With a flourish and frenzy of activity, the cycle has completed itself and begun once more. This week, of course, was particularly hectic. On Tuesday, we in GROUPER were pleased to celebrate Liang’s successful defense of her dissertation (now to finish the writing!), and after a 2-hour lab meeting, I went home and got some pleasure reading in. Wednesday was a travel day, with challenges of unstable weather leading to one canceled flight, and ground stops due to ramp closures at both the start and finish of the second leg of the trip. Hours late, but with the air cooled from the rain, I finally finished the trip and got home for a good night’s sleep.
“Hold it. You were at home, then you got stuck during thunderstorms, and finished the trip, and went home? Did you not get to your destination? Was your trip canceled?”
Even as I write this entry, there is a type of surrealism about this week. I’m sitting in one of the chairs I have had for over five years, with Amber on my lap, looking at her cat tree and food and a bunch of other items I clearly recognize. The window still faces east, but the image is different: instead of an empty parking lot across the street, I see a tall tree and an office building. In other words, the shift has now occurred. Amber and I have moved to Washington, DC to start my position as a Jefferson Science Fellow. My first day is next Monday, and I have begun enjoying the exploration of the neighborhoods of McPherson Square and Thomas Circle, and picking up coffee and pastry and fruit at the White House Street Market.
My world is changing significantly, and yet some things remain consistent. I am still an engineering faculty member, but I am thinking about a completely different set of issues this August compared to last August. Our lab meeting addressed a very interesting topic based on students’ recent experiences, and one that I will be considering very hard in the coming months. Academia, government, and industry are considered vastly different places, and representing wildly divergent career paths for those with PhDs. And yet, we’re taught (and have first hand experience) that a variety of people all craft their actions, decisions, and processing of information based on perceived risks, costs, and outcome benefits. There’s only one challenge. The benefits that drive most industry teams (profit—hey, I hear the new Aston Martins are really nice) don’t come into play at all for most academic or government folks, and the primary risk keeping academic folks up at night (someone already published my idea in that journal I love!) don’t seem to bother industry or government people much. A government employee may complain bitterly about the costs of having to work 5-10 hours of overtime one week; many academics and industry research folks take a 60-70 hour average work week as pretty much standard.
You may notice that the website (http://www.grouperlab.org) looks very different than a few months ago; that took us a while to work through. Elliott, our wonder-undergrad, did a pretty thorough redesign and architecture job, but what was more important was not just the scripting language or tab sequences. We went back to a very basic question: who comes to our lab’s website? Three different types of groups (yes, it’s that “use case” thing) want distinct types of information, at varying grain sizes. Even our own GROUPER alums represent different types of interaction profiles. We’ve got government employees seeing how our work can inform improvements for federal agencies. GROUPERs are also rising up the ranks in industry, and may be in a position to hire a new or recent grad (in this sense, GROUPER is definitely a distinct and valued brand). With the lab’s traditional gender mix (somewhere approaching 2/3 female), it’s not surprising that a number of alumnae list their primary function right now as “Mom”. I see no reason to hide that, or feel guilty or ashamed to highlight such life pathways. If everything is a system, and GROUPERs look at information everywhere, can’t those skills be applied to everything from medical information use for family members, to understanding the daily experiences of neurodiversity, to getting a front-row seat to the miracles of how humans develop broad processes of learning and skill development sets in ways that still challenge our most sophisticated machine learning algorithms.
Over the next few months, the GROUPER blog will be more active again, but it won’t be focusing as much just on our current lab research. We’re still researching, of course, but we have other stories to tell, and other forms of impact and effect to consider for how we get, share, and use the information we’ve been gathering and lessons we’ve been learning. Thanks for visiting us again after our quiet period. Hey, it gets busy learning how to be in multiple places at once.
October 23, 2017
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?