bands in field shows, Dec. 29 and 30, and Equestfest, Dec. 29, is an opportunity to see the parade horses perform in an arena.  Tickets to all these events and shuttle tickets to the Showcase are available through Sharp Seating or at the venues, but both Bandfest and Equestfest often sell out so advance purchase is recommended.  A new event, Live on Green, takes place Dec. 29 and 30, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Dec. 31, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Pasadena Convention Center. Admission is free.  It includes activities for the family, exhibits and displays, food and music.

Next Week: A special issue of the "Innovation Rocks!" blog with stories of the winners of the Destination Irvine Sweepstakes!