grouperlab

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Category: GROUPER dynamics

Comings and Goings

It’s been highly eventful in GROUPER over the past month, since the beginning of Purdue’s Spring Break.  We’re really proud to announce that Natalie Benda, who had just submitted a blog entry to the site (“Bringing Sexy Back“), has won an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. This is one of the most prestigious awards for graduate students, and highlights both her unique development and her engagement with society to influence the impact of research.  Congratulations, Natalie!  We certainly hope you’re back here soon!

 

Members of the lab defined Prof. Caldwell’s travel schedule as “March Madness,” which almost exactly matched the length (and complexity) of the NCAA Tournament.  On March 1, when the women’s Big Ten and other tournaments were starting up, BSC was in Washington, DC.  Since then, he visited Irvine, CA; London, UK (for the Global Grand Challenges Summit); San Diego, CA; and Shanghai, Nanjing, and Suzhou, China, before arriving in Seattle on April 8 — the day that Louisville won the men’s championship.  You may hear from BSC more soon.

 

In addition, Prof. Caldwell was escorted through much of his China visit by LIU Linyan, who was a visiting scholar to Purdue and GROUPER from the Nanjing University of Science and Technology.  Returning to Shanghai only hours after Prof. Caldwell’s arrival, Linyan (and her husband) were invaluable and  gracious in hosting and translating in settings as varied as Nanjing restaurants and Tongli historical museums.  We’ll miss Linyan, who also provided us with this message summarizing her experience:

 

It was a wonderful time since I became a member of GROUPER. Before I came to Purdue, I imaged the guys in the GROUPER, now I still can remember the day I came to this lab for the first time. Liang was the first person I met; she helped me with the registration. Then I met two guys just out of lab (I spent six month in the lab, studying, meeting , etc.), Jeremi and Omar. They were so kind and helped me a lot. In that week we had a GROUPER gather, I met all of the GROUPERs. We had Chinese food in a Chinese restaurant. I felt so warm.

During the six months I was in lab, we had GROUPER meeting nearly every two weeks in the lab, and we had personal meeting in Prof’s office. Every personal meeting, when discussed with Prof. Caldwell, you could find something new and should think more. Thank you, prof. Caldwell, the meeting, the books and paper you recommended helped me learning and getting new knowledge and enlarge my research field.

Time goes so quickly, when I recall the memory in GROUPER. I am in China now. I can remember everything so clearly like it happened yesterday. Omar took me to ITAP to modify my password and showed me how to use the scanner. In the noon, I was having lunch and listening to  Jake’s music; the pin (GROUPER pin), Marissa’s birthday, G4 in Natalie’s apartment, G4 in Prof. Caldwell’s house, and the pink poster we were drawing…. I will never forget the nice experience and I will treasure the pin (GROUPER pin) forever, because I am a member of GROUPER.

Thanks, GROUPERs. Prof. Caldwell, Marissa, Liang, Jeremi, Jake, Omar, Natalie, Kelly, Mina, Siobhan.

 

We’re all pulling for Siobhan as she recovers from her accident last month.  Things were a bit scary for a while, and remain tough.  As I mentioned to her and her family, Siobhan’s caught a crab affecting her race plan.  We’ll be getting back up to speed, one stroke at a time.  The most important thing is that such events help us to recognize that there are more important elements to our individual and shared existence than p-values and the number of citations in a given research paper.  We still emphasize the quality of our work, but even now, we can see direct impacts of what we do on individual quality of life issues–including those of our own members.

 

Congratulations also to Jake and Marie Viraldo, who have added to their team; Marie gave birth to Jacob Osborn last Thursday.  Once again, life sometimes trumps lab.  I may not want to always admit it, but having been a grad student with various intrusions of critical life events (birth of a child, life-threatening illness of a significant other, drastic shifts in research, unexpected opportunities and setbacks), I am sensitive and aware of how this is not just school, but one’s developing professional life.  For those of you just embarking on it, I am sympathetic.  (Not always soft or fuzzy, but sympathetic.)

Next time, perhaps a bit more about lab turnover… Jeremi finished her thesis, and Marissa will be finishing soon.   There’s always more to mention, because we’re never done.

 

 

Bringing Sexy Back (A Post from Natalie)

Instead of just hearing from me, we’re starting to add more posts from more members of the lab, and from more perspectives.  The first is from Natalie Benda, who is now a happy and proud GROUPER alumna.  Here’s an insight from her:

 

My journey to Purdue begins in Dubuque, IA, “the home of America’s river”. (Yes, that is what the sign says when you cross into my county). When I was younger, I always thought I would end up going into medicine. I come from a family where you were the odd one out if you did not work in the healthcare field. Knowledge of medicine was a pre-requisite for the majority of the conversations that when on at the “grown-ups” table when I was growing up. My parents even met in a hospital where they have worked for a combined total of about sixty years. So, naturally I chose to study engineering in college. That makes sense, right? No? Well, it will eventually.

 

In high school, when discussing my prospects for secondary education, many times I heard something along the lines of, “You’re good at math and science, you should be an engineer.” It must have stuck at some point, because I started to do my about it. I found the descriptions and coursework for computer, electrical, civil, mechanical and even biomedical engineering, were less than intriguing. I did not want to be in a lab or at a computer all day tinkering away with components.  In the words of my favorite mermaid, I wanted to be where the people were! So, when I came across material on industrial engineering, which emphasized the human aspect of engineering, it was a no-brainer.

 

With a newly found excitement for my presumed, I began the search for a school. My criteria – get out of Iowa but remain within driving distance, and find a large university with a strong reputation for industrial engineering. The three main schools I looked at were Northwestern, the University of Illinois at Urbana and Purdue. My junior year of high school, my mother and I trekked through a blizzard to visit Purdue on what was probably one of the coldest days of the year. I wish I could give a non-cliché account of all of the wonderful qualities that drew me to Purdue during this first visit, but I can’t. It just felt like the right fit, and I never looked back.

 

Fast-forward to my sophomore industrial engineering seminar. Although I was excited about getting out of freshman engineering classes and into my chosen discipline, I didn’t feel I had found that extra-curricular activity niche that many of my classmates had. Until one day, our seminar speaker gave a presentation regarding opportunities for industrial engineers in healthcare. Do you remember my rant about being destined to work in healthcare earlier? Is it starting to make a little more sense?

 

So, after their speech, I approached the speaker to learn more about how I could get involved in healthcare engineering at Purdue. It turned out she was a member of GROUPER. As many of you know, GROUPER works in many areas besides healthcare, however as Dr. C. says it is the new, sexy field for IE’s. This healthcare component was what initially drew me to the lab. What kept me there was breaking down the barriers of traditional engineering and finding ways to connect people and systems through communication. If you can’t tell by my quoting Disney movies and titling my entry after a Justin Timberlake song, I do not like to be subject to societal norms. And GROUPER is far from the norm.

 

In my two plus years as a GROUPER, I performed many tasks from managing the lab’s schedule to statistical analysis supporting Ph. D. research, and managed to stumble across some research of my own in the process. After organizing the lab’s document library, I found I had a special interest in chronic disease adherence. So, with the help of Dr. C. and the Medication Safety Network of Indiana, I designed a study that analyzed information flow between patients and pharmacists in pharmacy consultations for congestive heart failure medications. I could give you a dry, statistical run-down of the results, but for the sake of the blog I’ll get to the point: the results of the study evidenced the critical part that the pharmacist plays in patient medication safety by capturing potential adverse events the pharmacist was able to detect and prevent. The project is on hold for the moment, but now that we know these potential adverse events are there, couldn’t we find where they stem from? Could we in turn find the root cause of more adverse events that the pharmacist may not be able to prevent and discover ways to build a safer medication system?

 

Since my graduation from Purdue in December, I have begun a new job in Washington, D.C. as a research assistant for the National Center for Human Factors in Healthcare. In my first few weeks at NCHFH, I have worked on a number of projects that include validating the use of a serious game as an assessment tool (yes, I play video games at work), methods of reducing blood stream infections in dialysis patients and representing communication patterns through #socialnetwork mapping (okay, not that kind of social network, but you get my point).

 

The project that will be taking up the majority of my time is a classic information alignment problem. We will be working to help software vendors design electronic health record systems that facilitate providers’ ability to achieve “meaningful use” systems. The Office of the National Coordinator is strongly pushing the principles of user centered- and safety enhanced-design. To facilitate this, members of academia have developed a number of tools for the vendors to promote usability. As one could imagine, healthcare professionals, academic researchers and commercial software designers do not exactly speak the same language. Our goal is to help get to a place where these vastly different groups can understand one another and work towards the common goal of designing systems to deliver safer, more effective patient care. Thus far it is turning out to be a fascinating challenge, and my work with GROUPER has left me well prepared.

 

 

Updating Documentation

Now that there are a few new members of the lab, it’s time to pay attention once more to making explicit some of our expectations and shared experiences.  It’s interesting to watch, and to test, how stories or catch phrases easily become part of a local culture… only to be met by blank stares when a new person experiences it.

“What’s the best dissertation?”  “The one *you* can do in a reasonable amount of time.”

“Is that a title of a song on the album?”

” Delta Pain” (which is a title of a song on the album)

All of these represent elements of tacit knowledge, in that they are shared and understood by people who were in the lab when the event occurred, or maybe in an individual meeting with me, and have learned to experience and internalize the informal lessons of the lab in a particular way.  That’s great for an individual mentoring interaction, but not really good for organizing the productivity of getting a population of students to finish high quality thesis and dissertation documents.  Thus, we have to do some of these things with more explicit intent, and a more focused and determined documentation of elements of the lab’s culture.

Since the beginning of the Spring 2013 semester, we’ve been working on this in the creation and updating of four distinct documents:  A Master’s Thesis outline; a Dissertation prelim outline (oh, even that’s tacit, or at least implicit: the proposal document written in order to describe one’s dissertation so that one can be advanced to candidacy); a Doctoral Dissertation outline… and most recently, a semester-by-semester timeline for progress towards degree completion.  These seem to be very helpful for students, and help to summarize and integrate and transmit my experience in a fairly efficient way.  And why not?  I’ve supervised over 30 MS theses and 12 PhD dissertations, and sat on committees for another 25 or more graduate documents.  Most students, on the other hand, only do this once.  (I did have one of my students complete a second MS with me after finishing a first one elsewhere; no GROUPERs have ever tried to do multiple PhD dissertations.)  Rather than make everything trial and error, or suggest that there is no pattern that leads to increased probability of success, some people (among those are many engineers) would like to have a sense of the path, the rule, the “game plan” of how this graduate experience is supposed to play out.

Does this mean that there is a fixed and rigid procedure that everyone must follow?  Of course not, for several reasons.  One is that GROUPERs are different people, with different skills.  They don’t want to work in the same stream, or using the same data collection or analysis tools, or ask the same sorts of questions.  Fortunately, I’ve worked in a bunch of areas, so my tolerance for procedure variability is fairly high–I can advise a variety of dissertations, because I have done a variety of projects in different areas and methodologies.  (Some people may think of this concept as akin to Ashby’s discussion of “Requisite Variety”; no strict quantification here is implied.)  So, the level of consistency is not at the detailed level of “you must design a three-level, two-dimensional Analysis of Variance studying the influence of…” Everyone is expected to be able to answer, “Why would anyone want to read this thesis / dissertation?”  or “Why do we care about the question, or the work you did to answer it?”

It may also be relevant that one of the recent dissertations now making its way to conclusion is specifically addressing the question of procedure reliability and complexity.  A very often-repeated task, with few new or challenging elements, can have a standard procedure that is rarely, if ever, inappropriate for completing the task as designed.  If you’re developing a brand new task that has never been tried before, it’s highly unlikely that you can write a perfect procedure on exactly how to do it.  Most procedures are somewhere in between, even if we assume the procedure is always right.  At what level should we expect a new procedure to capture all of the experience that we gain in the development of a new system?

As time goes on, all of these documents will need to be updated–not necessarily because we were wrong, but because our knowledge evolves.  (OK, I was explicitly wrong on this item. I forgot to include a version of the well-known advice: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them.  Then tell them.  Then tell them what you told them.”  In other words, the last section of the introduction chapter should include an outline of the organization of the remainder of the thesis / dissertation.)  Even the working of the updating process is a helpful way of sharing the experiences and telling the stories of the lab.  And when we’re done, current and future generations of GROUPERs can know that I won’t get upset if they haven’t taken 15 credits or completed their plan of study or research proposal by the end of their first semester in the program.  Really.

 

I know, you’re wanting the links to these documents.  They’re still under construction.  Check back when they’re done and posted.

Broad, Deep and Wide

Early Friday afternoon, I was riding back to the airport on the Metro Yellow Line in Washington, DC.  Somewhere between L’Enfant Plaza and Crystal City stops, an older man looks at me and asks, “Are you a Boilermaker?”

“Yes, I’m on the faculty there.”

Much to my surprise, he reaches out to shake my hand.  “I graduated from there… a long time ago.”  He smiled as he got up, and then got off at his stop.  I proceeded to look around at my bags, and noticed how he figured it out: my business card luggage tag was visible, with the Purdue University logo clearly showing.  I was glad to know that seeing such a reference to his alma mater was a source of pleasure for this gentleman, and I do take those moments to reflect on the nature of the experience.   As it turns out, it was the third interaction in less than 24 hours where someone sought me out for interaction due to the Purdue reference.

In the hotel lobby Thursday evening, I was introduced to the MS advisor of the IE Undergraduate Coordinator, Patrick Brunese.  There was no mention of football, though Pat went to the University of Alabama.  (You may recall that their football team won a particular football game earlier this week.)  Instead, we talked about Pat’s interest in undergraduate IE education, and my attendance at the Industrial and Systems Engineering Research Conference.  (I do intend to attend at least part of the conference, but I do have the challenge of also wanting to attend my daughter’s university graduation.)  This morning, I had a discussion with a young faculty member who had heard of the interdisciplinary opportunities and sustained reputation of Purdue Engineering.  When I mentioned the current effort of the College to increase the faculty size by 30% in the next five years, and the fact that she could find interested colleagues in Biomedical, Electrical, and Industrial Engineering (along with opportunities in the College of Science), she was hooked, and even grateful to me for taking the time to speak with her about it.  I replied that I remember what it felt like to be “young, hungry, and grateful,” and wanted to provide whatever advice and mentorship I could.

I admit that when I was at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico earlier this week, there was some sports talk.  But I was there for a formal talk and project work, including discussions regarding monitoring and procedure checking / validation tasks, and processes of distributed knowledge coordination and knowledge sharing.

These are examples of a more focused connection, and part of the level of Purdue recognition that focuses on our engineering reputation.  There are over 400,000 Purdue alumni, 80,000 Engineering alumni, and over 8,000 IE alumni… pretty large numbers overall.  But it’s not just number, or breadth of reach: we seem to be overrepresented in various circles (such as NASA or NSF, Sandia National Labs, or the “C-suites” of various companies) where I might interact. So, I continue a practice I learned long ago, and maintain the habits and rituals associated with Purdue representation (business cards, Block P pins, “Hail Purdue” mentions during formal presentations).  We’re widely visible, and widely influential, as a university and engineering program.  Why is this important for the GROUPER blog?

When we are doing our work, people notice, and take some notice of (and if they’re Purdue folks, maybe some pride in) it.  They expect a Purdue person to be very good. As I say to the undergrads, the reputation that people know about and want to benefit from is borne on the shoulders of the history of past work and recognition.  In my formal Sandia presentation, I talked about some of the prior GROUPER work in information alignment, root cause analysis, and event response.  There were some very busy periods of note-taking, and challenging questions that not just addressed straightforward aspects of human error and performance shaping factors, but also more fundamental queries about the nature of complex system development, analysis, and evaluation.  And of course, on every slide, there was the Purdue College of Engineering logo, the “Rethink IE” logo, and the GROUPER “data fish” logo.

rethinkIE_black

groupereng

Over the coming semester, we plan to increase our rate of posting—not just my various commentaries (once per month still seems the right rate for me), but to have other opportunities to highlight what is happening in the lab from a variety of sources.  The goal is not actually just to broaden our discussion, but to address issues in a more focused way, from a variety of perspectives.  Let’s see how that works.

Inputs and Outputs

It’s not a great time to be a student–end of semester exams, project papers, and completing all of that work that seemed infinitely manageable back in October.  It’s not a great time to be a faculty member–thesis drafts to read, letters of recommendation and proofreading students’ research statements fall on top of grant proposal deadlines and all that grading.  So, it seems reasonable to be both a bit gentle, and a tad more explicit in clarifying the difference between “nice to have” and “required”.  Some extra data, or a couple more days to work on that draft of the term paper is nice to have.  What’s a challenge at the end of November is recognizing what is required, and how to get to all that is necessary in the too-little time available.

 

Most academics want to get grants to do their research.  That’s not an easy process, and the competition grows in complexity and sources of frustration.  Whether it be a development contract from a company, or a research grant from a governmental funding agency, the folks reading the proposal want to know “Who Cares” and “Why Should I Spend the Time to Read This?”  They don’t know about what you meant to say, and they probably aren’t in your field.  It’s your responsibility to communicate what’s so cool and new and shiny to you, to other people who may not even care until you show them why it’s valuable and critical and efficient to help them in what they do every day.  A challenge at the best of times; a burden worthy of Atlas if you’re trying to write five proposals in two weeks to different types of organizations.  Faculty usually talk about funding as an input measure (“Congratulations! You got the grant!  Now what are you going to publish, which students will graduate, and what new things will come out of that lab that other people also want to use?”) .  It’s also an output measure, of course: “I wrote nine proposals, and two of them got funded!  I’m a star!”  (Actually, that is kind of true.  Funding rates for proposals from the most competitive agencies are often described as being in the 6-12% range.  Hitting on 22% of your proposals would be good.  Like Ted Williams in baseball, hitting on 40% of your tries would make you a Hall-of-Famer.)  Either way, there is a big lag between the pain of creation and the success of the award.  (Maybe just long enough to forget how much it hurts.)

 

But faculty have another set of inputs and outputs: their students.   There was a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the evolution from being your professor’s advisee to being his or her peer.  I was able to send this to the current GROUPERs, and even to my five most recent PhDs.   I’ve even gotten a reply already–the start of a thread.  This helps me feel good about the students as outputs–but I can still gloss over the importance of inputs.  Not just the students as inputs (you need good material), but what we can do to get the student where they want to go.

 

Unfortunately, Natalie is leaving us in a few weeks: she’s graduating with her BS.  Although an undergrad, she’s been one of the more experienced members of the lab for the past two years, helping to keep us aligned and sequenced (she’s been the project management software goddess).  Student as input, student as person needing inputs, student as providing inputs… (that’s also modeling project we’re working on as well, within the SMELT stream).  The greatest reward though, was the news we’ve gotten over the past week or so.  At the HFES Annual Meeting back in October, I met a researcher from an organization doing research on human factors in healthcare.  Have I got a student for you, I said.  She’s already developed her own research study.  She is fantastic as part of my lab.  She wants to work in this area.  And now, Natalie gets to announce that she got a job!  And then she said that being part of GROUPER was a large part of how that happened… as well as my work that went into it.

GROUPER is an input into the students’ lives and professional evolution?  What I’m doing is a transformation that gives someone a better outcome, a stronger trajectory, a more favorable future?  OK, maybe that is worth it, and a great reward that turns into inputs for the next cycle.  That, and a few extra hours’ sleep.  And maybe some visits by the proposal writing muse.