Lab (Cleaning) Party

I find the weeks around the September Equinox fascinating and especially important for me.  At this time of year, change is evident, and rapid, and significant.  The weather shifts from sultry, to sunny, to stormy, and maybe back again a few more times.  The academic semester is now in full intensity: the students are busy with multiple assignments submitted, which of course affects my workload as I try to grade them.  And of course, my birthday is a personal milestone event, with greetings and connections to family and friends.

This year was an especially important and life-defining birthday… no, wait.  The calendar marks a date.  But, my sense of where I am—in my career, in the life of the lab, about my own experience—is defined more by how I feel in the morning during tai chi and while eating breakfast than by a focus on how many revolutions around the Sun the Earth has managed since I first appeared.  So, last week’s big lab event to mark my birthday?  A party.  A lab party.  Well, actually, it was a lab cleaning party.  Boxes of unnecessary and outdated materials were sorted and removed.  Non-functional computers were disconnected.  Tables were rearranged into a new and more functional configuration.  This was a very helpful meeting.

Hold on.  Are you telling me that GROUPER is just about room arrangements?  Of course not.  There are five research projects going on right now.  There’s two PERCH projects (pharmacist-based information flow for congestive heart failure patient prescription filling; patient information flow and expertise using electronic medical records); a SMELT project (alignment of learning outcomes for first- and second-year engineering courses); and a new DOPHIN / CORAL project looking at information presentation to control room operators.   The fifth project used to be looking at information concentrations and dynamics of information- and task-based elements of emergency responder situation awareness and event response.  This could be a great idea for simulation-based human factors engineering.  Except for a few tiny details.  It’s a non-equilibrium decision making and performance task.  With multiple scales of information dynamics.  And the requirements for several years of data that aren’t available.  Although there are examples of dissertations that had unexpected complexity or challenge, I believe it is one of the advisor’s responsibilities not to allow (or worse yet, intentionally create) a situation where the student finds themselves caught in a bad project.  As the Zheng Lab students say, “I want to graduate in less than 5 years… I want a job and I want to be free.”  So, let’s make an environment that helps that happen.  (And let’s shift an impossible dissertation to just a challenging and interesting and valuable one.)

Somewhere along the way, I came to believe that a university should be about people working together to explore what has not yet been seen, and translate it across disciplines and times for others to understand.  An advanced degree is not just about working on a more obscure detail for some research area that no one else cared to study.  It’s not about following exactly the same program areas as everyone else, because that’s the “hot funding area” or because “everyone in the field is working that problem”.  What do we really mean when we say that we want a PhD?  The humor, but too often the true experience, suggests that it’s just about “Piled Higher and Deeper”.  (You’ll have to wait for us to talk more about how GROUPERs learn from robots on Mars.)  But Ph.D.  means Doctor of Philosophy.  One who teaches how to think, and think different.

But, back to the birthday, and the lab party.  This group is coming together.  The lab looks and feels better, more ready for the year’s work.  There is lots to do, and I am thrilled to recognize that I feel more engaged and enthused to do it.  The trajectory of one’s life and career is often described in a particular way, and the most recent birthday is often associated with dirges and black crepe and funereal humor about negative second derivatives regarding hills.  (Okay, they don’t really say it that way.)  However, the fun of the lab party is that it was one of new preparation.  New opportunity.  We’re just getting started.  Chronological age aside, the past two weeks have been about a joyous recognition.  Since I’ve now spent a dozen years in Indiana (another recent milestone), it’s easy for me to hear John Mellencamp songs on the radio and in my days.  But one is certainly appropriate here: Your Life is Now

It is your time here to do what you will do…

In this undiscovered moment,

Lift your head up above the crowd.

We could shake these worlds,

If you would only show us how…

Your life is now.

Thanks for the cake, folks.  The frosting was delicious.