I had the pleasure (and honor) of visiting Jason Moore’s lab at Dartmouth earlier this week, and giving a little seminar version of something big I’ve been working on for the last a few months. More about that project in a few days; the visit helped clarify a number of open questions and focus attention where it was needed.
This was my first “real” visit to an academic environment in a few years—the sort where I’m not just lurking in the background and hanging out with my tenure-track friends. Indeed, the last time I did something like this I think it was my 2008 visit to Nic McPhee at the University of Minnesota at Morris. Like Jason, Nic was also nice and helpful, but UM Morris a qualitatively different academic culture from that of the medical school at Dartmouth. Both times I visited mainly to observe the local work cultures, especially looking at the collaborative network that connects students, faculty and staff—within and between their respective labs, departments, disciplines and institutions.
I’ve been building a catalog of cultural and institutional routines and obstacles that side-track—and (often permanently) delay—potentially valuable projects that could otherwise be explored quickly. The same old question I always ask, more or less: What do you wish you had more resources to pursue?
Recently I’ve found a useful way to explore these routines and obstacles is to discuss little counterfactual scenarios and see what bubbles to the surface. It can be an interesting way to surface transgressive behavior without actually, you know, trying it out in real life.
Here’s a variant that came to me as I stared out an airplane window recently:
Suppose a highly-respected but soon-to-retire researcher in Computational Physiology visits the salient department at Large Ivy University to give a seminar. As one comes to expect from a late-career luminary, her talk tends a bit towards the philosophical, but it brings up a number of interdisciplinary questions and unconventional approaches to the construction, use and study of Computational Physiological systems. There’s a lot to think about, and a lot of material that most mainstream colleagues just don’t run into very often.
After her seminar, she spends a day or two visiting her Host’s lab and a few of his collegial LIU labs, chatting with staff, students, junior faculty, and their various Principal Investigators about their ongoing research and technology, and comparing notes on the interesting things that folks in other institutions and disciplines have been doing.
As it develops, she takes an interest in one of the ideas a graduate student brings up in passing. The idea isn’t a part of the student’s thesis research, nor is it even salient to the funded projects in any of the LIU Comp Phys labs. But it’s a good idea, and she decides it would be fascinating to see how it would play out, and (even better) it’s a purely computational project that the visiting scholar realizes could be done in a few weeks… by an agile team of software developers. It wouldn’t need a grant or even a long planning or proposal process to see what happens.
Neither LIU nor the visitor’s home institution has anything like an “agile team of software developers” as a component—hah! Not even a little bit. But in her increasing time spent “out in the world”, the visitor has actually run into folks who have worked in those environments, and started to see the point of the various “agile values and practices”—at least as a kind of Utopian ideal.
Mind you, this idea isn’t anything commercial. But it’s a damned interesting project, and to be frank it would be a pity to see it delayed until the student graduates, and finishes her post-doc(s), and gets done with tenure track, and so on and on.…
So the visitor chats online with a few people she knows, and they agree the project as sketched is a feasible way to spend about a month of work. Obviously the student should have the lion’s share of academic (and other!) credit if it goes forward. But the agile folks she chats with remind her that the point of the “one team” practice is that the student probably needs to be co-located with the team doing the work with her.
Alas, the student has a thesis committee meeting coming up shortly. She’s been asked by her committee to work over the draft bibliography and bring it more in line with the standards expected in the high-impact journals in the field: get rid of those weird references from graph theory and ecology papers and add more from the modern Comp Phys literature, for example.
Nothing like this project has ever been in any of the Comp Phys journals. It may not even catch on in the community, compared with the more obviously receptive audience over in Artificial Mentation. But the AM folks have never even considered Comp Phys as a domain where their stuff might be useful. It’s a blue-sky project, in that sense.
What has to happen to get this work done? Does the student leave for a month? Does everybody wait until “it’s safe”? Does the student’s advisor collaborate with the visitor on a grant, and use the funds to (eventually) fund an in-house (and almost certainly inagile) development project that will take several years to do what might happen in a month under other circumstances?
Who gets credit? The visitor wants the student to get essentially all of it. Does the student’s advisor get some? Under what circumstances?
Who gives permission? Who needs to give permission? The student should be working on her thesis. The advisor should be seeing to his student’s professional track. And so on.
Who is a risk? What sort of risk?