Desert Companion

Big ideas

Whether they’re fighting global disease, remaking the cityscape or growing gardens  in schools, these five Las Vegans are putting deep thoughts into high gear


Martin Schiller

Martin Schiller, unlv scientist

He’s helping win the fight against HIV with an unlikely weapon: data

Five-year-old Martin Schiller wanted to finally beat his dad at backgammon. So, while dad was at work, the young Schiller thought about it. A lot. He analyzed the game. He tested out styles of play on his younger brother. He studied, honed and perfected a new strategy.

“I figured out if you hit someone in the backboard aggressively and got a couple rolls to cover, they may never get back in the game again,” he says. That’s backgammon-speak for a nuke-warfare, no-prisoners style of play that involves constantly knocking out your opponent’s pieces and blockading them from re-entering the board.

When dad got home from work, the game was on. With his new strategy, young Martin won three games before his very frustrated father threw up his hands. “I couldn’t believe that me, a little kid, could create such a reaction in an adult — especially when it arose from pure intellect. That really stuck with me. I really got into solving puzzles, and right now, I’m working on the world’s biggest puzzle.”

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That puzzle is HIV. It’s a fierce, wily shapeshifter. When it attacks white
blood cells and duplicates itself, the virus mutates — which means it quickly becomes resistant to treatment. Little wonder there are more than two dozen drugs to treat for HIV. Genetic sequencing can ID particular strains of HIV, but there’s a problem.

“There are 40 million infected people in the world, and only a few hundred thousand get sequenced,” says Schiller, a UNLV Life Sciences professor and executive director of the newly formed Nevada Institute of Personalized Medicine. “We need a secondary tool that’s based on population-based prediction so at least we have a better chance of choosing the correct medications.”

Schiller and his team at UNLV developed their own global drug resistance database that uses computer modeling to get a better grasp on which HIV strains are resistant to which HIV drugs — to save money and lives around the world. It’s called Geogenomic Mutational Atlas of Pathogens, or GoMap. It’s not the first or only HIV drug resistance database out there, but Schiller contends it’s the most accurate — thanks to a much stronger foundation of data. Released in May, it’s free to use worldwide for doctors and other public health officials to use to make sure people are getting the most effective drugs for whatever strain of HIV they’re suffering from.

That’s just one of Schiller’s strategies in the long game of fighting HIV. He and his team have also developed HIV Toolbox, an interactive web tool that details the sequence, structure and function of HIV proteins to help better identify potential drug targets. Think of it as an incredibly detailed castle map that scientists and drug makers can study to better lay siege to the deadly virus. “Solving this puzzle can save lives,” says Schiller. Game on. — Andrew Kiraly


David Shanchez Burr

David Sanchez Burr, artist

In a city given to slick, surface beauty, he’s putting the ideas back into art

In the late ’90s, David Sanchez Burr played guitar and bass in Hell Mach Four, a Virginia math-rock band. Good one, too, sounds like: “Sometimes we’d play to seven people on the road,” he says, “and two of them were bartenders.” Couple of pertinents here: (1) math rock is frequently a genre of ideas, which (2) rigorously self-selects a certain kind (and size) of audience. “But we felt there were some ideas in our music that were important,” he says.

Fast forward to a Starbucks on Rancho, late November, where Burr, now one of the valley’s most important visual artists, is again talking about art, ideas and audiences. “Visual artist” is a bit reductive in his case — his work is a deliberately hard-to-categorize, high-concept mind-meld of performance, sound, video and engineering. Work such as “New Citadel” (in which visitors to The Cosmopolitan’s P3 Gallery built a city of miniature architecture, which was continually reshuffled by sound waves as a commentary on the capricious nature of urban and social change) has put him in a vanguard of local artists doing that kind of genre-crossing work. That’s why he thinks the time might be right for another big idea to really take hold: the return of ideas to art, particularly here.

He’s not saying there aren’t ideas in Vegas art now. Indeed, there’s been an occasionally lively conversation among art types about just what a Vegas style of art might entail. Generalizations about such things are risky, but it’s fair to say that for some time, the notion of Vegas art, like the aesthetic of the city itself, has largely dwelled on the adulation of the enigmatic surface. Spectacles of visual pleasure. But, Burr says, the city also serves as a “fish tank” that lets artists “view some really extreme examples of social structures” — fodder for a meaning-rich art that responds to social conditions and doesn’t kowtow to the monied imperatives of the art market. That’s important to Burr.

“We relay a lot of important things in life and in social situations through our artwork,” he says, “and the more bad things that happen — and a lot of bad shit’s happening, constantly — the more it’s gonna get activated. That activation is a promising thing.”

In Burr’s mind, it’s to an artist’s advantage that Vegas is an art-world outlier; the distracting capitalist apparatus of the art market isn’t in your face every day the way it is in New York or L.A. “You have nothing to lose; you’re in Las Vegas!” He laughs, aware he’s being glib — but his point is that Vegas offers a longer runway of possibility for artists who shun branding and repetitive “signature” product in favor of something more exploratory. “I advocate better and larger ideas that correspond to the culture and society of our century,” he writes in an email — work that has a hope for a better society at its core. “Even if you’re way ahead of the curve, it’s okay,” he adds. Small audiences are fine. “People will catch up. For me it’s not acceptable to fall behind because you feel you have to dumb it down for someone.”


Clare ByrneCiara Byrne, Green Our Planet

She’s growing green initiatives with amessage that gets right to the heart

Four years ago, native Dubliner Ciara Byrne was hanging out with her life partner Kim MacQuarrie and paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey in Northern Kenya, waiting for the seasonal migration of wildebeest from the Serengeti. As the three discussed their passion for conservation, Leakey wondered aloud whether there might be a way to use documentary films, such as those Byrne and MacQuarrie make, to help online crowdfunding efforts for worthwhile causes. As the pair of filmmakers continued their African travels, they kept returning to the idea.

Fast forward to 2013 Las Vegas, where Byrne and MacQuarrie launched Green Our Planet. Just as Leakey had imagined, the crowdfunding platform raises money for conservation projects online, with Byrne and MacQuarrie’s short films providing the emotional heart of the ask.

But most people don’t think of Byrne as a filmmaker or fundraiser. Instead, she’s known as the school garden lady — and for good reason: Green Our Planet has funded more than 60 educational gardens in CCSD schools in less than 18 months, placing it among the fastest-growing such programs in the U.S.

The school garden project started as a mere beta test for the crowdfunding website. But after they got overwhelming interest from schools, she and MacQuarrie began to suspect they’d stumbled onto something huge. The first two schools raised enough money for their gardens in no time. But, Byrne says, when they took on their first Title 1 school, it was a different story.

“And then we started to look into the percentage of Title 1 schools in Clark County, and we couldn’t believe how high it was (nearly two-thirds),” she says. “We thought, ‘Oh my god, this is never going to work.’ But we’d met the kids and gone to the schools, and it just felt like a crime that they wouldn’t have a garden.”

They began soliciting sponsorships and applying for grants. Most Green Our Planet school gardens now have a banner sponsor, such as Wynn or NV Energy, providing the bulk of funding for Title 1 schools. The organization won a 2014 American Honda Foundation grant after co-applying with Three Square. The $500,000 award went into developing STEM curricula for kindergarten through fifth-grade classes to use in their gardens, which teach everything from cooking and nutrition to entrepreneurial skills. School garden clubs run farmers markets, sell produce to local grocery stores and restaurants, and one even put a salad bar in its cafeteria.

Now Byrne and MacQuarrie are setting their sights on greener pastures. In 2015, they plan a national launch. Green Our Planet has already raised $12,000 to help a homeless shelter in Carson City build solar panels and $3,500 to plant trees in the Andes in Peru.

“It could work for any project,” Byrne says. “It could be a green invention, a green book, it doesn’t matter. Our idea is to empower people to make the positive change in their community.”

— Heidi Kyser


Steve Beatty

Steve Beatty, Financial Solutions for Business

What do you do with it when you can’t take it with you? This man has the exit strategy

Steve Beatty’s stepdad grew a dietary supplement business out of his garage into a 275-employee, 300,000-square-foot operation. In 2000, the elder Beatty started getting eight-figure offers for his business. But despite working 12-hour days at the age of 70, he didn’t return suitors’ calls. Why?

“He looked me square in the eye and answered, ‘What else would I do?’” Steve Beatty says. “It’s not that he didn’t love us or want to spend time with us, but he loved his business like himself.”

Such is the case for many a Baby Boomer business owner, Beatty says. The entrepreneurial spirit that drives them defines them. They can’t imagine life after business.

This is more than a philosophical problem; it’s an economic one, too. According to a 2013 study, more than 70 percent business owners between the ages of 50 and 68 have no written plan to transition out of ownership, despite most of their net worth being tied up in the enterprise. And they own 63 percent of all privately held businesses in the U.S.

“Recently, I was talking with a friend about a Fortune 1,000 company that distributes through a network of 800 national companies,” Beatty says. “Most of these are small companies run by guys 65 and older. If they don’t transition well, the entire distribution system could be messed up.”

Enter the Certified Exit Planning Adviser, or CEPA. One of only five such professionals in Nevada, Beatty describes the position as being like the quarterback of an exit team. He steers the client’s accountants, attorneys, bankers and financial planners toward the common goal of transitioning the business, and its owner, into its next phase. The client is relieved of the burden of consulting individually with experts, while the experts subordinate their separate strengths to the common good — typically selling the business for its maximum worth.

The ideal story ends as Jim Beatty’s did. At the age of 78, faced with making a necessary but unpleasant shift in his business, he decided to sell rather than stay at the helm.

“He didn’t get as much as he could have in the boom years, but he still did very well,” Steve Beatty says. “He’s been able to travel the world, spend more time with his grandkids and stay involved with the business from afar. He’s living a very youthful 84-year-old life.” — Heidi Kyser

Eric Strain

Eric Strain architect, urban planner

He’s got an enlightening vision for Downtown — literally

Call it a vision doodle. Scratching a black marker across that crinkly paper architects love, Eric Strain, who’s an architect, rethinks Casino Center Drive from the ground up. Sketch, crinkle — “Casino Center becomes a greenbelt” — sketch, crinkle — “here’s the elementary school” — sketch, crinkle — “residential above,” the rushed, imprecise lines overlapping until they take on a layered quality symbolic of the laminate, multi-use density Strain’s big idea would impart to areas of Downtown. That’s the doodle.

And the vision? Stand back, kids — this thing needs room: Strain proposes to refashion several blocks of Downtown as a cultural tourism art walk and services-intensive education district. It may not adopt the shape of a whimsical animal, but, in its way, Strain’s idea is as forward-leaning as anything Tony Hsieh is bankrolling.

The most immediate phase: First Street. The city’s already sprucing it up, but Strain favors a more unifying concept: light. His idea, codified in a proposal he submitted to the recent Strong Cities, Strong Communities contest, borrows from Dallas’ sporadic Aurora festival, for which artists create works employing light — projections, sculptures, dancers wearing glow sticks. Perfect for this place, too. “We thought it’d be a cool-ass idea to take First Street, and not do it as a one-weekend kind of thing, but do it permanently.” In Strain’s renderings, First Street gets a makeover, with built-in light towers and center-street parking (to open up the sidewalk culture). The result: a strollable experience designed to draw tourists and locals alike; businesses would presumably follow. “If First Street looked like that, I’d come walk there all the time.”

Of course, he faces a mosh pit of obstacles. But last month his proposal emerged from the Strong Cities contest with $10,000 in funding and an April deadline to iron out the feasibilities. “During those four months I’m going to knock on every door we need to,” he says.

Mind you, that’s just the beginning. Wait until you read this:

Subsequent phases extend the rebuilding up Casino Center to Wyoming. This is where the idea blows up. Bullet points: Replace the asphalt with parkland. Convince the library district to build there, as well as UNLV (facilities devoted to urban planning, hospitality and the arts) and the school district (K-12 magnet schools) — above which he’d stack residential units. More centrifugal ideas include a boutique hotel staffed by hospitality students and a feedback loop of community museums and galleries for the art kids.

That’s the whole thing, “from the Golden Nugget to Wyoming Street,” Strain says, capping his pen.

We’ll get to the probabilities in a minute. First, imagine this on Strain’s terms. It’s a boundary-stretching vision of the neighborhood as a unit of urban problem-solving— an interlocking system of complementary services wrapped around a core of learning. “You can’t solve Las Vegas’ problems if you don’t deal with education,” he says.

You’re snorting. Because this falls several notches beyond “you’ve gotta be kidding” on any scale of Vegas plausibility.

Strain is acutely aware of this. “It is pie in the sky,” he says. “It’s hoping people will work together” — a tall order. But he sees reasons for optimism. Some of those facilities, already planned, will go up somewhere. Why not conscript them into a larger concept? UNLV’s new president arrives from Arizona; surely he knows how Phoenix has been helped by Arizona State’s downtown campus — perhaps he’ll get behind this. Incremental momentum can build.

But, yeah, it’d require a symphonic cooperation between turf-jealous bureaucracies, ordinance changes and, of course, unlikely amounts of funding. It may never become more real than it is in Strain’s doodle. But he’s not dissuaded. “If we don’t do something now,” he says, “in 20 years we’ll be talking about these same problems.”

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