Mallory and Albert in the Yucatan, autumn 2012.

If you are — like me — geographically unaware, you may not realize that the popular vacation getaway Cancun is located in the heart what used to be entirely populated by Mayans. I recently spent my honeymoon there, on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. With a rare opportunity to visit ancient ruins – amid exhausting days of drinking Negra Modelo on the beach – Mallory (the new Mrs./Dr. C) and I decided to check out Coba, one of the four major cities (and the capital) of the Mayan civilization.

We rode bikes through what is left of this city (once home to more than 55,000 people) to Nohoch Mul, the tallest pyramid on the peninsula, standing about 50 yards high. One of the unique aspects of this ruin is that visitors are allowed to climb it. Feeling feisty, Mallory and I decided to scale the not-quite-built-to-code stairway to the top. As we embarked, we struck up a conversation with a young woman who was also making the climb. The following conversation ensued:

Young Woman: Where are you from?

Us: Pittsburgh.

YW: Pittsburgh?! I was just in Pittsburgh for One Young World!

Us: Really? How long were you there? What did you see? (Imagine these with a few heavy breaths taken given the height.)

YW: Only four days, but it was beautiful. Everyone was so friendly. And have you ever been to The Mattress Factory?

Us: (Giggling) Yes, we definitely have. (Our wedding reception was at the Mattress Factory.)

The woman turned out to be from Paris and was effusive in her praise of our city. Mallory and I were just floored that — while scaling a pre-Columbian ruin nearly 1,500 miles from home — we met someone from perhaps the world’s most glamorous capital waxing eloquent about Pittsburgh. I think it’s a small but powerful illustration of how events like OYW offer unique opportunities to turn visitors into heartfelt ambassadors for the Pittsburgh region.

ImaginePittsburghNow
Sphere tree in Market Square’s Season of Lights, Downtown Pittsburgh Photo by Kristen Friess, Allegheny Conference

Pittsburgh officially begins the winter holiday season on Friday, Nov. 16 with Light Up Night, the 52nd annual celebration that fills downtown’s Golden Triangle with music, lights, Santa, ice skating and – starting Nov. 24– a European-style Christmas market in Market Square. (Full schedule and links for more information below.)

Things begin at noon as Mayor Luke Ravenstahl lights a towering Christmas tree at the City-County Building, while a crèche is dedicated at U.S. Steel Tower on Grant Street. At 5 p.m. live jazz music begins at an outdoor stage on EQT Plaza on Liberty Avenue near Seventh Streets, while rock-n-roll rules Market Square. In total six trees will be illuminated in downtown on the 16th, including the Highmark Unity Tree at the corner of Penn and Stanwix (still beloved to many as the Hornes Department Store tree), the ice-rinked ringed evergreen in PPG Plaza and – lit by Santa Claus himself — and the red-and-white LED-powered spherical tree in Market Square. Fireworks (of course) will end the evening with typical Pittsburgh pomp.

Market Square will be site of the Peoples Gas Holiday Market, featuring wooden Alpine chalet-style booths with artisans and merchants from around the world. Operating daily through Dec. 23, the market will share space with a Santa House, where children can explore and drop off their letters to Santa. Donations to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank can be dropped off at this location as well.

Event organizer the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership estimates last year’s event attracted more than 800,000 visitors and generated $21 million in economic impact.

Many of Pittsburgh’s traditional holiday offerings underscore the region’s commitment to sustainability in many forms. You can learn more by checking out the stories and videos from Five Golden Things, which highlighted such outings for the 2011-2012 season. We’ll be nodding to some new offerings over the next six weeks; be sure to sign up for automatic blog updates via RSS feed to your email account, follow us at Twitter.com/ImaginePgh or friend us at Facebook.com/PittsburghRegion.

2012 Light Up Night® Schedule of Events

Friday, November 16

12:00 pm   City-County Building Tree Lighting by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl

12:00 pm   U.S. Steel Tower Dedication of the Crèche

5:30 pm     Allegheny County Court House Lighting by County Executive Rich Fitzgerald

5:45 pm     One Oxford Centre Tree Lighting

6:00 pm     PPG Plaza American Cancer Society Tribute of Light Tree Lighting

6:15 pm     Macy’s Windows Unveiling

7:00 pm     Highmark Unity Tree Lighting with Rooftop Fireworks

7:30 pm     Market Square Season of Lights Lighting by Santa Claus

Live Music — Market Square: Northwest Savings Bank Stage

5:00 pm    Johnny Angel and The Halos

7:15 pm    Santa Claus officially lights Market Square Season of Lights

7:45 pm    Joe Grushecky and The Houserockers

Live Music — EQT Plaza: EQT Jazzmasters Stage

5:00 pm   Al Dowe & Etta Cox Trio

6:30 pm   Kenny Blake Quartet

8:00 pm   Roger Humphries Quintet

Live Music — Roberto Clemente (Sixth Street) Bridge Party (Sponsored by Trib Total Media)

5:00 pm    The Stickers

6:30 pm    The Billy Price Band

8:00 pm    No Bad JuJu

9:38 pm    Light Up Night® Fireworks, Warhol Bridge

Saturday , Nov. 17:

Noon to 2 pm  Third Annual Mascot Skate at The Rink at PPG Plaza

Live Music: Market Square: Northwest Savings Bank Stage

Noon         NoMad

1:45 pm    Vanessa Campagna

3:30 pm    The Granati Brothers

6:00 pm    Totally 80s

7:00 pm    BOB FM Holiday Wedding

7:30 pm    Jeff Jimerson and Airborne

Phil Cynar
CMU’S iGEM team: (from left) Peter Wei, Cheemeng Tan, Eric Pederson, Yang Choo and Natasa Miskov-Zivanov.

They came – a swarm of 275 brilliant, young, scientific minds – to Pittsburgh to compete in the Americas East Regional Jamboree for the International Genetically Engineering Machines (iGEM) competition. From institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Georgia Tech and Penn State, the competing teams of undergrads spent a weekend on Duquesne University’s campus in October. There they showcased to expert judges their efforts to engineer – at the molecular level – new synthetic organisms with the potential to impact medicine, energy and the environment for the better.

Among them was a team from Carnegie Mellon University. The CMU team was named one of four regional finalists from a field of 43 teams that competed in Pittsburgh, and now it’s bound for Boston to compete in the iGEM World Championship Jamboree at MIT, Nov. 2 – 5. Using a kit of interchangeable biological parts and a fundamental knowledge of synthetic biology, the CMU team created a biosensor capable of measuring cellular activities.

Humans have been manipulating Mother Nature to engineer more desirable results for centuries. Farmers and herders have long done selective breeding of plants and animals to produce more useful hybrids. And many will remember, from junior high science classes, Gregor Mendel, the monk who took heredity genetics to a new level, beginning with cross-pollination of pea pods back in the 1800s.

When it comes to synthetic biology and molecular engineering, what’s old is new again – especially in this “century of biology” when the discipline has more potential than perhaps ever before. Going far beyond better livestock or crops, synthetic biology today can help people lead healthier lives, improve the environment and humans’ impact on it. Synthetic biology is ripe to be shaped by today’s young masterminds, and competitions such as iGEM are giving it a kick start.

Learn more about synthetic biology and the big things happening at the most minute of levels at iGEM jamborees by watching the video below, featuring some key players who were excited about the Americas East Jamboree in Pittsburgh Oct. 13- 14. And then watch the Our Region’s Business segment featuring members of the CMU team who will be representing Pittsburgh at MIT this week.  You can also read my earlier post about iGEM here.

ImaginePittsburghNow.com interview at iGEM, Duquesne University Oct. 13-14

Our Region’s Business segment featuring members of the CMU team

Suzi Pegg
The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain

Embarking on the 2012 Tour of Europe with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO) reminded me a bit of an old movie directed by David Wolper. It’s called If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium – a comedy about a group of tourists on a whirlwind tour of seven countries in 18 days. If you saw my itinerary for the tour with the PSO, you’d know why I can relate.

Just reading our trip itinerary is exhausting. Not unlike the tourists in that 1969 comedy, Pittsburgh Regional Alliance (PRA) President Dewitt Peart and I will are zipping through several western European countries over the next three and half weeks. All the while, we’ll be leveraging the PSO tour to once again market our impressive Pittsburgh region to potential investors and influencers. This is a great platform because Europeans really relate to the PSO – one of the world’s elite orchestras. The PSO has rock star status in Europe, and this status opens doors for the PRA to introduce the region, using our musical ambassador as a “calling card” and one example of the quality that’s synonymous with Pittsburgh – in the concert hall, the board room and beyond.

To begin the trip, I took advantage of one of this season’s last nonstop flights between Pittsburgh and Paris. Fear not, that service is only going on winter hiatus; it returns in full force next May. I was thrilled to see a full flight, including a number of travelers using connecting to other global destinations in India, the Middle East and elsewhere. The more that business and leisure travelers from the region use this flight, the greater the likelihood that it will remain an option. Beyond convenience, it’s a critical asset for Pittsburgh to have in order to compete as a global business destination.

My first stop is Bilbao – Pittsburgh’s sister city in Spain. The similarities are almost eerie, including a tunnel that opens onto a spectacular view of the city, surrounded by rivers. The Guggenheim Museum sits majestically on the banks of the Nervión River, and visitors mingle all around the charming city.

Alfonso Martinez Cearra, director of BM30

My first meeting on the tour is with my good friend Alfonso Martinez Cearra, director of BM30.  This organization is similar to our Allegheny Conference on Community Development,  and Alfonso’s position is akin to that of Conference CEO Dennis Yablonsky. Alfonso is a big supporter of Pittsburgh and has visited our region quite a few times to explore collaborative opportunities and best practices between the two cities. I asked him about his impressions of the region.  Our work ethic, he says, is memorable. It’s very similar to that of people in Bilbao – dedicated, hard-working and eager to create success. And he loves our rivers — certainly common ties that uniquely bind Pittsburgh and Bilbao as sister cities.

After a series of other meetings during the day, I caught up over dinner with Eloy Alvarez, the chair and secretary general of an organization called Orkestra.Eloy visited Pittsburgh earlier this year and is keen to work with our region on energy initiatives – especially those related to our universities and the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) in the South Hills. He is quite an engaging man and well respected in Spain. He’s also very pro-Pittsburgh.

Now we’re in San Sebastian, along the coastline of the beautiful Basque Country. Our first visit is with an organization called Vicomtech where we meet with project managers who are working on technology projects. Several of these individuals are huge fans of Carnegie Mellon University’s Software Engineering Institute, another of our regional assets that make us attractive in the global market.

The gang from Sempere and Mikel Burzako (right), Pennsylvania’s investment representative in Spain and Portugal

While there I was pleased to have lunch with my friends from Sempere Componentes, a marketer and distributor of railway parts and components. They have been working in the Pittsburgh region for several years and count the Port Authority of Pittsburgh as one of their key clients.

Just before lunch, they found out that I carry a small soft toy around with me as a mascot. I call it European Frog. Yes, I have a very silly side. Frog has been around the world with me – a companion when I’m traveling for business without my husband. In fact, Frog has more air miles than my husband does. Once my friends from Sempere Componentes saw that I had Frog with me, he was invited to la comida.  However, he’s not used to a Spanish business lunch and took a siesta in the back of the car all the way back to Bilbao.

I love working with these guys, and they love Pittsburgh. I hope to see them back in our region soon to discuss next steps.

So ends my visit to the Basque Country. It’s always a great pleasure to visit and work with the people here. The region is doing well compared to other parts of Spain, and I strongly encourage Pittsburgh region companies that are looking at opportunities across the pond to give the Basque Country a second look. The PRA has made inroads here and can make the necessary introductions. Just ask.

I’ll check back in again with further updates. Until then, cheers!

For previous updates from “where in the world” Suzi Pegg may be, click here.

“European Frog” at rest post-lunch
Bill Flanagan
Bill Flanagan, host of Sunday morning’s “Our Region’s Business” on WPXI-TV, emceeing the “Robot Hall of Fame” ceremony at the Carnegie Science Center, Oct. 23, 2012.

Back the ‘90s The Wall Street Journal dubbed Pittsburgh “Robo-burgh,” highlighting an emerging sector that combined the best of our region’s strengths in computer science and making things. Today, robots are making their way into everyday life (think Roomba or the suite of products for babies created by our region’s own 4moms) and local companies like Aethon and Seegrid Corp. are manufacturing real commercial robots right here.

Last week I had the pleasure of serving as master of ceremonies for Carnegie Mellon University’s Robot Hall of Fame event at the Carnegie Science Center. This is a big deal in the world of robots, as you can read here on EnGadget.com, a must-read tech blog. David Lettermen even mentioned it on his Top Ten List.

Sure, the nominees wowed us with robots that are doing science on Mars, dancing around on four legs and entertaining us in WALL-E and other movies. But it also brought back plenty of memories, especially when I got to introduce the presenters: CMU professor William “Red” Whittaker, CMU President Jared Cohon and Henry Thorne, robot inventor and entrepreneur.

I came to Pittsburgh 30 years ago, when robotics was in its infancy (the university’s Robotics Institute had been created just three years earlier – the first of its kind in the world). Any notion that it would one day become a regional industry seemed far-fetched at best. Dr. Whittaker took me for a spin in an autonomous Humvee on Flagstaff Hill. It was actually more of a crawl than a spin; we went about three miles an hour. Yet Red insisted that someday vehicles would drive themselves across the continent and in city traffic. In 2007, his CMU team won a first-place, $2 million award from DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, for doing just that.

Henry Thorne, a prolific inventor and robotics patent holder, came back to Pittsburgh in the late ‘90s to develop “personal” robots. I took a TV camera out to his house to do a story on his “Tug,” a little two-wheeled robot that could tow a cart around a room without any sort external guidance. (In those days robots depended on a metal strip on the floor or some other external system to know where they were.)  The Tug went to the kitchen and brought us back a beer. That application never caught on, but about ten 10 ago, Henry founded Aethon, which has placed more than 100 Tugs in hospitals around the country, automating a one-time manual delivery process. Since then, he and partner Rob Daley have gone on to found 4moms, which is one of our region’s hottest robotics companies.

DARPA has just announced that three of our region’s robots will get yet another chance to compete in a competition that will push the edge of robotics. CMU will field two teams in a new Robotics Challenge, in which robots will perform complex, physically challenging tasks as they respond to disaster scenarios in human-engineered environments, such as nuclear power plants.  The “home teams” include “Tartan Rescue Team,” headed by Tony Stentz, director of the National Robotics Engineering Center and research professor of robotics, and “Team Steel,” led by Christopher Atkeson, professor in the Robotics Institute and Human-Computer Interaction Institute, to receive funding in the competition. A team from a Robotics Institute spinoff company, RE2 Inc. of Pittsburgh, also was selected.

As we wrapped up the awards ceremony I couldn’t help but wonder, “What will they think of next?”  Then I realized I was actually in the room with many of “them” — the people who are inventing this future. And many of these leaders live right here in our region; they’re our neighbors. We’re home to the Robot Hall of Fame, and the innovation that’s behind it. Congrats to all the inductees.

Ben Kamber

If you’re looking for a really good excuse to satisfy an ice cream craving, then you should check out Dream Cream Ice Cream in downtown Pittsburgh. Located across from Three PNC and the Fairmont Hotel on bustling Liberty Avenue, this unique ice cream parlor is serving up a whole lot more than frozen treats to the throngs of office workers and culture seekers who frequent downtown every day.

Besides offering a slew of fantastic flavors, from the always-popular red velvet to the curious-sounding mint ting a ling, Dream Cream Ice Cream is working to fulfill the dreams of its workers, one scoop at a time. During the application process, prospective employees must identify a dream they’re working toward that just needs a little extra funding to come true. Once selected, the employee — or “dreamer” — chooses a flavor from which they receive a portion of the profits from each scoop sold. The faster each dreamer’s ice cream flavor moves, the closer they are to realizing their dream. Simple as that. (Whoever has pumpkin must be raking it in right now!)

Co-founders Thomas Jamison and his girlfriend Alecia Shipman came up with the idea for the business due to a mutual love of ice cream and helping people. But it wasn’t until they received a grant from Project Pop Up: Downtown, an initiative of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, that their own entrepreneurial dream became a reality. Project Pop Up is helping to infuse further vibrancy in downtown by providing budding entrepreneurs and artists with the opportunity to set up shop in abandoned storefronts. While it’s hard to tell now, the space that Dream Cream Ice Cream occupies was once a camera store.

We caught up recently with Thomas Jamison and Michael Jackson, a “dreamer” at Dream Cream Ice Cream and founder of ProMusica Pittsburgh, to find out about what it’s like to be an entrepreneur in Pittsburgh. Check out the video below to hear their stories. And head over to www.dreamcreamicecream.com for information on how to apply to be a “dreamer.” Applications are still being accepted.