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The Last Weekend, Part 1: Talking in Jazz

“It’s a beautiful day outside.  I wish they could all be like today.”

“It is wonderful.  I’m glad we have any day like today.”

 

The past two weeks have included some of the most beautiful weather one could hope for in Washington.  Of course, we’ve also had the thunderstorms, and flood warnings, and 95F weather, but today was wonderful.  As a result, it was easy to take a few extra minutes to walk around the various neighborhoods and take in moments of beauty and peace on what is, amazingly, my last full weekend of The Adventure here in DC.  (Next weekend, I will be on campus for Commencement and Liang’s PhD hooding; after that, it will be moves with Amber and myself, taking up much of my attention.)  A sunny day, with a bit of breeze and clear blue skies to allow my mind to explore and expand across my internal and external landscape.  Walking around down on the National Mall can even have those moments of peace among all of the people, if one listens.  Hear that? A musician busking across from the Museum of Natural History, or in front of the Museum of American History.  What’s that singer singing, at Lafayette Square next to the White House?

 

One thing that has helped me gain a sense of balance while I have been here has been the effort to take the time to notice and appreciate elements of nature and ephemeral beauty when they occur.  I noticed this earlier this month, when (on an early Monday morning return from Indiana) I was listening to a delightfully resonant piece of music while walking among one of our busy commuting streets.  Taking pleasure in the music (perhaps I was dancing just a little bit?) was something that could emanate easily in that sense of pleasure and enjoyment; people I passed brightened up a bit and smiled.  Why was the music so important?  Recently, I have come to the realization that I don’t just want to hear the music, I want to allow and enable others to hear that resonant tune that brings joy to the face or even a tear to the eye.  So, it’s been on my mind a lot recently.

 

Imagine, then, a cool and sunny day earlier this week (yes, in July, in Washington); I crossed the street and, just as I walked past an old streetlight on my way into the office, a breeze caught and rustled my clothes and touched my face.  This was truly a gift of sensory awareness.  I looked up, and there between the old streetlight and a new tree, silhouetted by the sun, was a delightful dragonfly moving between branch and blossom.

 

“Dragonfly out in the sun, you know what I mean, don’t you know…

“And this old world is a new world and a bold world for me… And I’m feelin’ good.”

 

An actual dragonfly gave me the reminder of the shared experience of the classic Nina Simone tune, Feelin’ Good.  How can I be upset about that?  That was the start of a very productive day.

 

Hearing the jazz in a moment’s pause on the way into work… and wanting to share that with others.  Recently, I was told by one or two GROUPERs, and my best friend, that I “talk in jazz”.  How can that be?  What can that mean?  Well, imagine that people studying a discipline are learning to recognize notes and specific tunes.  Well, one can play a melody using nothing but tuning forks, and someone could recognize a snippet of a Brandenburg Concerto, or a rock anthem, or a jazz standard.  But most of us would not go to a concert to hear that.  We want to hear the instrumentation, and the virtuosic performance, and maybe a unique interpretation.  Especially in jazz, that unique interpretation does not just stay on the melody, but is a combination of skill with the basic melody and rhythm, and the ability to experiment with it within boundaries, while remaining honest to the structure and returning to the theme in time. (Perhaps my upbringing has something to do with this.  I remember, as a young kid, reading the liner notes to a jazz album; I think it was Miles Davis’ “’Round About Midnight”.  One of the solo riffs during the title song has a distinctive reference to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” as a type of musical joke—a baseball game at midnight?  It’s where the musician went, and took us with him.  I learned to hear the song differently because of those liner notes.)

 

Scan and connect; read widely and question deeply.  Those are mottos of the lab, and critical elements of my personal philosophy.  Don’t just hear the melody… listen for the nuggets in between.  (Fortunately, as my son has gotten more accomplished in music, he has forgiven me for my strange form of dancing.  Maybe Dad isn’t completely lacking in rhythm.  Maybe he’s trying to dance to all of the notes.)  Megan and I were sitting in a restaurant while she told me about this idea of talking in jazz, or in other words, talking around the answer.  No, I am not meaning to tease my students, or in a more predatory sense, “play with my food”.   I can hear much more, and want to share it, in the complexity and richness that some of the world appears.  “Experience is a convolution function that elicits latent segments of the matrix of personality set” was something else I said to Megan.  That’s not play.  That might be an alternative time signature, or some unique syncopation… it’s also a reference to one of the pieces of the Cassandra’s Postcards entry.

 

Maybe I need to be reminded to play the melody a bit more often.  W. Ross Ashby wrote a cybernetics text on “requisite variety,” which suggests the complexity of genetic variability is what gives us adaptive range in a variety of environmental conditions.  That adaptive range is not always tested, if the environment doesn’t change.  The genetic variability doesn’t go away, though.  It is only when tested with changing environmental conditions that the relative value of variability is highlighted… in individuals or in populations.  But just getting people to read and recite Ashby’s Law of Cybernetics is like playing the melody of Feelin’ Good on a set of tuning forks.  We don’t learn important questions there: How is it used?  What does it evoke?  What do we learn by that experience?

 

I have already started to recognize elements of my experience here that I will miss once I return to Indiana.  But there is a richness of available experience everywhere, and it is wonderful whenever I can experience it in beauty and pleasure.  A summer day with bright sun and blue skies is a great opportunity.  And guess what?  I even got a moment to replay a bit of the melody:  another dragonfly.

 

Dragonfly_Sun

Figure 1.  Dragonfly: You know what I mean.

 

Inertial Damping

I have been thinking a lot about damping lately.  To be specific, inertial damping.  You know, that aspect of your hybrid electric car’s regenerative braking system that recharges your batteries while you stop?  Or the gyroscopic properties of a bicycle wheel that keeps you moving forward instead of falling over when you turn?  Yeah, that stuff.  People think about that all the time, don’t they?  No?

This is what happens when a geek starts talking about their internal thought processes, and especially since I recently talked about postcards from the future, maybe I do need to explain my terms.  Apparently, one of the first things I need to do is to explain that I am not talking about “inertial dampening,” which, as far as I can tell, is a science fiction plot device highly likely to get yourself into a fight with physicists for dissing their man Newton.    That’s not my focus today.  I’m trying to take a real physics and engineering term, and see how application of that term in a complex human setting helps me design, analyze, or improve sociotechnical systems in a more effective way… because that’s something that engineers do.

Actually, I started thinking about damping a lot based on a question that someone asked me at the end of the Jefferson Science Fellowship (JSF) lecture I gave on January 24.  (For reference, the point of this lecture is to summarize the general area of work that each Fellow does, both for the policy audience of the State Department and Agency for International Development, and for the scientific audience of the National Academies.)  I spoke about information flow and distributed expertise (because that’s something I do), including the challenges of appropriate coordination during event response for either physical (civil unrest, natural disaster) or cyber-physical (network or security operations) events.  I got quite a few questions, as well as invitations for additional discussions with various groups across the State Dept.  This was a very good feeling, in that it gave me the sense that some people could finally hear some of what I have been trying to study and communicate for years.

However, that does come with a price: when one of those people asks a question, can I give an answer that they understand and know what to do with it?  In essence, that was the challenge when someone asked me a damping question.  (They didn’t really ask it as a damping question, but since I am likely to see lots of things as connected feedback control systems, it’s not surprising that I heard it as one.)

If you have a large bureaucratic organization which lives on sending lots of messages to lots of people for their opinion and approval (aka “clearance”), don’t you run the risk of taking too long to respond to emerging, critical timeline events?

That’s a very reasonable question.  And it takes me immediately to thoughts about damping.  Imagine your new event as some sort of input function.  However, the event isn’t always purely evident immediately, and it doesn’t just go from off to on instantaneously.  There might be multiple events that may or may not be related to each other.  You want your response (output function) to match the demands of the input function.  The engineering version of this problem is one of “critical damping”.  If your damping ratio is too high (over 1), your response to the new event is very slow.  Although you may never over-respond to the event, it takes you a long time to actually respond to the event, and in fact, you may fail to do what needs to be done within the deadlines (people need fresh water and shelter and warmth within a matter of hours to days, or they die).  We tend to assume that faster is always better.  However, there is a limit / problem with that, which we now understand from the world of social media.  Someone can respond *too quickly* with *too little* information, and be unable to tell the difference between the actual event that needs to be responded, and some distractor or misinformation.  (Remember, I’m not trying to be political here, but since the lecture was just a few days after the Inauguration, I may have made a reference to a social media event or two.)  This would be an example of having a damping ratio that is too low (close to 0), which is a different problem.  (You might ask what is the inertial property here.  Well, I have talked in the past about knowledge as “little inertial balls of expertise,” in the sense that expertise allows you to devote energy to efficient processing of the world and move to where you need to go in the future.)  People going off on their first impression without checking sources or others’ understanding would be an “underdamped” response (damping ratio too low), which can be just as bad (but in a different way ) than a bureaucratic, “overdamped” response (damping ratio too high) that takes too long and doesn’t want to risk or challenge anything for fear of being wrong.

In essence, an effective inertial damper takes energy that comes at you, with bounces and noise and possible confusion that you don’t want to respond too much to, and turn it into energy that works for you in a time frame that makes for the tasks you need to do.  That sounds great, and it’s a very interesting problem to work on.  Perhaps the additional challenge is, How do I apply this to my own life?  As much as I enjoy a string of fist-pumping, high-fiving successes in a non-athletic context,   there is the challenge of appropriately damped responses when shifting from State Dept. to Purdue stuff.  Reminder to Barrett: it’s not good to try to do two full-time jobs simultaneously for long periods, and I am feeling now the stress of trying to complete a large number of Purdue (or Indiana Space Grant) activities after spending all day working on Japan Desk activities.  In fact, that stress might be better described as hysteresis, rather than damping.  (Discuss.)  More accurately, damping is the ability to take the frustration of emails and news feed updates and channel that energy into productive work, such as a book chapter, or journal manuscript, or even a blog entry.   Like this one.

Weekend Balance #2: Cassandra’s Postcards

Curiously, the concert that I left work to attend last night was something I discovered almost exactly one week earlier (even to the same clock time).  The group I went to see was Black Violin, two classically trained violinists who are a) black, from Ft. Lauderdale; b) insistent on thinking outside of the box; and c) have a strong alternative vision of how the world can be different than it is, beyond existing stereotypes or interpretations.   (Yes, the highlighted words and links are in fact the names of their albums.  Go listen.)  Last Friday, I was on the train to spend the New Year’s holiday in my hometown of Philadelphia with friends.  I had put on the music just for some simple enjoyment, and found myself transformed and emotionally intense and resonant.  (Yes, it’s also when I found out about their concern in Washington, DC last night.)

img_4758

Black Violin, with the National Symphony Orchestra, Feb 6, 2017

One of my favorite descriptions of my approach to the world was provided by a GROUPER a couple of years ago, during a 1:1 meeting at a conference.  (I can still see the design of the French patisserie / café in my memory.)  The description was that I live part of my existence in the future, but the nice part is that I “send postcards”.  This is a delightful image, but it hides a painful and problematic truth: not everyone can receive “postcards from the future,” or even know that they exist.  I used to think this was a simple problem of better explanation, but I have had to come to the recognition that there is more at play.  An alternative metaphor comes from my son, who once made a surprised and surprising revelation once when watching me dance to a piece of music to which I resonated very strongly.  He admitted that he had thought that I simply didn’t have a very good sense of rhythm.  Then, as he got older and started thinking more seriously about music composition and production as a career, he listened to more music, more often, at a deeper level.  His statement at a friend’s house was with a type of confused awe: “You’re trying to dance to all of the notes, not just the normal beat.”

 

One of my favorite and most inspirational books of my life is called Cyteen, for a number of reasons (including some too complex to go into here).  I am particularly taken by one of the descriptions of a major protagonist’s sense of their life’s work… that, if they are devoted and dedicated to their passion and their gifts and their uniqueness, because of and not simply despite their unique or alternative make-up, they may have the opportunity to someday speak their “Word,” their major contribution to history’s arc.  While Speaking Words to History sounds pretty cool (at least for my sense of doing what I was built to do), it comes at a major, even profound cost.  I am drawn most to the myth of Cassandra, who was cursed for defying the god Apollo (isn’t that usually how things like that turn out?) by being able to see and foretell the future, but being unable to alter it, and being doomed to have others not believe her when she told them.  (I have to hand it to Apollo, though: that’s a pretty exquisite form of sadistic torture.  But really, just because she turned you down for a date?  I mean, you’re a god and all…)

800px-cassandra1

Poor Cassandra.  (From Wikipedia page, public domain image: Cassandra (metaphor)

It’s really hard to explain to GROUPERs the process of finding and sending postcards from the future, and more importantly, I don’t think it’s a proper thing for me to insist that they do so. For nearly all of the students I’ve met, it’s not the right lesson to be teaching, and there are certainly a wide range of valid and important jobs that one can take on without invoking divine curses.  Having someone who can simply receive the postcard, and translate part of it, is worth a lot.   For example, our current experiences of politics, local and national security, and even the nature of honest communication is based on elements of situational context, information cues, and media characteristics of different information and communication technology channels.  We’re asking about tolerance and acceptance of new communications media in various organizations. That sounds like a really great research project, especially when combining new forms of social messaging as various types of an advanced, or evolved, model of email (written electronic communication), or other group interactions (with or without audio and video capabilities).  It might still be considered a bit ahead of the curve, or timely, because we’re in the midst of it now.  But consider a study of organizational acceptance of alternative media channels conducted in 1992, fully 25 years ago.  That’s before there were any iPhones, or web browsers, or T1 lines (or many of my students).  No graphical email or tweets with emojis.  Do the questions even make sense?  For most people, not really.  (At least that’s the memory of reviewer comments for the Taha and Caldwell, 1992 submission to the Human Factors Society conference.)

Back to the train last Friday.  Imagine me trying to dance to all of the notes as the train pulls into (and then out of) Philadelphia as I continue my journey.  The lights of Philadelphia’s Boathouse row are still holiday festive.  I am crying my resonance to the music playing in my ears.  I finally feel like a type of homecoming has occurred, one that I had sought in vain for nearly 40 years.  In the midst of this, an insight.  Normally, I wouldn’t tell anyone, or I’d write it up piecewise in journal papers.  Not this time.  I’m going to show you the postcard here.

 

View #1:  The Spectrogram

A few years ago, Jeremi London (not the actor) and I worked on a model of STEM education based on the concept that what we in fact try to teach engineers in order to be functional, productive engineers is not a single thing, but a large matrix of skills, habits, attributes, and techniques.  Different courses supposedly load on different matrix elements, and different students have different strengths and weaknesses in those elements.  I visualize this as a type of dynamic matrix of peaks and valleys, as you might get in a audio spectrogram.   What we might think of as intelligence or skill or functionality is actually an aggregation of those peaks and valleys across that range of matrix elements: a person’s functionality is, generally, how well their peaks map onto the things they need to do on a daily basis.  Zero functioning is actually hard to imagine, and if most of the population was in fact functioning at zero, we might not even see it as a relevant matrix attribute element to consider.  (If someone had a peak there, would we even think about it as a peak?  Consider the question of tetrachromats.)  For the sake of analysis and comparison, it’s important to both retain the spectrogram as a matrix, and also consider a simplified representation of it.  You could call it IQ or something.  Let’s just describe it as the determinant of the functionality matrix.

 

View #2: The Bowl

Some of you know that I have a deep, longstanding, and personal interest in questions of neurodiversity: creating models of acceptance, encouragement, and tolerance for people with different sets of skills and forms of excellence.  (This isn’t just a “feel good” about diversity and tolerance as a moral issue.  This is about benefitting from excellence where it is found, including functionality peaks due to alternative wiring that represent “signs of life” not common in the general population.  Well, if you’re training PhD students, that’s not a bad thing to look for: higher, and more distinct, functionality peaks than exist in the general population.  After all, not that many folks get PhDs.)

So, the more your spectrogram pattern of peaks and valleys differs from the standard version (not just higher peaks, but peaks in different places), the less “standard” you are.  (Standard, in this case, represents not just the population norm of the matrix determinants, but the modal matrix pattern.)  In an extreme case, someone with a whole lot of peaks in places where standard people are close to zero, and very low functioning where standard people have peaks, would find it exceptionally hard or impossible to communicate with standard folks at all.  (The concept of “communication” here might work as a multi-dimensional convolution integral, or a multiplication of functions against each other.  You don’t worry about that just now, unless you really want to.)  The more non-standard a person is, the further their pattern is from the standard pattern, and the more overall capability and functionality it might take to compensate for the mismatch, and be seen as equivalently functional as the modal, standard person.  If we considered a function where the matrix determinant was the height, and the difference in pattern was a radius (different types of different patterns would be angles, so we’re in polar coordinates), the “bowl” would be a surface of “equivalent perceived functionality,” with an edge being at a place where someone, no matter how many peaks they had or how profoundly high those peaks are, could not interact with standard folks well enough to be seen as functional.   (So, you can’t see in our standard visual spectrum?  Well, we think you’re blind, even if you have a great visual experience of radio waves.  Too bad if you can hear and sing the vibrations of the planet.  We work in 200 – 4000 Hz, thank you, and if you can’t hear or produce in that range, we won’t hear what each other is saying.  Literally.)

 

View #3: The Disk

Another of the elements we have been playing with in the lab gets the shorthand description of “The Six Dimensions of expertise,” with a corollary of “the disk”.  As we described the matrix above, there are lots of different ways we could organize the elements of the matrix of ways people are good at different things.  They may be socially skilled and charismatic; they may be great with tools and interfaces; they may enjoy structured rules and processes; they may enjoy mathematical analysis and quantitative exploration.  There are other ways to slice skills up into different collections, but there’s been a lot of work recently into “four-quadrant” cognitive styles inventories that are used in organizational assessment.  For the purposes of this discussion, all this tells us is where in the spectrogram the matrix elements of your peaks and valleys are likely to be found.  Useful, if we want to do systematic comparisons of different patterns of functioning (and convolutions of functionality for communication or information alignment).  Which is the “right” four-quadrant model?  That’s not a proper question; it’s kind of like asking what is the “right” set of compass directions.  We agree on one for the purposes of discussion, even though there isn’t even alignment between magnetic and geographic compass directions, and it’s even possible that we could have a situation where magnetic south points towards geographic north.

 

View #4 = Function (#1:#3)

What I’ve described for each of the views above is far from a standard description of how we consider psychological concepts of intelligence, personality, functionality, or cognitive diversity.  Lots of researchers toil very intensely in intelligence assessment or engineering aptitude evaluations, or the genetic contributions to Asperger’s syndrome, or refinements of MMPI or Myers-Briggs inventories (to use examples of standard questions in each of the three views).  Mathematically, however, what I have laid out can be combined (although it’s extremely hard to draw the picture in three dimensions).  Imagine the spectrogram matrix (#1) of a “standard average person” (both in terms of normative / neurotypical wiring rather than autistic spectrum, and in terms of average intelligence), where the matrix is organized according to a four-quadrant disc model where different capabilities are ordered within quadrants with respect to their relative frequency and strength in the population.  Take the determinant of that matrix (note that this result should be independent of how you order the matrix elements).  We’ll now define that “value” of the bottom of the bowl as “standard normative functioning in the modal pattern”.

 

Whose Project is This?

Is this what the lab is currently working on?  My goodness, no.  I would NEVER assign this, in totality, as a project for a student thesis.  It requires significant revisions of three or four major disciplines, as well as some advanced mathematics for the methodologies, and new forms of data collection on thousands or millions of persons on a set of variables we don’t even define well, let alone currently measure or collect.  But, for the first time, I have been willing to describe a panoramic postcard of this type in a public venue.  Why?  For years, I was worried that lots of other people would understand, and jump on the problems, and start working on them, and that my best contributions would be left behind, meaningless and trivial.  Then I started to think that this would be considered foolish and ridiculous, unless and until I took on myself the responsibility of being able to explain it better so that “most people” could get it.  But, Words Spoken to History are not widely understood, even for years or decades, and the measure of the mark on the tree of knowledge is not how many people applaud when the mark is made.  Galileo learned this lesson, as did Leonardo DaVinci, and Marie Curie, and Rachel Carson (and Ariane Emory).  Am I comparing myself to them?  No, not even close.  I’m just trying to Speak my Words.

 

 

 

Thank you, C. J. Cherryh, for the concept of sets, and A-E, for the introduction.

Timing is Everything

Although it doesn’t always feel like it here in the lab, things are actually going very well.  The work calendar is quite full, and the project to-do lists continue to grow—not just in the number of items, but in the number of projects which require to-do items.  Three different Institutional Review Board (IRB) applications, with three different students.  Four research projects active, with two or three more coming on line.  The “March Madness” travel schedule I had last year is even worse: the lab has now officially declared it “Winter Madness” (from January 24 until March 14, there is only one week where I am not in an airport on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday of that weekend—and on March 21-24, I will be driving back from Chicago on Friday, and flying again on Monday).

 

Last Thursday, though, I was able to appreciate what some good timing could achieve.  A day earlier, I had escaped from the ice and snow storm that paralyzed the Southeast US: leaving out of western Virginia early Wednesday morning, on a rebooked flight through Detroit (all flights through Atlanta had been cancelled as of Monday evening).  I was only a few hours later arriving home than originally scheduled, even with delays and flight diversions (let’s hear it for multiple daily nonstops from Detroit to Indianapolis!).  Thursday was bright, clear, and even relatively “warm” (about 5F that morning, with a high temperature of approximately 30F) for a drive down to Bloomington, IN for a research meeting.  That research meeting was in support of one of our new grants, a project with the Purdue Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security (CERIAS) to look at sensemaking, distributed expertise, and information presentation in cyberinfrastructure network operations centers.  The meeting was unexpectedly effective in highlighting both people to talk to and additional directions for the research to pursue.  A positive attitude to go down on the one nice day where my schedule permitted the trip was better than putting the trip off for later (given “Winter Madness” and the frequency of airspace-paralyzing storms, I am not thrilled about trying to create new one-day visits anytime before April).  At the end of the day, I even received one more treat derived from an awareness of good timing.  As I left the office, the nearly full moon was visible to the east, while the International Space Station was a fast-moving evening star traveling from northwest to northeast.  (No, I don’t have the orbital tracks memorized, but there are NASA websites and software apps for that.)  Yeah, that was some good timing.

 

Timing is a fairly popular subject of GROUPER research, even if there’s only been a couple of blog entries highlighting time pressure (and only one on time perception).  But the topic is never far from our mind.  In our direct research investigations, we talk about the sense of time pressure as the ratio of time required to complete a task to the time available to complete it (TR / TA), with time pressure increasing as you run out of time to finish faster than you run out of task to complete.  We worry about the challenge of the age and “freshness” of data when making decisions about the current state of a dynamic world (and what you need to do based on that state).  We consider how experts trade other resources for time, including the decision to create an interim solution (“safe mode”) to stabilize a degrading system to allow for more time to consider a better, more stable recovery and repair.  But how does that play out in the lab’s daily activities, other than a posting an ongoing (and continuing growing) list of deadlines?

 

Fortunately, we have been working on a set of very promising solutions (processes, really).  As I go through my travel schedule, the students get a strong sense of the “windows of opportunity” (time periods of available work capacity) where I can respond to a task request or help them make progress towards an external deadline.  A few months ago, I described some of my thought process in working in a distributed way on these tasks; I think in terms of a set of scaled answers to the student’s question.  In essence, my thought process and general formulation goes like this:

 

Student:  Dr. C., I need you to do xyz by time TD.

 

(If (TD – Now) is under 12 hours, I tend to get really upset.  Don’t do that.)

 

BSC:  What do I need in order to do xyz?

 

Student:  You need A, B, and Q.

 

(If I don’t have A, B, or Q, and the student doesn’t provide it at the time of the request, I tend to get really upset, Don’t do that.)

 

Then I usually try to provide one of a set of answers, ranging from:

 

  1. NO.
  2. Not by TD; the best I can do is Talt.
  3. I can do xyz’ by TD.
  4. I can do that, but can’t start until TS.
  5. Yes, working
  6. DONE.

 

What I didn’t expect was how providing this type of information to the students could actually change the style of interactions in lab.  It’s not that I declared some specific required email format, or that I would refuse to read emails that did not conform to that format.  But, within a week or two, I started noticing emails with subject lines including the words:

 

ACTION REQUIRED / REQUESTED, or

INFORMATION ONLY.

 

The body of the emails would specify details like:

 

Estimated time to complete: xxx

Date / time needed:  dd mmm yy hh:mm

 

So, rather than simply complying with a command, the students now understand my motivations, and my constraints, and my strategies for organizing my time.  I also pointed out that I try to set aside windows of time in advance for everyone—not just in the weekly 1:1 meetings (which, I confess, is much harder to achieve during the Winter Madness travel), but when I expect tasks towards external deadlines.  Knowing in advance how much time to set aside helps me with schedules, and allows for slipping in new tasks on an emergency or opportunistic basis.  It’s all part of a goal of “Better Information Now” that we have worked with in our projects with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the United Space Alliance.  Sometimes, it works very well, and sometimes it still needs adjustment and improvement.  But at least, we’re making progress.

 

It’s about time.

 

 

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.

 

 

Expert Blind Spot, Distributed Expertise, and Knowledge Sharing

Oftentimes the term “expert blind spot” is used to describe instances in which an expert’s understanding of a content area overshadows their knowledge of how to teach it. This isn’t exactly how it is being used in this context, but its usage is not much of a stretch here. Jeremi asked Dr. Caldwell, “How do you advise such a dynamic lab of students who all have varied interests and are at different stages in their programs? How do you do it?” Although a few ideas were faintly mentioned, what became apparent was that Dr. Caldwell was unaware of elements of his style that made him an expert-advisor. Jeremi didn’t stop at that answer; she probed other GROUPERs and found that the expertise on his advising style was distributed among his advisees. Now that we have begun to characterize it, we thought we would do some knowledge sharing. Our hope is that this information is not only beneficial to Dr. Caldwell, but also to others interested in advising (or mentoring, in general), and to those wondering what it’s like to have Dr. Caldwell as an advisor.

 

 

Kelly:

As an undergraduate coming into a graduate’s domain, the GROUPER lab, I felt very intimidated and insecure. Would I meet their expectations? Would they tell me I was the worst undergrad on the planet? All these worries and more swarmed my head, but that’s where Dr. Caldwell calmed my nerves. He assured me that I would fit right in and they wouldn’t expect me to perform at a graduate level. I could move at a pace that I wanted and was not going to be pressured to meet this deadline or that. That is what I love about being an undergrad advised by Dr. Caldwell: he is realistic about my abilities. Other advisers could have looked at me my first week being in the lab and said “You have to write this paper by this date and you better know how to write a fantastic research paper”. But, Dr. Caldwell had realistic expectations and in our 1-on-1 meetings, he has always been concerned about me, rather than a paper deadline. He has let me know that I am not required to find a topic right away, and he knows that I am busy with my coursework. He has guided me to finding a topic and was genuinely interested in what I wanted to get out of this experience and what I was going to enjoy writing about. There shouldn’t be pressure being an undergrad in a graduate lab, and Dr. Caldwell has definitely kept it that way. In the group setting, being in this research lab is my first group experience of the sort. I had been on teams before for projects, but this is by far the most positive one. Although we do get off task sometimes, the lab is very goal-oriented, and when we do get off task, it usually has a life lesson or reason attached to it. Everyone in the lab looks out for one another; there is no competition for papers, topics, or Dr. Caldwell’s attention. He treats everyone with the same level of respect and attentiveness and has never made the lab feel competitive in any nature. It is a very supportive environment and Dr. Caldwell, inside and outside the lab, is an extremely supportive adviser, especially to undergraduates.

 

 

MAV:

As explained in previous GROUPER blog entries and from browsing the GROUPER website, there are many ways in which Dr. Caldwell distinguishes the GROUPER lab from others. These include lab meetings that are filled with humor and light-hearted sarcasm and outside activities such as the G4s. Although Dr. Caldwell does a great job of advising his lab a whole, he does a superb job of advising his students as individuals. Let’s look at an example: me. Entering into a doctoral program, I knew that I had a specific style of advising that would work for me; any deviation from this style would be disastrous. Dr. Caldwell always e-mails me in a timely manner, follows through on tasks, allows for task-oriented discussions (as I do better with a list of tasks and deadlines instead of being let loose in the “forest”), and meets with me regularly. However, even though I believed that there were a certain set of standards I needed for myself, Dr. Caldwell added another guideline I wasn’t aware I needed in order to be a successful student: it’s ok for me to take a break, to step away from research, especially when I’m causing myself to become overly-stressed (and usually it’s for no apparent reason other than just me being a perfectionist). It almost seems to be counter-intuitive: why would my advisor ever want me to stop working on my research, even for a day, let alone several days? Causing me to spiral downwards on my research (again, for no good reason) would not do me any good and, thus, cause me to become less productive and maybe even have a grudge against my research. Ultimately, Dr. Caldwell wants all of his students to be successful (hence, the large list of GROUPER alumni). Dr. Caldwell has been advising students for years and he probably knows what’s best for me, even if I don’t know it myself. Having Dr. Caldwell as an advisor lets me know that both my research interests and personal sanity are being monitored for their well-being.

 

 

Omar:

As a new student, I was not sure on what topic to start working on for my doctoral thesis.  This was making me so nervous, especially since every time I pick a topic, I have a tendency to keep changing my mind.  I am amazed at how Dr Caldwell reacts to my changes.  A typical adviser would not like his student to discuss with him a certain idea over and over then simply drop it for another idea that looks more appealing to the student.  However, my professor always stresses how important it is to pick a topic that fits my interests and what I want to do in the future.  He discusses with me my future plans to be able to help decide what to do with my Ph.D. studies. 

The way he reacted to my hesitation over the 1st few months relieved all pressure that I might have had.  It added a lot to my self confidence and kept me focused to do more reading and exploring more ideas in order to be able to pick the research that suits me the best.  It is great if a student knows exactly what he wants to work on from day one.  But, trying to quickly settle is not the right thing to do. And that’s what I appreciate about my experience with Dr Caldwell on how he managed to help through the journey of picking the best fit for me.

Another very successful approach Dr Caldwell sticks to, that in my opinion helps all students in the lab, is weekly lab meeting.  In that meeting, I get a chance as well as my lab mates, to talk about my ideas whether I am still in beginning, middle or finalizing the research.  Feedback from academic students of the same interest with presence of a leading faculty member in the domain is found to be very helpful. 

 

 

Jeremi:

Mentoring and success drive Dr. Caldwell’s advising style. Dr. Caldwell places a very high premium on mentoring: he gives his time to meet with us individually and collectively on a weekly basis (with the exception of when he’s traveling, of course). Any outsider peeking into his life as a professor would say that hosting one-on-one meetings with five (or more) students every week –in addition to holding office hours for your class– is pretty remarkable! It is through our 1-1 meetings that it becomes apparent how deeply interested Dr. Caldwell is in exploring our ideas and discovering what topics interest us. In fact, he is beyond interested: he gets excited about exploring new ideas with us! Unbeknownst to us, somehow in the midst what seems like a pure exploration of ideas, he gathers information about what we are passionate about and our career goals. With these two pieces of information, he helps us settle on topics with which we will be satisfied. With this approach, his students excel. As we succeed, he succeeds.

His conception of mentoring extends to peer mentoring. Weekly lab meetings are designed in a way that we share updates on our respective projects; and through this exchange, we learn from one another about the milestones ahead. At times, Dr. Caldwell asks probing questions (that he already knows the answer to) such that others may benefit. Additionally, this informal exchange inevitably facilitates the development of our “elevator pitch” such that when we are away from the lab, we can respond succinctly and intelligently to questions people ask about what research we are working on. This is a specific example of how he transforms, what seems like, casual interactions into teachable moments.

I will quickly add a few others things that characterize his style. One, he is extremely well-read and as a result, is able to make fascinating connections because ideas that may seem unrelated on the surface. In Dr. C’s words, he’s able to “scan and connect.” Continuing with this idea, he also does what we call “management by wandering” which means emailing articles he comes across that may be interesting or relevant for us. Secondly, in meetings that involve committee members, he plays an interesting role, balancing between being coach and gatekeeper (through the milestone). At times, he uses an adaptation of the Socratic approach to get the student to share information/ explanations that he thinks would be helpful for the rest of the committee or to re-phrase committee members’ questions in a way that clarifies the question other members are asking. Third, he includes us in the strategic elements of his research enterprise. For example, our input is solicited when brainstorming ideas about the immediate goals and long-term visions for GROUPER, as well as some of the characteristics prospective GROUPERs should posses. Lastly, he’s real! He has a family, a home he invites us to once per semester, enjoys playing video games from time to time, thinks about next steps in his career… you know… facets of life that make people “real”- Dr. Caldwell has them. And this is not to say that other advisors don’t, but he’s personable enough to share elements of personality with us. As a student aspiring to make my mark on the world someday, I sometimes wonder about the possibility of work consuming life. It’s nice to see a model that demonstrates that you can have life outside of work, and those two ideas do not have to be in opposition to one another. Of course, Dr. Caldwell’s model is not perfect, but at least it shows that it is possible.