Posted on behalf of Carmen Drahl
Alfredo M. Ayala Jr. majored in chemistry in college, but these days he dabbles in a very special kind of alchemy. He’s been with Walt Disney Imagineering Research and Development for over 15 years, where his job is to create new illusions and experiences for Disney park guests. And as he explained Sunday at the ACS national meeting in Anaheim, it was organic chemistry that got his foot in the door.
Ayala said he fell in love with science as a boy when he saw “Antimatter”, an animated look at the atomic world by Carlos Gutierrez, a UCLA film major turned chemistry major and organic chemistry professor. As it so happened, Gutierrez became Ayala’s mentor when the young Ayala came to Cal State L.A., through Gutierrez’s program for engaging junior high and high school students interested in biomedical sciences. At Cal State L.A., Ayala followed his interests in chemistry and in computers, taking engineering coursework in addition to chemistry. He was an undergraduate researcher in Gutierrez’s organic chemistry lab when he applied for an internship with the Disney company.
Disney asked its prospective interns to write a paragraph about why they wanted the gig. But instead of just gushing about how cool it would be to work with the company, Ayala took a different tack. He knew Imagineers were looking to reformulate the skin material for the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, which at the time contained chromium, a non-chlorine scavenger, as a heat stabilizer. By not having a chlorine scavenger, hydrochloric acid was being produced in reactions with water, which in turn corroded parts that would need to be replaced periodically.
Ayala sent Disney three proposals for alternative skin formulas, based on some chemistry he had done forming precursors to analogs of 18-crown-6 ethers in the Gutierrez group. In this 1995 Tet. Lett. paper the group begins with some tin-containing acetals and forms two different crown ether precursors depending on whether they add 1,2-dibromoethane or 2-chloroethanol. “Note we were scavenging chlorine and bromine- this is how I got the idea,” Ayala says.
His ingenuity on the application paid off in the form of an interview. “That was what got me in,” he says. He’s been with Disney ever since.
“You’d be surprised how much chemistry goes on at Disney,” Ayala says. Building one Disney attraction takes experts in 140 disciplines, from mechanical engineering to art. And chemistry challenges are everywhere at the parks, Ayala says. Research in materials science for skin and other applications is an active area. “The skin formulation I worked on as an intern is obsolete,” he says. An entire department is dedicated to making eco-friendlier and more durable paints and coatings. But perhaps the biggest chemistry challenge in the parks is water- from transportation to treatment to recycling, he says. Disney has an environmental group with labs in Zurich and collaborations with UCLA and Carnegie Mellon Universities to find those kinds of solutions.
Although chemistry got him his start at the company, “I don’t do chemistry right now,” Ayala says. One of the best things about working for Disney is the opportunity to explore other interests and evolve your job to pursue them. An interest in optics led to his becoming the lead optics designer for the “Mission: Space” attraction. An interest in special effects, UV paints, and lasers led to his becoming the special effects lead for the “Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure” at Epcot at Walt Disney World, , and the principal developer of the technology behind the “Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage“. His current project is introducing a new robotic animation system for the parks, which will make robots reactive and responsive to park guests. With chemistry training “what you have is a base,” Ayala says. “You can build on it.”
“For me, going to work is going to play,” Ayala says. “I play every day.”
Interested in becoming an Imagineer? There are a few avenues for getting started. One is the worldwide ImagiNations Design Competition, held annually. Here is an example of a project for the competition. (Note: updated in response to comment). Disney also offers chemistry internships in Florida, says Angela Winstead of Morgan State University in Baltimore, who coordinated the Society Committee on Education career panel where Ayala spoke in Anaheim.
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