On campus, the new school year is well underway, and there is a lot of novelty on my mind. New projects (especially Purdue’s selection as one of two finalists for the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination), new assignments, and especially new students. But that’s not really how this entry started. It started with a discussion list.
A researcher on one of the discussion lists which I (BC) follow (this one happened to be within the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, but you can find this in a variety of groups on a variety of topics) had initiated a thread about a particular research topic. Potentially interesting, but not really my specialty, so I only glanced through it. What really drew my attention, though, was some of the responses to this new thread. Several people were highly annoyed that someone had taken up the bandwidth of a thread to discuss a topic that wasn’t in their particular interest. In fact, some then complained that the thread was inappropriate for the list, because it wasn’t particularly interesting to them. You can probably guess what happened next. More comments about the complaints about the thread, and then a set of finger pointing at the software itself for not keeping unwanted discussions out of their mailboxes (I think that the “delete” key works especially well for that function), followed by a slew of “remove me from the list” emails. (Nothing is a bigger waste of bandwidth than a set of “remove me” postings to a discussion list.) To me, this sort of behavior (and it seems to be common across email and web-based discussions) is fascinating, because it seems to reflect different attitudes about willingness to be exposed to new material that isn’t exactly within one’s current focus of view. I thought about writing an entry on “Pushing and Pulling Sticky Balls: Accretions and Connections of Knowledge as Inertia,” and maybe I still will. But not today.
I think what became even more fascinating to me is this idea of tolerance for novelty, as a companion to or essential tension against desire for directed focus. Those who know me know that I do seem to tolerate and collect a fairly large range of novel connections, and seek out new connections between existing ideas. (It seems that one of the best ways of distinguishing those who “get” me and those who don’t is their response to one of my nonlinear connection interactions.) This shows up especially clearly in the process of recruiting students. GROUPER spends an unusual amount of effort in trying to identify students who like working across project areas, and in collaborative teams, as potential members. This fall is a special challenge: all but one of the students who were continuing members one year ago today are now elsewhere. (Three have taken permanent jobs—all accepted before depositing their PhD dissertation.) It’s a lot to place the burden of maintaining the culture of the lab on one PhD student, one MS student, and one undergraduate (only the MS student was part of the lab on September 15, 2010). We have three new potential graduate students and a new undergraduate, all wanting to start in the lab—more than the current population, and the single largest addition of students (in terms of percentage change in lab size) in the 20 years of GROUPER. So, what’s a professor and lab director to do?
I called out for pizza (well, actually, one of the students did) and told some stories.
Telling stories is a famous mechanism of developing and sustaining an entrepreneurial organizational culture—Hewlett-Packard was legendary for their “Bill and Dave” stories. So, I told some “Dr. C” stories of novelty and connection and the pictures in my head. (Again, that discussion can come later—it’s about a three-dimensional coordinate axis of sensory experience of the world, capability of processing the world from external or internal frames of reference, and overall cognitive capacity, which I tend to reference as “horsepower”.) It was interesting, and gratifying, that three of the GROUPERs made the connection to neurodiversity that had spawned my development of the coordinate space, even though I hadn’t mentioned it in that context. (That’s another hint that there is a possibility for a good match—not only do they “get” my connections, but they can make connections like the ones I make.)
In a little while, you’ll get to read the students’ perspectives on this “restocking” and story telling pizza party. Until then, what is my sense of the need to restock a lab without completely changing what is its essence? I continue to think about this process of novel discovery and focused activity as an essential balance affecting individuals, and teams, and organizations. It may even be an evolutionary requirement with a fundamental mathematical dynamic—similar balances can be seen in the behavior of ant colonies, balancing environmental exploration and resource exploitation. Maybe we’ll get to study that sometime, too. Obviously, there is no lack of topics for the blog, or for our projects and papers. Bear with us, though, if you’re waiting for updates here: there’s a lot to work on, and an ecosystem to innovate.
September 27, 2011
GROUPERs on GROUPER
After the GROUPER lab meeting on September 8, and in concert with my own blog entry, I asked both the continuing and new students to consider their experience in learning about life in the lab. There were several styles of response, from undergraduates and graduates, new and continuing, that describe GROUPER in ways that I couldn’t. So, let’s just hear from them.
The first commentary comes from Jeremi, who actually created her own blog post at: http://jeremilondon.wordpress.com/2011/09/22/grouper-lab-__-chess-club-__/.
Next is Marissa:
School is back in session and with that comes new students. There are a few new graduate students who are currently trying to figure out if GROUPER is right for them. At the most recent lab meeting, Dr. Caldwell decided it would be best for the current GROUPERs and the “prospective” GROUPERs to bond over some pizza. One of the new graduate students asked me how I came to the conclusion that I wanted to study “information and knowledge sharing and nursing expertise coordination in healthcare”. I turned to him and empathized as I was in his exact predicament a year ago. I was trying to figure out whether or not GROUPER was right for me and also a specific research interest. I told this student that I was not one of those students who knew exactly from the age of five that I wanted to go to Purdue University and be a member of the GROUPER lab studying in the healthcare field. I was quite far from it. (I think when I was five I told my dad I wanted to be a ballerina.) The only things I knew when I sat in the GROUPER lab for the first time a year ago was that I wanted to study healthcare and that I enjoyed working with people and studying how they behave.
The GROUPER lab does not recruit one specific type of graduate student and quite frankly, the lab doesn’t even stick with just graduate students. Not all of our students have a main focus in industrial engineering and not all of the students are stellar at one particular component of industrial engineering. (The only common ground is that all lab members study how people get, share, and use information well.) When I joined the lab, there was one student studying space flight operations, one student studying first responders, and two students studying two separate components of the healthcare delivery system. Once I joined, two more students deemed GROUPER right for them. One was studying another unique component of healthcare and the other, like me, had no clue! Through the lab meetings during my first semester as a Boilermaker, two of my GROUPER labmates, Dr. Caldwell, and myself decided that we would write two papers for a conference simply because we had an interest in the two subjects of the papers. One of those papers became the basis for my research; I found the topic absolutely fascinating. Therefore, the above wordy description of my research was neither my idea nor Dr. Caldwell’s idea; in essence, it was GROUPER’s idea.
GROUPER is filled with diverse, forward-thinking overachievers. What makes us unique is that although we have very specific and different research topics, we are able to come together to talk about what we find interesting (or funny, controversial, frustrating, inspiring) in order to help each other, and even ourselves, find one’s niche.
A few words from Kelly:
As a new student to the GROUPER lab, I have had a lot of positive feelings toward the lab in the short amount of time I’ve been here. The collaboration that happens during the lab meetings is productive and beneficial, even to members who are not working on the project that is being discussed. Everyone is very welcoming and is not just willing to help, but happy to help. With the number of projects going on, it would seem that it would be hard to get the entire lab to come together and focus on helping the lab as a whole. But, this is not the case. Each person in the group wants everyone else to succeed and has the best interest of the lab at heart. The GROUPER lab has been so welcoming and helpful and I look forward to starting my own research and continuing to work with this group.
Finally (and fittingly), comments from Natalie:
Each time I explain my research project that analyzes information sharing and adherence in Congestive Heart Failure patients, I pause and wait, and without fail, the respondent utters some form of the question, “Oh, that’s interesting, but how is that engineering?” Explaining what GROUPER does, requires revamping the stereotypical definition of engineering. Yes, most engineers build, design, or formulate ‘things’. However, many people struggle to grasp the concept of engineering the intangible. GROUPER focuses on engineering information and communication in such a way that the system associated with the information is understandable for all users. We strive to bridge the gap between information and technology. If we cannot find a way to deliver this advanced technology on a consistent basis, what purpose does it serve?