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Category: Awards

The Last Weekend, Part 2: Bumping into Bits of History

Now that the calendar has actually turned over to August, reality is starting to set in: last weekend’s relaxed enjoyment and exploration really is the final full weekend in Washington, DC of my tenure as a Jefferson Science Fellow.   In some ways, it feels like the time at the end of a party: people are starting to say their good-byes, but no one has actually left yet.  There is also the question of leaving early and maybe missing something, or staying until the very end with the hosts wondering, “When will this guy ever leave?”  In the social media era, people seem to talk about this as FOMO, but there is another concern in play here.

 

One of the local public / community radio stations here in Washington is WPFW; they are one of my options for jazz music.  (As I just mentioned in the blog a couple of days ago, I have a long personal history with jazz.)  An interesting piece of spoken jazz was in fact a parable: imagine an insect (ant or beetle) navigating on one of the most beautifully designed, luxuriously tufted, exquisitely crafted Oriental rugs ever created.  However, this insect has lived its entire life with the tufts and weaves of the rug, and only sees the tufts and knots as problems confronting it and degrading its existence.  The insect has never had the chance, or thought, to raise up its perspective to look down on the beauty and wonder of the pattern of the rug, and so it laments as burden what we would see as splendor.  Poor, foolish insect.  However…

 

Things have been very hectic at work over the past few weeks.  Offices at the State Department are used to turnover during the summer, where people head off to embassies and consulates across the world, and others return back from those locations to take up work here in Washington.  Those rearrangements don’t always mesh smoothly; right now, we’re down a few folks. Combined with travel, it meant that there were only two of us around in my particular unit for a while, and one was tied up with logistics for a very high profile event.  Last Thursday, that event came to fruition, with lots of last minute frenzy and scheduling nightmares and trying to navigate 100 people through a maze of hallways and elevators into a room that holds 80.  What could possibly be worth all of this?

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Figure 1. William F. Hagerty IV sworn in as US Ambassador to Japan by VPOTUS Pence.

Not surprisingly, the official naming of an Ambassador is a pretty significant historical event, especially when the Vice President of the United States (VPOTUS) does the swearing in ceremony.  It takes a few moments of someone not yet jaded by the process (a foreign affairs intern) to put it in perspective: even with the challenges, “you’re experiencing history”.  In the Old Executive Office Building (the Indian Treaty Room).  With dignitaries.

 

Situations like this can be trivialized with the goal of trying to diminish their historic significance or my involvement in them, but over time, I have come to realize that this actually doesn’t have the effect that I had originally intended.  Sometimes a moment ends up with more impact than is intended, such as a young boy from Arkansas meeting a US President.  They can even be played up to fictional excess, such as Forrest Gump’s unintentional influence on history.  But let’s dial that back a bit.  The event was what it was.  There were other people who felt this particular ceremony very important to attend, which of course makes it more special for those who were there…

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Figure 2. L-R: Sen. Corker, Amb. Hagerty, VPOTUS Pence, Mrs. Hagerty, Sen. Alexander

Particularly, if you happen to be from Tennessee, as the Hagertys are (although the Ambassador’s mother still prefers U. Kentucky basketball, but thinks Gallatin is a better place to witness the Great American Eclipse than Hopkinsville), this is a pretty significant bit of history to experience.

 

On Sunday, I saw a person on the National Mall wearing a t-shirt, “I am Black History”.  I can become easily overloaded by such a statement, even though I do actually have a t-shirt that says, “I am kind of a big deal” (thanks, Keena!).  No, I could never wear such a shirt!  I didn’t do this, or that, or whatever else… I’m not these people:

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Figure 3. NASA Legend Kathrine Johnson receives Medal of Freedom from POTUS Obama.

 

But, as Kathrine Johnson said, history is what each of us does, every day.  I am reminded of this quote from meeting her daughters earlier this year:

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Figure 4. NASA Program Manager Allen, Kathrine Johnson’s Daughters Katherine and Joylette, BSC

Yes, there have been a number of such experiences—not just during this fellowship, but in my own past.  Apparently, I keep bumping into bits of history in the rug.  I should not minimize the value of getting a sense of perspective on them, or lament my interactions with them.  From a different vantage, the beauty and value of the pattern is hard to ignore.

 

 

Excellence in April

After Madness, comes Anticipation. In the sports world, April is a period of eager awaiting: as baseball teams take to the field, and professional football and basketball leagues highlight their drafts of college athletes, while colleges engage in “signing day” expectations and celebrations. Winter sports crown their champions. Hopes are fulfilled, or dashed.   While academics are seen as a very different world than athletics, I really don’t see it that way. In fact, graduate research programs have their own version of “signing day,” when offers of graduate fellowships are committed, and prospective students choose their new institution, advisor, and advanced degree emphasis. I am the Chair of our Graduate Committee, and I am highly sensitive to this process, from multiple perspectives. Over 400 students applied to Purdue Industrial Engineering for the Fall 2014 semester. Just over 100 have received the “happy letter,” indicating an acceptance of the application and an invitation to become part of the Purdue Rethink IE experience. Even fewer receive a “happier letter,” which includes an offer of fellowship support. Those are extremely challenging and competitive, and represent some of our expectations of who can be an outstanding contributor—not simply within the School of IE, but at the level of the College of Engineering or the University as a whole (where many of these fellowships are decided and awarded).

 

Every Spring, we in the lab discuss the culture of the lab, and what we need to do and think and be to maintain a focus on excellence, innovation, and productivity. Several years ago, I initiated a model of “360 recruiting,” where existing members of the lab are involved with the visits of prospective students who are invited by the School of IE to spend time on the Purdue campus and explore their options at an outstanding “full-service” IE program. I don’t commit lab funds to anyone right away, for two reasons (both due to experience). Some students find, after arrival, that our projects and my advising style may not work for them. Others may be searching for a project, but in fact are searching for financial support. Neither one of those types of students can effectively contribute or be well suited to the lab, and that lack of effective matching can hurt the overall productivity of the lab. While that first reason is strategic and philosophical, the second reason is more practical. GROUPER supports student professional development, not just research output. The students are not just workers in a research machine. Thus, we might not have funding for the project that a particular student wants to do when s/he first arrives… or they may not know which project they want to pursue. As of Spring 2014, there are six PhD students in GROUPER—not one is working on the specific project they identified in their application, or thought about during their first semester on campus. Four are working over the summer at internships in industry and government. These internships, rather than “interfering” with the research, provide additional opportunities for students to explore areas of professional and research growth, and identify areas they may want to work after graduation (or not—finding out you don’t want to work somewhere is also a successful outcome of an internship).

 

Nonetheless, GROUPER feels like an elite team. We try to “draft” well, and we try to develop and promote and sustain excellence in our performance. I was very pleased to learn that two of our “hopefuls” were offered Purdue Doctoral Fellowships for Fall 2014. I’m ecstatic to have received acceptances of both offers, meaning that our next set of GROUPERs can continue a history of diversity and excellence in doctoral development. Current members of the lab are also recognized awardees. Today, I get to celebrate Omar Eldardiry’s Outstanding Service Scholarship, due in large part to his excellent work as a teaching assistant and instructor (including his support for me with the senior capstone design project course last fall). And of course, I cannot finish this entry without once again celebrating one of our “First Team All-Americans”: Michelle (Shelly) Jahn, who was awarded the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. This makes two consecutive years that a member of GROUPER has been awarded a fellowship through the NSF GRFP. (Last year, the winner was undergraduate GROUPER Natalie Benda, who is working in Patient Safety and will be attending the University at Buffalo for her PhD.)

 

Excellence in research and student professional development. This is an ongoing source of tremendous pride, and the heart of a continuing commitment to improve how people get, share, and use information well.