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Archive for the ‘Research and Development’ Category

Doers vs.Thinkers or Doer-Thinker or Thinker-Doer

In Education, Research and Development, Startup on July 14, 2013 at 7:09 PM

Have you ever found yourself thinking about the topic of this post? Quite likely. And it is all the more likely that you tried to classify yourself as a doer or a thinker. Being human beings, we love to take sides most of the time. We (or others) are either this or that; we work this way or that way etc. Doers take pride in doing things while thinkers take pride in their ability to think deeply and profoundly. Many doers challenge thinkers by saying that they “only think” and do very little on the ground while many thinkers hold the ability to think and come up with ideas in the highest regard. A classic case is the question about work experience versus research experience which I discussed here.

If we stop for a moment and decide not to analyze these two traits from a usability perspective and detach them from their economic outcomes, what do you think will win the doer vs. thinker debate? I guess it will still remain open because in their absolute existence, these two traits offer two different kinds of results. While the former generally gives birth to something tangible, something that our sensory perceptions can respond to, the latter gives birth to something that our minds can (or cannot) comprehend. For instance, a carpenter can produce chairs, tables etc. while someone who studies trees and plants can propose a theory on growth of trees. These two guys can exist in isolation without any problems. Problems arise when we try to assign a monetary value to their efforts and it is then that the debate starts. Since the aim of practically all economic exercises is to maximize the return on money and time invested, whether a doer is more important or a thinker, depends on who brings more value in a given context.

However, instead of identifying yourself with one of these, you can as well be both of these: doer-thinker or thinker-doer. You are one of these two depending on the ratio of these two traits in your character. The good thing about being both is that you appreciate both. You do not become dogmatic and you understand the effort and the skills required for each of them. You can appreciate both kinds of people (who exist in the either or world). Your attitude, character and style of functioning becomes more fluid and you probably gain the knowledge to get  the best out of not only yourself but also out of those who exist in silos. All this becomes really helpful when you are in an organization or you are leading a team. Thinkers can inject new and fresh ideas while doers can execute them. But as you are both, you know very well that an interaction between these two may lead to even better results than the sum of their individual results.

On Mentors and Mentees

In Education, Research and Development, Science & Technology Promotion and Public Policy on July 5, 2013 at 4:58 PM

The traditional Indian education system holds a teacher with the highest regard. A teacher is supposed to not only educate a student but also shape his/her character given  the fact that a significant amount of time is spent by a student in a school. A teacher with profound knowledge and insight and the ability to inspire students is referred to as “Guru”. Of course, times have changed and the education system (schools to universities) is as much a producer for economic forces as much a product of it. By economic forces, I don’t just mean the market forces but also any force that controls the funds and the resources to be allocated. While this interaction is important and probably unavoidable, it has also opened up the system to the vagaries and at times unreasonable demands of these forces on the education system. The effect can be seen on students as well as teachers. Probably, it is those genuinely interested in a well formed education system who experience more the push of those forces and the pull of their innate desire and commitment to the highest standards of teaching and mentorship. And the outcome is not always pleasant or holistically fruitful.

While the term “Guru” has religious origins, its use has permeated every sphere of knowledge and workmanship; now often used in a diluted sense to refer to someone who possesses exceptional knowledge and skills in a particular area.  The English word “Mentor” is the closest in meaning and spirit. A mentor these days faces the same challenges and being a really good mentor takes a lot of effort. But what exactly constitutes good mentorship? Well, there is no one single answer but an ensemble of insights, challenges and skills which forms the answer. Nature, a world renowned science journal, published an article  in 2007 on what all constitute true mentorship. It is based on an award program, named Nature Awards for Mentoring in Science, that it runs to recognize exceptional mentorship in the field of science. It is an excellent read for those interested in this subject. While it is based on inputs from people associated with science, they are so general that anyone in any other field will find them useful.

Soilless Farming and “Re”search

In Education, Engineering Principles, Research and Development on June 25, 2013 at 12:12 AM

When I started my PhD, my supervisor, among other things, told me that research is also revisiting the existing concepts and examining them. It is not always about plucking a blue-sky idea from nowhere or dreaming up something like that out of nowhere. That is why it is called “re”search. Based on my experience over the last few years, I now firmly believe in what he said. Very often we try to come up with an idea that we want to sound extraordinary. We want to come up with something that inspires awe and gaze. Nothing wrong in that, except that looking at the history of technological evolution, it can be seen that ideas and technologies that have been considered ground breaking and have held us in thrall, have often come up revisiting the existing concepts. Of course there are those which were the results of serendipity, for instance the discovery of penicillin. But that is not the topic of this post.

By examining closely what is considered common knowledge or given fact, people have made breakthroughs. Agriculture has long been associated with soil based farming. In fact, we seldom talk about agriculture without associating quality of soil with it. Agriculture, as we have known over thousands of years, cannot be practised without soil. However, Dr. Yuichi Mori, a professor in Japan, has re-examined the role of soil and realized that soil can be replaced by a suitable membrane that can provide nutrients to plants and physical support for roots to grow. This is “soil-less agriculture“. His company Mebiol markets the technology called Imec. Not only the technology does not need soil, the hydroponic membrane stores water and nutrients leading to need for less water for plant growth. The membrane may also block some pathogens that cause plant diseases. Field trials have shown that tomatoes, cucumber etc. can be easily grown and grown this way they in fact taste better and richer in nutrients. You can watch his TEDxTokyo talk here.

Amazing, isn’t it? Now I can safely try to grow some of these if I were to live in a land scarce country or in a high rise apartment! Interestingly, the earliest documentary proof of the idea of soil-less agriculture can be found in 1627 book Sylva Sylvarum by Francis Bacon with follow up research by some people over the next few centuries. However, Mebiol is the first company to come up with a technology that can be commercialized.

On Diffusion of Innovations

In Education, Interdisciplinary Science, Research and Development, Startup on May 10, 2013 at 1:57 AM

Diffusion of Innovations is a remarkable book by Everett M. Rogers. It is also a field of study and research where questions related to the diffusion of innovations through different groups of people and cultures are studied. This theory seeks to explain how innovations spread, how they are adopted or rejected, their social impact and the rate at which these processes occur over a period of time. This book has plenty of examples of innovations that diffused and those that did not. Notable examples include the idea of water boiling that the public health service in Peru wanted to promote in a Peruvian village and failed in doing so; non-diffusion of the Dvorak keyboard; the relatively successful STOP AIDS campaign in San Francisco in the mid-1980s etc. Note that the use of the term innovation  is not restricted to technological innovations only. According to Rogers, “An  innovation is an idea, practice, or object that is perceived as new by an individual or other unit of adoption“.

Technologists and engineers generally think that a new idea will sell itself, that advantageous innovations will be quickly adopted. However, this is seldom the case and the adoption, in general, is slow. This is a fact that is of relevance to many start ups. There are social and cultural aspects of innovation that have a big influence on its adoption. Influencing the adopters involves not only relevant marketing but also addressing social, cultural and economic issues. Of course the range of issues to be addressed depends on the innovation that we are trying to sell or promote.

It would come as a surprise to many that Everett M. Rogers was not from business or engineering background. He was a scholar in  communications and sociology!

Complementary to Google Search

In Education, Interdisciplinary Science, Research and Development on March 26, 2013 at 5:31 PM

When we look for information, almost all  of us invariably turn to Google. There is no doubt that Google and its services, especially its search engine, have helped many of us who look for both new and old pieces of information often. However, is it always the best in terms of returning results that are relevant to the search query? Not necessarily. By relevant, I mean the intention of the user who typed in the search query.  Given the fact that the Google page rank algorithm, among other things, assesses the importance of a page/resource based on the number of pages/resources linking to it and their importance as well, the search result tends to tilt in favor of  those resource which most people are talking about. Therefore the search result can include Wikipedia references, journal and magazine articles, Youtube videos etc. This means that there may not be a uniformly decreasing order of depth of information available in the search results. It may also mean that the quality and expanse of information available in the search results could vary widely. For instance, a news report that shows up higher on the list of search results could be discussing the outbreak of a particular disease and its economic and social impacts. It may not be discussing the medical science behind the disease itself. Of course one can try combinations of phrases as well as Google custom search to narrow down the results. This also means that if you are searching for something that is discussed rarely, you will have to sift through a lot of results. However, there is another way of looking for targeted information: use of field specific search engines. For example,  FindZebra  is a search engine for rare/orphan diseases. This is currently a research project at Technical University of Denmark  and it seeks to help doctors looking for information on such diseases for the purpose of medical diagnosis (an example of very targeted information). It indexes only the most relevant databases for this purpose.  Its comparison with Google search and Google custom search can be found here. Archives, like this one,  in different fields also serve the same purpose. It  will be better to see the two search approaches as complimentary to each other. While field specific search engines/archives can be very precise, Google search can provide a wider set of results where different perspectives and analyses may emanate on the same subject but from  people with different backgrounds.

PhD vs Work Experience: The Perennial Debate

In Education, Engineering Principles, Intellectual Property, Research and Development on March 9, 2013 at 11:35 PM

Those of you who have ever considered doing a PhD or getting a higher technical degree would have definitely come across this debate on PhD vs work experience. One can find so many articles and opinion posts on this subject. Many of us tend to evaluate PhD and work experience by replacing one with the other. Setting aside financial considerations, we tend to evaluate these two experiences by examining the worth of each when replaced by the other. I think that this approach is improper. PhD  and work experience can be/made to be complimentary to each other. Not all work experiences are of high quality and same is the case with PhD granting institutions. Not all companies are alike just the way standards differ across institutions of higher learning. I would not be debating the pros and cons of PhD or of work experience in this post as that subject merits far greater analysis than what I can put in a blog post. However, taking a broader view, I would say that a PhD program lets you get out of your comfort zone and explore complex, unbounded problems which could be fundamental or applied in nature. It teaches you to learn, examine (and re-examine), critique, argue and persuade using facts and figures. Its not that there are no corporate jobs where one cannot learn these very things. But they are far and few and the degree to which you need to exercise your brain varies across them. As an example, you can be a great lawyer, corporate, civil or criminal, but being a great lawyer is different from being able to comment, analyse, contribute to the very subject of jurisprudence which gives rise to all judicial activities. Another example: you can be an excellent system on chip architect, but being able to get into the depth of power integrity analysis is a different story. Of course you can be a great power integrity analysis engineer too who can apply all sorts of engineering tricks to perform clean power integrity analysis but you need not be able to comment, analyse or examine the principles on which power integrity analysis is based to the same depth as a typical  PhD degree holder would do. The point I am trying to make is that “there is space and need for both kinds of experiences“. They need not be present  to the same degree in one single person. The utility of a PhD and that of work experience depends on many factors. At the end of the day, you do a PhD because you want to explore, find new things or just sit back and critically reflect on the existing things because other people are  busy meeting the demands of the market which has its own challenges!

How much and what do you read as a researcher?

In Education, Engineering Principles, Interdisciplinary Science, Research and Development on March 3, 2013 at 5:07 PM

What do you read as a researcher? Most of us read only that which is relevant (or we think is relevant) to our research. But is that all that is should be read? I know that many of us do read novels of different kinds of which fiction is more common.

However, as far as reading for research is concerned, most of us read within our specific domain and especially focusing on those works that are closely related to our own. We browse through conference proceedings and journals a lot. Some of us venture into reading patents and online newsletters published like EE Times  etc. Nevertheless we tend to stick to a rather narrow range of topics. We measure the utility of reading something for research against the value that it might bring, in our opinion, to our research. While this is not at all a bad way of doing research, we run the risk of training ourselves to read, think and argue about only a very narrow set of topics even within our own broader research discipline. It is a byproduct that has its negative consequences. It becomes difficult to think beyond what we are most comfortable with and it makes an expert in a very narrow field. We run the risk of not being able to relate our work with the bigger picture and processes. We run the risk of not being able to think at the system level or looking at the same thing from a different perspective. For instance, a mobile phone is a device that has both software and hardware. A software guy will describe it from software perspective while the hardware guy from hardware. Someone who can understand both, even if not every detail, can help merge the two perspectives which is very important for product design!

Oscar Wilde has said, “It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it“. It applies not only to life but also to research. Reading about human factors, user interfaces, intellectual property, regulatory practices etc. helps us in seeing same things from different perspectives. It is a great way to exercise our brains.

At the same time,if you are more adventurous , reading about topics in sociology, psychology, economics, politics etc. helps you develop critical thinking abilities borrowed from different domains. An example is here. And if you can see through all of this, you might even be able to solve a problem in your domain by reading about something exciting in another domain.

Value of Scientific Work

In Education, Interdisciplinary Science, Research and Development on February 21, 2013 at 11:03 PM

We, researchers and non-researchers alike, often come across this question: what is the value of scientific work? Is it about publishing papers that expound upon novel ideas? Is it about work that can be commercialized? Is theoretical scientific work more valuable than practical scientific work? Are hands on abilities more valuable than critical thinking? These are perplexing questions with no straight forward answer. Probably, the best way to think of these is to understand that there is space in this world for all. Different approaches have their pros and cons. I think that it is even better to answer them in some context rather than after untying them from any context.

I have seen graduate students, especially PhD students, grappling with the value of their work in the beginning and then towards the end of their PhD. Many find their work of not much value compared to work that translates into something tangible, something that you can touch or see or hear; something that people can use; something that makes them feel that they have created something that did not exist.

Nevertheless, the use of an idea and the idea itself are two different things. They each deserve their own attention. It is also possible that a use case for an idea may not be realized in the immediate future once the idea was formulated. It may take time for the use case to appear and it may not be the same person who developed the idea. For instance, the inventor of laser would have probably never imagined that one day it would be used in laser pointers which we often use during presentations.

I think that when we question ourselves in this way, we need to go back in time and see what the savants of the field have said about these. One great piece is titled “The Value of Science” by Richard P.  Feynman, Physics Nobel Laureate (1965) and both a researcher and a teacher par excellence.  It is so rare to find an excellent researcher who is also an excellent teacher these days. The following paragraph from his public speech will probably be of immense interest to young researchers:

“I would now like to turn to a third value that science has.  It is a little less direct, but not much.  The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. …………….  We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize our ignorance and leave room for doubt.  Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty – some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain.”

For a funny and amusing reflection on the different kinds of researchers today ;), see this by Daniel Lemire, a  computer scientist with a big following.

Role of Industrial Consortia in Education and Research

In Education, Embedded Systems, Industrial Consortia, Research and Development on February 8, 2013 at 6:58 PM

A Google search will reveal the existence of quite a few influential industrial consortia further the cause of research and education in fields identified by them. Almost all of them are run jointly by people from industry and prominent educational and research institutions. You can find a list of them compiled here. I have listed only the ones relevant to electronics and computer industries. I have found that not many students are aware of these consortia and that should not be the case. Some of these are highly active and they contribute a lot to research, development of technology and education. Consortia like Accellera Systems Intiative have contributed to a number of IEEE standards. Some of these can be downloaded for free from its website. The Semiconductor Research Association plays an important role in promoting research and education in the field of semiconductors. The International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors has played an immense role in identifying challenges before the semiconductor industry- from design to manufacturing, to testing and validation. Many of these associations also offer scholarships and fellowships for students and research grants for faculty members. Their publications provide a lot of insight regarding the challenges at present and of the future. These publications may not always have a lot of in depth research material, the sort of which most graduate students are accustomed to, but they successfully paint the bigger picture. Paying attention to such facts can help in keeping research relevant to industry where necessary. Besides, it also helps in learning about the actual real world problems and the challenges involved in translating research into technology that can be scaled up and widely used. Sometimes, problems are considered solved in academic research but such solutions never make it to the market, even if of relevance, because their translation to scalable technology still remains an open problem.