Expanding the Territory

Now that I have returned to Purdue, I am back to experiencing some of my past habits and activities as a faculty member.  In my  previous entry, “Crossing Paths,” I mentioned my trip to North Dakota for the Space Grant meeting; last week, the travel was to Austin, Texas for the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES) meeting.  After being in Washington for a full year, it was both refreshing and curiously strange to be back at an academic conference.  More than anything else, I was able to enjoy re-connecting with colleagues and collaborators and others in a community that I have been an active part for over 25 years, rather than the valuable (but disconcerting) experience of learning a new environment and new norms in an unfamiliar context.


A year away from something so immersive as one’s primary research community does permit a new experience and view upon one’s return.  It is not just that my presentations took on a slightly different tone due to the experience of writing for diplomats; I was thinking about the presentations differently, colored by my growing understanding of what it is to speak on policy topics.  I was very glad to see GROUPER alumnae and hear of their successes; I enjoyed watching the current students present well and receive appreciative comments from the audience.  That was much more satisfying in many ways than actually being the one presenting all of the papers.  It’s an interesting expansion of perception and shift in perspective on the territory (dare I say legacy?) of one’s career.  Interestingly, I could also hear it differently this time, aided by the alternative experience of last year.  Where has the influence gone, and how has it traveled from its headwaters?  Does the river notice its impact on the stones as it flows?


I recognize that some of what I missed while in Washington was the regular opportunity to work with and mentor people whose personal and professional trajectories could be increased.  What I could begin to notice in Austin was how much influence my past efforts have had on others, even when I didn’t realize previously that what I was doing would affect them in a lasting way.  In retrospect, it’s not surprising, but at the time, I found myself at a loss for words when I was introduced to a promising student by someone who had already been positively influenced by their interactions with me.  I wasn’t actively recruiting new students… but I would be pleased to have such exciting and passionate people to help explore new projects and possibilities.


Another area of recognition during the past two months since I returned from Washington was the change in context to describe the applications of our work in the lab.  Yes, it’s easy to excite other space folks about the NASA research on Mars exploration analog projects; pilots often don’t need to be convinced about the value of our aviation weather information studies.   But policy impacts?  Can’t we just leave that to others?  As I have learned, the answer is “no”.  The connections won’t be evident to all, as we’ve already learned from the story of Cassandra and “postcards”.  What is the broader context of connections, within and beyond the communities that already sense the value of what we do?


Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised about this, but nonetheless, it has taken me a while to process this change in thinking due to my experience in Washington.  My conversations while in Austin did not just cover the next steps for the HFES, but next steps for national science and technology policy.  The research discussions were not just posed in the context of a single principal investigator grant to a directed funding agency call… but possibilities to address broader elements of engineering’s role in society.  What justification would you provide to say that your research was worth funding to people who weren’t specialists in your area, or even in STEM research in general?  (Oh.  This is exactly what is being proposed in the U.S. Senate.)


I happen to like GROUPER’s statement of why we exist… however, I’m biased, and I already know what it means to talk about “human processes of information flow, knowledge sharing, and task coordination”.  But what is that good for?  A very similar question was asked by, and of, the National Academy of Engineering (now renamed as part of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, or NASEM) to explain the role of engineering research and technology development to address 14 “global Grand Challenges” facing society in the 21st Century.  Speakers at the Global Grand Challenges Summit (GGCS) in Washington in July asked members of the audience to think about how their work might address any of the Grand Challenges: in essence, a call to consider expanding one’s territory of impact.  And when I brought that question to the lab, an interesting insight emerged.


GROUPER research addresses seven of the 14 Grand Challenges.


Five of these are pretty obvious: PERCH research on brain injury recovery and personalized medicine for chronic care directly touches on “Personalized Learning,” “Reverse-Engineer the Brain,” and “Advance Health Informatics”.  CORAL and SHARK work on secure supply chains and network operations center teams hits on “Secure Cyberspace”.  These projects, together with our STINGRAY work on spaceflight operations, provide examples of “Engineer the Tools of Scientific Discovery,” particularly discovery conducted by interdisciplinary teams of humans.  In addition, there are two more areas that benefit by GROUPER’s ability to capitalize on connections.  It’s not just the individualized brain trajectories and chronic care models, but the discussion of Systems Engineering to support improved information architectures for non-text references, that helps address the push to “Engineer Better Medicines.”  Improved information architectures, improved network operations and event responses, and better cognitive framing for addressing uncertainty in event prediction and response all assist in the effort to “Restore and Improve Urban Infrastructure”.


That’s a very big territory.  There’s more to do, not less.  Who else wants to go explore and map such beautiful frontiers?