Posts Tagged ‘research’

Research Attitude- What is it?

In Education, Research and Development, Science & Technology Promotion and Public Policy on May 31, 2015 at 1:24 PM

One of the tasks that a faculty member has to perform is to recruit new research students for his or her research group. At most of the institutions, it is entirely up to the faculty member to decide on who should be recruited. Of course, the application may be examined at the department or school level, but the principal responsibility is with the faculty member. In some institutions in some countries, entrance examinations are conducted which are followed by an interview before a student is admitted as a research candidate. I will not go into the pros and cons of these processes but will concentrate on a few characteristics that I think are very important for a student to be admitted as a research candidate. Everybody knows about grades, test scores, recommendations etc. So, I won’t talk about them. Instead I will focus on “research attitude”, which I learned more about (sometimes painfully) when I was involved in hiring students for my current research group. It is difficult to gauge attitude towards research based on grades, test scores etc. These can be used to gauge “potential for research” which I think is different from “research attitude“.

Students with good grades and recommendation letters tend to perform quite well during the discussions. They will talk about their past experiences with pride and would try to convince you on every issue or question that you may ask of them. Sometimes they would try to convince you so much that they tend to forget that the people they are talking to have already been through that process and have at least a couple of years of experience post-PhD. This, I usually treat as a symptom of over-confidence and lack of humility. It can also mean that they have a very high opinion of himself. While this might still be acceptable if they have to work alone, that is not the case these days. Research students typically work in a group and they need to interact with other members. This interaction will inevitably happen during the research program because no one knows everything. A student may need to seek assistance of another student to make progress on his research work. High degree of self-pride and lack of humility do not allow such interactions to be smooth. These characteristics also affect interactions with faculty members, especially those who are more gentle in approach to their students.

Another thing that I have noticed among such students is the lack of patience to study a subject matter in depth. They want to “finish research work” as soon as possible. Unfortunately, they forget or do not appreciate the fact that research work is not the same as doing some other task where all that matters at the end is the output (for instance designing an electric oven). A research work is not valued just based on its output but also based on the methodology, logic and reasoning used to arrive at that output. A lot of time and effort can be wasted when such students present their work to their research advisors.

Therefore, I think that patience, humility and willingness to learn are very important characteristics that a student should possess in order to perform good research.

P.S:This post contains only some of my ideas and in no way represents a comprehensive write up on this subject.

Presentation as a Sales Pitch?

In Education, Engineering Principles, Research and Development on March 25, 2015 at 5:19 PM

It is not uncommon to hear these days: “make your presentation to sell your ideas”, “a presentation is a sales pitch” etc. What was earlier confined mostly to marketing and sales departments is now making its way to other places as well, including academia. Imagine going to attend a talk titled “Truth and Lies About XX” and after spending some time there one realizes that the presentation has no relation to the title at all! The catchy title was just meant to attract people but it lacked substance. Over the past few years, I have come across quite a number of such presentations where the title and the content are very unrelated. The sad part is that most of these presenters walk away with impunity without any member of the audience ever making a remark with respect to the gap between the title and the content. I find this practice not only misleading but also unethical. Most of the time, people come to attend a presentation with a certain notion of it based on its synopsis, speaker’s bio-data  and the title. The title plays a very crucial role in creating excitement. However, I don’t think that it should go so far as to end up unrelated to the content.

I agree with the view that one needs to polish and shape one’s presentation to help the audience follow it; that one needs to choose words and phrases carefully to highlight the main points, one’s contributions etc. However, I don’t agree with a blatant disregard for the audience’s intellect that becomes visible when such titles are chosen. The presenters may say that it was unintentional and that they were only concerned with making it more fancy. However, the fact  that it was unintentional itself says that the presenters did not think deep enough about their target audience.

When people , who are not sales professionals, like engineers, scientists, doctors, lawyers etc. try to become like them, they often forget that there are both good and bad salesmen. That is why they teach sales and marketing in business schools. If it were just a matter of catchy title and pompous claims, business schools would not need to teach the subject. In their effort to sell their ideas, the presenters also forget that the audience has its own mind. In most cases, it won’t simply buy whatever is presented to it no matter how charismatic or fancy the salesman is. Of course, if a presenter knows that a certain audience has a bias, he can use all the tricks to impress the people. In general, I don’t think it is a good idea to keep emphasizing the “sales pitch” version of non-sales related presentations. Instead, what should be emphasized more is to connect truthfully with the audience.

When Economic Forces Influence Universities

In Education, Research and Development, Science & Technology Promotion and Public Policy on January 31, 2015 at 9:28 PM

That universities are being increasingly subjected to economic forces is no longer a surprising news. Many articles have been written about the utility of research done at universities, transforming them into products, restricting funding to research in areas of less economic importance etc. I won’t discuss these in this post as this subject is vast. However, I will highlight one important development that I learned about only recently. I was talking to a professor and we discussed faculty appointments, research areas at his university etc. It came to me as a surprise that most students in his department were opting for courses that led to jobs in companies in a few prominent industries in the region. As a result, the university and the department were increasingly more interested in hiring faculty who had experience in those subjects. This was not always the case with those students. Five to ten years ago, the student population was not skewed this way. As a result, the department had faculty in almost all areas of study/research. Now that the student population had become so skewed, a number of faculty members have very reduced teaching load. In effect, these faculty members are now becoming “surplus faculty”. Needless to say that their areas of research and scholarship are only remotely related or unrelated to areas in which students are getting placed. Consequently, there is little hiring of faculty members in these areas and it may also have an impact on the number of faculty members who get tenure. Is this good for education and research? What should a university do in such a case? I would say that such an effect of economic forces is not good for education and research. However, in a world that increasingly wants to relate every human activity to some sort of economic force, it can be difficult to make a convincing case for hiring/retaining scholars in those disciplines. As far as what a university should do is concerned, it is not an easy question to answer. It requires administration with vision, foresight and strength to deal with such a scenario. Whatever be the case, it seems that the concept of a university is undergoing evolution and there is a need to choose a path that is least damaging to all/most stakeholders.

When Facebook asked Buddha to be Tagged

In Education, Embedded Systems on May 25, 2014 at 8:26 PM

Facebook has this face recognition feature. It automatically recognizes faces in uploaded pics and then provided the option to tag the faces that its software has managed to recognize in those images. It is very successful most of the time. Face recognition is a very active field of research with many groups working on it. It is now part of security systems, the simplest example being laptops that have facial recognition feature for unlocking.

 Now, take a look at the image below. It shows two statues of Buddha at the 10,000 Buddha temple in Hong Kong.

Buddha Statues at 10,000 Buddha Temple, Hong Kong


When it was uploaded to FB, the software identified the two faces in this photograph and asked for tags! It was quite a surprise for me and it made me realize a limitation with existing facial recognition technology. Existing technology cannot differentiate between real human faces or faces which are part of a “non-human” element. This is one reason why facial recognition technology is known to be fooled using images. One can login to a system by showing an image of the person with authorized access. This was discussed by USA Today here. This is also the reason why high security establishments may go for multi-modal authorization in which facial recognition is just one part.

I guess for facial recognition technology to be truly a single point solution for authorization, it will have to learn to distinguish between human and non-human elements. The road ahead has a lot of interesting challenges!

Do you read User Guides?

In Design Methodologies, Education, Embedded Systems, Engineering Principles, Research and Development on May 14, 2014 at 6:32 PM

I am a member of LinkedIn and like many of you am also a member of quite a few LinkedIn groups. The good thing about LinkedIn groups is that the discussions remain professional in tone and content. This is why I like them compared to discussions on other social media platforms where they can vary in tone and content from the most professional to the most ridiculous. In a discussion on such a LinkedIn forum meant for engineers, someone admitted that very few engineers or users of tech tools read the user guides. This is not far from reality. I have seen this when I interacted with practicing engineers on a more regular basis than now. I also see it in academic life.

Personally, I find user guides of development boards, software and hardware tools extremely useful. Reading them once gives me enough confidence in extracting the best out of these tools. For instance, user guides of FPGA vendor providers are very helpful and I am more confident about my design after having referred to the user guide at least once though often these guides can be voluminous. I guess the verbosity of these guides is one main reason why people don’t feel like reading them. The other reason, I think, is the propensity of many practicing engineers, graduate students and others to get  their hands dirty as soon as possible. They want to write code, design a circuit, run simulations etc. without getting bored reading these guides. While this enthusiasm to start working is worth appreciation, ignoring the “reading” part leads to problems later on in the product development process, research methods and has the potential to creep into the results. Basically, this haste leaves one vulnerable to questioning at a later stage. Sometimes this can prove very costly as well especially if it is related to product development. Of course one can always talk about pressure for results from managers, supervisors, customers etc.; this is not a very good excuse. Good managers etc. also understand the importance of being abreast with background information.

Is this issue observed more in the engineering industry than say banking or insurance sectors or for that matter safety critical engineering domains? Perhaps. Engineers take great pride in fixing things. They can use patches for software, make new releases, change components or simply replace the product.  However, bankers and insurers cannot do much once money is gone. The fear of losing money is too great to sustain the dislike for reading guides, whitepapers etc. Similarly those involved with safety critical engineering domains are more mindful about liability issues that aversion to poring over thick user guides is probably a non-issue.

One can also argue that  the presentation style of many user guides is quite boring. I agree when you compare with things that provide “instant thrill” thus leading to a desire to know more. User guides do not provide that thrill but writing code, experimenting with a development board etc. does give a lot of thrill to many engineers. Nevertheless, when it comes to getting a job done properly, there is no other choice but to sweat it out! 🙂

The Curious Case of Algorithms

In Education, Interdisciplinary Science, Mathematics on October 31, 2013 at 2:40 PM

I finished reading “The Golden Ticket: P, NP and The Search for The Impossible” some time back. It is a very nice book that introduces one to complexity theory. Essentially, it describes, without too much of Mathematics, what kinds of problems can be solved and what other kinds will take forever to solve. However, if these – the forever to solve ones– were to get solved one day, what would be the impact. P  refers to the problems that can be solved quickly using computers to get the best solution. On the other hand NP refers to problems whose best solution cannot be found quickly using computers. I have deliberately simplified things for your understanding. This field is vastly complex!

The word “quickly” is used here with reference to a time span which is acceptable to the seeker of the solution. It could be a few seconds, or a few weeks.  Going by the nature of humans, any solution (best or otherwise) that might be delivered in months or years will probably be unacceptable. The search of any solution is accomplished using algorithms. It is these algorithms that can either give us a solution “quickly” or might take ages to finish their task. It is believed that if we could find algorithms that could solve any problem in the class of NP problemswe could solve many challenges facing us. These problems can be found in varied fields like biology, cancer research, mathematics, computer science, economics etc. However, some of the modern day systems which we feel very secure and safe about will lose these strengths if an NP problem is solved. This is because they rely on the fact that NP problems are extremely hard to solve quickly. For instance, your secure online bank transaction won’t be secure anymore. The public-key cryptography, on which it relies, would be broken by then.

Another technologically interesting aspect of algorithms is their ability to provide information based on someone’s taste in color, clothes, books, music etc. In fact, it is this type of algorithms which is used by eBay, Amazon etc. to recommend to users items for purchase. They track their actions: which items they click on, which items they buy etc. to create an “algorithmic profile” of users. While all this sounds interesting and potentially time saving for someone who knows what to buy, this also has a negative side effect. As a regular user of such platforms, you end up getting information that is tailored to your existing taste. Therefore, you cannot easily get information that is not relevant to your taste. Effectively, your ability to explore ( if you are also someone who likes to explore) becomes limited. Of course there are ways to overcome this, simplest of them being not to sign in when performing a search!! You can argue that many prefer automatic sign-ins to save time and the need to remember passwords. True, but then you have to decide whether you want to work/live like a frog in a well or like a whale exploring an ocean! 🙂

Automation & Your Skills

In Design Methodologies, Education on August 12, 2013 at 12:24 AM

During my undergraduate studies, when I first went to a workshop of carpentry, sheet-metal etc. where they teach you how to work with wood and metal and how to make different shapes and objects with them, I did not understand why an Electronics & Communication engineering major was supposed to learn those things. I am sure that there are many who will question that way and this debate will probably never end.  Probably, the best learning outcome of such an exercise is the improvement in our abilities to focus, concentrate, be precise and measure accurately. Also, it helps develop a sense for working with limited resources. After all the quantity of wood or metal that each student is given can be limited and one has to ensure that one gets the work done with that limited quantity. Perhaps such learning exercises should be promoted by also focusing on these learning outcomes.

In today’s world of complex manufacturing, computer aided design tools and computer aided manufacturing have taken over such manual tasks. Once can define and draw any shape using sophisticated design tools and have it carved out by a computer aided manufacturing machine. While these computer aided tools came into existence to deal with complex shapes as well as with the increasing scale of manufacturing, they do not let you have the experience of working with your own hands. So it is quite possible that someone adept at using these computer tools, will fail to bend a sheet of metal at a perfect 90 degrees. So what can be a not so promising consequence of this? Excessive reliance on automation even for simple tasks may lead to a loss of such basic skills. At the same time you run the risk of being unproductive when such computer tools shut down for some reason even if the work does not really require them. Automation is intended to reduce time and manage complexity and scale of operations. It is not supposed to replace acquiring skills by hand where possible.

Another example would be tools like Maple and Mathematica. These are extremely powerful tools to solve mathematical problems. Would you stop learning how to solve a differential equation or how to calculate the area of a triangle by pen and paper method because these tools can do it for you? I guess your answer would be “no” because if your answer is “yes”, you risk a future where people would have forgotten all such knowledge and lost such skills which would instead be built into computer/software systems. A breakdown of such systems would leave you with no option to get back on track!

P.S. The idea for this post came after reading Are We Losing the Secrets of the Masters? This article also mentions about old books which described in detail design of magnets and electromagnets, making neon signs, silver printing, building a forge, blacksmithing etc. Some of these books can now be found here, here and here.  A PDF version of a 1896 book titled “Five Hundred and Seven Mechanical Movements” digitized by Google can be found here and associated websites on animation of engines are this and this.

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!