Dr. T.J. Rodgers and his wife Valeta Rodgers pose for a photo with vineyard in the background
From left: Dr. T.J. Rodgers and his wife Valeta Rodgers (Courtesy of T.J. Rodgers)

A Perfect Blend

Fellowship advances electrical and computer engineering innovation in winemaking for more than 10 years

Rodgers Fellows 2010-Present

Nicholas Shrake | 2010-2013

  • Fellowship research focus: Inline LED Colorimeter to measure phenolics during red wine fermentations. His work received the best enology paper from the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture in 2014. 
  • Current employer: General Atomics

Cevin Freed | 2010-2013

  • Fellowship research focus: Inline dielectric sensor system for directly monitoring yeast cell growth during wine fermentation. 
  • Current employer: Apple

Nicholas Madrid | 2015-2016 

  • Fellowship research focusWireless sensor system for remote indoor air environment monitoring of wineries and creameries in real-time.  The work also was applied in an indoor air monitoring (temperature, relative humidity, and room occupancy) to aid a post-doctoral student’s research on the microbiology of babies in indoor environments 
  • Current employer: Teledyne

David Killeen | 2015-2016

  • Fellowship research focus: Advance Monitoring and Control of Wine Fermentation with Redox Potential
  • Current employer: Intel

James Nelson | 2020-present

  • Fellowship research focus: Advanced Monitoring, Prediction and Control of Wine Fermentation

Creating the perfect blend of wine is a challenge winemakers are always striving to obtain. But, when it comes to finding the perfect blend for advancing winemaking innovation, American entrepreneur Dr. T.J. Rodgers and his wife, Valeta, have found the answer—funding interdisciplinary research by establishing a fellowship to support electrical and computer engineering graduate students working on wine research at UC Davis.

The Rodgers University Fellowship in Electrical and Computer Engineering supports UC Davis graduate students in advancing their research under the guidance of professors in both the Department of Viticulture and Enology and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UC Davis.

Since the fellowship was founded in 2010, it has supported five graduate students who have all taken on various aspect of developing the next generation of sensors for advanced wine processing. 

Rodgers, who is the founder and former CEO of Cypress Semiconductor, says he and Valeta were motivated to create the fellowship because they wanted to give back to a university that helped them with their own wine making pursuits, as well as support innovative practices in winemaking.

“You may look at (wine and engineering) and think it’s a weird combination, but it really isn’t,” he said, when presenting the 2020-21 Rodgers fellowship award. “If you look at education today, most things that are state of the art happen at the intersection of two disciplines. Not by one group of professors in one department, but at the collaboration between two or three departments on something. So now, it doesn’t seem weird at all to support electrical engineering students with viticulture research.” 

Because of the unique cross-disciplinary nature of the fellowship, it is housed with UC Davis Graduate Studies—a centralized unit that supports UC Davis’ graduate students and postdoctoral scholars.

Partnership takes root

Rodgers became connected with UC Davis not through his own education (he is a graduate of Dartmouth and Stanford universities); but rather, through a hobby. In 1990s the Rodgers family planted a vineyard at their home in Santa Cruz mountains and started making wine commercially in 1996 at Clos De La Tech.

“I had a passion for red Burgundy, as well as degrees in chemistry and electrical engineering — but zero knowledge of winemaking — when I decided to plant our first pinot noir vineyard,” Rodgers said. 

Knowing UC Davis’ global reputation in wine making, Rodgers called upon Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Chemical Engineering and Viticulture and Enology Roger Boulton.

“Professor Boulton at UC Davis took my calls to ask him questions about a paper of his I had read,” Rodgers said, “and UC Davis graduates taught me how to make wine.”

Then, in 2010, UC Davis was the one who asked for help. Boulton called upon Rodgers, asking for his help in developing an innovative fermentor that could be used in the recently constructed Teaching and Research Winery. The result—the world’s first wireless fermentation system, a $3.5 million network that Rodgers designed, built and donated to the university. 

“When I had an opportunity to help the school that helped me, I took it,” Rodgers said.

Supporting winemaking innovation

While he worked with the university to build these wireless fermentors, Rodgers saw an opportunity to help support graduate students so they could not only learn how to use the fermentors, but also take the technology and its applications to the next level.

“With T.J. and Valeta Rodgers’ support and encouragement, electrical and computer engineering students at UC Davis are given unique opportunities to gain valuable, practical experience and perform research to develop a state-of-the-art-winery,” said Distinguished Professor and Chair in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering André Knoesen.

An added benefit of the fellowship is that it has been awarded to students over multiple years. This has allowed graduate students to not only continue progress on their own projects, but also pass the research baton to the next graduate student that follows.

“The continuous support for the fellowship over many years and students has allowed the project to keep moving forward,” said current doctoral student and Rodgers fellow James Nelson ’20, M.S. ’22.

Software improves fermentation diagnose

Nelson has used the support of his fellowship to develop a software program he developed called MeshVines, which allows winemakers to diagnose and predict the fermentation process of wine, thereby helping wineries more consistently produce wine.

Nelson’s software utilizes a wine fermentation model, something he learned from Boulton, and data gathered through fermentation sensors, a project overseen by Knoesen, to provide insight and predictive modeling into an especially important phase of the wine fermentation process. 

The technology, which won a 2022 UC Davis Little Bang! award and a Blackstone LaunchPad Ideas Competition, is being used at the Teaching and Research Winery at UC Davis’ Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science and a commercial winery in Napa. Nelson, who is a Ph.D. candidate in electrical and computer engineering, plans to expand his software’s usage to wineries internationally, which are all facing similar labor, energy and winemaking challenges.

“The fellowship has enabled interdisciplinary research that would not be possible through traditional funding sources,” Nelson said. “For me personally, the fellowship has allowed me to grow as an interdisciplinary researcher, collaborate with industry and develop entrepreneurial skills.”

Rodgers University Fellowship in Electrical and Computer Engineering - 2020 Announcement

Dr. T.J. Rodgers and alumnus Babak Taheri, Ph.D. '94 are featured in the announcement of the Rodgers University Fellowship in Electrical and Computer Engineering at the 2020 Electrical and Computer Engineering Awards Ceremony.

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