Geek of the Week

Want a lift for the brand new 12 months? Pacific Northwest geeks share the various things that encourage them

Need a little inspiration to make it out of 2020 and into 2021? We’ve been asking data scientists, video game designers, engineers, doctors, students and startup founders all year where they find theirs.

We’ve read more than enough about what has bummed us out over the past year. It might seem difficult to find something or someone that will make things look better or provide a motivating force in the coming months.

But our 2020 Geeks of the Week are inspired by the people they work with, the kids they care for, the stuff they read, the places they’ve seen and much more.

Click the names of each to go back to the full Geek of the Week profile for that individual. And don’t forget to fill out our questionnaire in the new year if you want to be considered.

Keep reading for the answers to our weekly question, “Where do you find your inspiration?” …

Eric Peterson, co-founder and head of engineering and product at Automaton

Eric Peterson performs with his band Golden Idols at the Tractor Tavern in Seattle. (Photo courtesy of Eric Peterson)

“I hold the somewhat silly belief that true inspiration only comes from the subconscious, and dreams are the clearest window into it. … I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a lot of product or engineering dreams though, so I have to work a little harder to find it.

“Nothing beats finding people who are good at what they do, watching them do it, and thinking, ‘That’s amazing. I bet I could do it better.’ This is really obvious for music (go to shows), but a little more difficult to emulate in a professional environment. Following smart people on LinkedIn/Twitter is a good start though.”

Maryssa Barron, developer relations manager at LevelTen Energy

Maryssa Barron. (Photo courtesy of Maryssa Barron)

“I find inspiration in the people I work with every day — not only at LevelTen, where folks have dedicated themselves to making renewable energy investment more efficient and impactful, but also the project developers who are the boots-on-the-ground building wind and solar projects across the globe. I love the days when a developer will send us photos of one of our client’s projects in-construction. Knowing that we played a part in getting the wind or solar project built is one of the best feelings.”

Dr. Jeanne Ting Chowning, senior director of science education at Fred Hutch

Science is in her DNA! Dr. Jeanne Ting Chowning at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. (Caren Brinkema Photo)

“Education is a long game. Sometimes we never know or see the impacts of our work. But if you stay in the field long enough, you’ll often hear from former students or teachers who share with you how your efforts made a difference. That’s the best feeling in the world — to be able to be of service to someone else as they find their own path in life.

“When I was a high school teacher in the 1990’s, I participated in the Fred Hutch teacher program I now direct (the Science Education Partnership, SEP). The program was transformative for my own career — so I’m delighted to be able to help other teachers have similar experiences.”

Kyle Kesterson, startup veteran and serial entrepreneur

Kyle Kesterson in Israel. (Photo courtesy of Kyle Kesterson)

“Our greatest gifts, teachers, and access to a fuller life, consistently lives beyond what is comfortable. Finding comfort within discomfort is a muscle that can be cultivated, but we can also dive right in. Either way, not only will we be OK, we’ll thrive and feel so much more alive.”

Elijah Hall, data science consultant for Accenture

Elijah Hall. (Photo courtesy of Elijah Hall)

“I find inspiration everywhere. I love looking at data science articles about cross industry and cross field applications. The hardest skill to learn or have as a data scientist is creativity. By staying active and following podcasts, reading, and learning new skills you help to build your creativity through mental flexibility.”

David Jaw, data scientist at Trupanion

David Jaw and his dog Hank, an Alaskan Malamute. (Photo courtesy of David Jaw)

“I come up with a lot of ideas on flights. I have a difficult time reading or watching movies without getting motion sickness and my brain kicks into overdrive due a false positive signal of being in danger. Unable to sleep, or consume media, all that’s left to do is take stock of my current position and consider possible paths forward.”

Maya Peterson, Salesforce MVP and Slalom consultant

Maya Peterson lounging during a hike in Washington’s North Cascades National Park at Hidden Lake. (Photo courtesy of Maya Peterson)

“In my free time, when the weather allows, I hike. Hiking is a great reminder that we’re all capable of accomplishing daunting feats. When I do feel overwhelmed with the tasks I’ve set before myself, I remind myself how far my legs can carry me. Even if it’s hard, even if I must stop and breathe, I can accomplish my goals if I just put one foot in front of the other.”

Salal Humair, supply chain senior principal scientist at Amazon

Salal Humair joined Amazon from the Harvard School of Public Health. (Photo courtesy of Salal Humair)

“I don’t really know if there is a single source of inspiration. It can come from many sources: my colleagues, our customers, or my family. At times, I am inspired because I notice an opportunity where a scientific solution can have a long-term impact. At other times, I am seized by a complex problem where I know we need a better solution.”

Jon-Tait ‘Jazbo’ Beason, iOS engineer at Glowforge

Jon-Tait Beason on the Seattle waterfront. (Adventures With Kate Photo)

“The journey of learning and discovery when creating things or thinking about creating things keeps me inspired. Even more so, having friends across the creative spectrum, making things from exotic furniture to category-defining software keeps me motivated to do my best work.”

Jennifer Haller, operations manager at Attunely and first coronavirus vaccine recipient

Jen Haller and her dog Ringo. (Photo courtesy of Jen Haller)

“Seeing the impact that I can have making somebody’s day better, or taking something off their plate so they can focus on their job. I put a lot into my job but I get so much more back from seeing the value that I bring in helping people, being positive.”

Jordan Zager, co-founder of Dewey Scientific

Jordan Zager has a Ph.D. from Washington State University’s Institute of Biological Chemistry. (Photo courtesy of Jordan Zager)

“I’m inspired by the notion that if nothing is done, and if it’s not done fast, we won’t have much to pass on to the next generation. That everything we do today has an effect tomorrow and how we drastically need to improve what we do today.”

Dr. Kristina Adams Waldorf, obstetrician and UW School of Medicine professor

Dr. Kristina Adams Waldorf, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Washington School of Medicine, as seen in personal protective equipment. (Photo courtesy of Kristina Adams Waldorf)

“I am surrounded by interesting and beautiful people in my life and my work. Their ideas, good will, kindness and generosity inspire me every day.”

Brea Starmer, founder of Lions+Tigers

Brea Starmer. (Photo courtesy of Brea Starmer)

“For my 16th birthday, my dad bought me a 6-pack of Tony Robbins CDs, so I suppose I started there. In college, I loved to learn about how PNW leaders built their careers and their companies so I’d watch documentaries or read biographies on folks like Bill Gates or Howard Schultz. As I’ve gotten older, however, I realize now that my early inspiration truly did come from my parents, as it does for most.

“I actually remember as a young girl going to my mom’s office with her and I’d sleep under her desk as she worked late. I didn’t mind, I loved watching her in her element while I colored and would sneak into the president’s corner office to spin in his chair, dreaming.

“And now, I draw so much energy from the folks who choose to work with Lions+Tigers. I’m just in awe of their work, their energy and what they bring to our community. It makes everything so fulfilling.”

Andrew Steen, constellation operations engineer at BlackSky

Andrew Steen says cheers to a career in aerospace. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Steen)

“Helping to develop technologies that will either take advantage of resources off-planet and therefore give Earth some relief, or that will help us treat our planet better is my vocation.

“There are a lot of people on Earth, and we along with all the trillions of organisms with which we coexist are beginning to give our biosphere some significant growing pains. If we want to exist for another thousand (let alone another hundred) years we need to look outward for resources, space (no pun intended), and knowledge.

“Finally, the poetic nature of working with technologies that are operating where only a choice few humans have gone before is exciting to me. It’s humbling and empowering to be able to say, ‘I tell satellites what to do!’”

Maddie Smith, postdoctoral researcher in UW’s Applied Physics Laboratory

Maddie Smith in the Beaufort Sea in 2015, in front of the R/V Sikuliaq. “It was my first time standing on sea ice (over thousands of meters of water!), so I was pretty excited.” (Photo courtesy of Maddie Smith)

“It may sound cliché, but I really am inspired by how incredible our world is — and of course, especially sea ice and the ocean. A small example: did you know flowers can grow on sea ice? Okay, they’re not normal flowers, but under certain conditions sea ice can form what are called frost flowers. They are beautiful, delicate structures made of ice filaments, and super salty. There are so many little things to get excited about.”

Avery Wagar, IT systems programmer at Zipwhip

Avery Wagar of Zipwhip with the Textspresso IV robotic coffee machine that he helped develop for the company’s Seattle office. (Zipwhip photo)

“Many places. But here are two: My brother Hayden, who spins poi balls, which is a flow art. He’s three years younger than I am and he started going to ‘spin jams’ and ‘flow festivals’ (think mini-Burning Man) and spinning fire when he was only 9 years old. There was no one else there his age. By doing this he showed me that it would also be possible for me to fit into a community of mostly adults. This inspired me and gave me the confidence to start going to hackathons and doing that has created so many opportunities for me.

“Also, Marcus Yallow (a.k.a. w1n5t0n), the high-school-aged hacker from the books ‘Little Brother’ and ‘Homeland’ by Cory Doctorow.”

David Shoultz, director of the grants program at the Washington Research Foundation

David Shoultz. (Photo courtesy of David Shoultz)

“My inspiration comes from the gap between ‘what is’ and ‘what can be.’ It’s one of the most important things that I picked up from Bill and Melinda Gates during the time that I worked at the Gates Foundation. Technology is necessary but not sufficient for bridging that gap. And that leads right back to why I do what I do at WRF!”

Dick Hardt, tech veteran and and founder of

(Photo courtesy of Dick Hardt)

“Sharing ideas with friends and colleagues, as well as my mementos.”

Marcellus Turner, chief librarian at Seattle Public Library

Marcellus Turner, executive director and chief librarian at Seattle Public Library. (Seattle Public Library Photo)

“If you’re asking me, where do I find inspiration for the work that we do, I love observing and watching other industry. My favorites are grocery stores, department stores, and airports and hotels. I look to see how people are treating their customers, and if you’re treating your customers well, they will love your product. That is where I get my inspiration for what our library is going to do and where we’re going to go.”

Megan Brown, program manager at Microsoft working on Azure Quantum

Megan Brown and her cat Apollo. (Photo courtesy of Megan Brown)

“Much of my inspiration comes from our customers and contributors and seeing the impact of the work we do at Microsoft Quantum. One of my favorite and most motivating moments so far on the Quantum team was spending time with attendees at last year’s Microsoft Ignite conference. For many it was the first time they were learning about quantum computing, and seeing their excitement and curiosity was incredibly energizing. I learned recently that we had a high school student contribute to our open source Quantum Katas (designed to teach quantum computing & the Q# programming language), and that they were so excited to be able to be able to contribute and get involved in quantum computing without an advanced degree. I can’t help but smile and feel inspired by stories like that.”

Fernando Reyes Medina, game designer at Microsoft’s 343 Industries studio

Fernando Reyes Medina is designing and creating new multiplayer experiences for “Halo: Infinite.” (Photo courtesy of Fernando Reyes Medina)

“I love modern Japanese culture. I love how they understand so well their own culture that they can create new pieces of art or media that fit within their own vision of the world, but it’s completely new. You can instantly identify a Japanese game by just looking at a screen shot, even if it doesn’t contain traditional Japanese culture, you see the influence of it. I want to do the same thing with my own culture, use it as input and create a completely new thing that the world hasn’t seen before but it could only be created through a Mexican lens.”

Jeff Ma, general manager of Microsoft for Startups

Jeff ma dining with his son in the San Francisco Bay Area. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Ma)

“My father. His personal journey and sacrifice to come to the United States with basically nothing is the classic immigrant American dream story. But as a relatively new father I see things through a different lens. The opportunity he has afforded me and my family with his sacrifices is truly pressure to continue to achieve more in his honor.”

Vikram Iyer, UW PhD student in Networks and Mobile Systems Lab

Vikram Iyer of the University of Washington working with a beetle with a camera mounted on its back. (UW Photo / Mark Stone)

“Building small robots and sensors is hard, and in many cases nature does a much better job. For example a bee can fly around for hours longer than drones we can build. It certainly helps that evolution has a few million years head start on us, so lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what we can learn from natural systems and about ways we can piggyback on their abilities to achieve things we couldn’t otherwise build.”

Ethan Pearl, furniture designer at Watson Furniture Group

Watson Furniture’s Ethan Pearl is a graduate of the Industrial Design program at the University of Washington. (Watson Furniture Photo)

“I search for moments of beauty in the world around me. The color of a leaf, the curve of a bone, the texture of a concrete wall, the lines of a building. I find these moments in nature, in the work of other artists, or even just walking down the street. When I find something that strikes me as beautiful, I seek to understand why I respond to it. What about this object, scene, or space is captivating? I then try to emulate these moments in my work, string them together to form a story, forge them into one cohesive whole that is more than the sum of its parts.”

Anu Sharma, investor at Madrona Venture Group

Anu Sharma. (Photo courtesy of Anu Sharma)

“I love war stories and the extraordinary people who work in their studies pouring over research, scout the streets for information, and crawl in the trenches fighting to defend their country or cause.”

Angela Shen, founder and CEO (Chief Eating Officer) of Savor Seattle

Angela Shen pivoted her food tour business Savor Seattle into a delivery business. (Photo courtesy of Angela Shen)

“The best business consultant I’ve ever had is my 9-year-old daughter, Kira. She’s the one who first suggested this idea!

In all seriousness, the best ideas come to me when I travel. There are very few new ideas these days. But seeing how others are doing things and figuring out how to do it better, can often produce remarkable results.”

Dr. Elizabeth Lawlor, associate director for cancer biology at Seattle Children’s Research Institute. 

Dr. Elizabeth Lawlor is a professor of pediatrics and adjunct professor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at the University of Washington and an affiliate member of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Lawlor)

“The kids, always. I am frequently reminded of why I do the work I do when I think of the many children and their families I cared for as a pediatric oncologist.

“I often think of one little boy who had leukemia, but as part of his treatment required radiation of his brain and spine. His mom — who is so grateful he survived — once told me that she saw the light go out of his eyes after that treatment.

“The thought of the damage that our cures create is unacceptable. We’ve got to do better.”

Tori Dunlap, founder of Her First $100K

Tori Dunlap. (Jon Cárdenas Photo)

“Meet Rose, an adorable 70-year-old woman who was ready to retire. Rose was a teacher, diligently saving for her retirement for over 30 years, putting away every hard-earned penny she could. Except for one problem: Rose had never actually INVESTED that money. Rose had deposited money into an account but had never chosen her investments. She didn’t know she needed to. Her money was in financial purgatory — earning no interest, sitting there for 30 years, and never growing one bit. Rose could no longer afford to retire because she did not have enough money to sustain herself. I cry every time I think about her. She is my fuel. Every day since I heard her story, my life has been in service of women’s financial education. I want to prevent women from having the same experience as Rose.”

Chanee Choi, multidisciplinary artist in UW’s Digital Arts and Experimental Media department

Chanee Choi performs in one of her works, called “Polaris,” a multimedia installation and performance. (Photo courtesy of Chanee Choi)

“My inspiration comes from everywhere: talking with my friends, trying to find a new cafe, browsing at the local antique stores, art shows, poems, movies, games, and Twitch streaming. … I try to have new things in my life as much as possible. I hope I finish making “Pandemic” soon so I can begin traveling again!”

Mike Tholfsen, principal group product manager on the Microsoft Education team

Mike Tholfsen at a global Educator Exchange event in Budapest, Hungary, where Microsoft brings in more than 400 Microsoft in Education experts from over around the world. (Photo courtesy of Mike Tholfsen)

“The ability to positively impact people at scale, especially in education, charges my engines. Especially in the space of assistive technology and accessibility, there is so much opportunity to help so many people. Because Microsoft is a company with global reach, amplifying that impact is about as motivating as it gets for me.”

Steve Brunton, mechanical engineering professor UW and YouTube star

Steve Brunton. (UW Photo / Dennis Wise)

“I decided to go to grad school to study fluid dynamics after seeing the vortical patterns in a bowl of miso soup and realizing that it was more interesting than what I was working on.

But seriously, mostly in my students and collaborators, who help me blur the line between work and play.”

W. Andre Perkins, machine learning scientist for Vulcan Inc.’s Climate Modeling team

W. Andre Perkins. (Photo courtesy of W. Andre Perkins)

“In my many friends and colleagues who pour their energy into creating a better future for everyone. Some are great activists/organizers, mentors/teachers, public science communicators, or brilliant scientists. They are willing to put themselves forward in one way or another. They’ve cemented for me the notion that we all have some role to play, big or small, whether out in front or behind the scenes, towards handling climate change.”

Jacqueline Nolis, author and data scientist at Brightloom

Jacqueline Nolis. (Photo courtesy of Jacqueline Nolis)

“Social media, mostly. I primarily use the programming language R for doing data science and there is a welcoming and vibrant community of R users on Twitter. I also follow a lot of artists on instagram and that’s a great place to draw inspiration for my art.”

Shadrach White, founder and CEO of cloudPWR

Shadrach White shows off an impressive catch with his 12-year-old relative, Dakota, along the Naknek River in Bristol Bay, Alaska. (Photo courtesy of Shadrach White)

“Exercise clears my mind and the most creative moments of inspiration usually follow. Recently I was e-mountain biking in Alaska and suddenly it dawned on me that incorporating our focus on cybersecurity as a key competitive differentiator could make a positive impact on our prospecting and lead generation.”

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