Mission Dissertation

A sustainable engineering production.

Simplicity, Complexity, & Competency May 24, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Dr. Briana @ 3:59 am

MIT-trained computer scientist, Cal Newport, runs a blog called “Study Hacks,” on which he offers advice on how to cultivate academic and personal success. He recently posted a useful article regarding complexity and problem-solving.

We all know that “hard results” are what count* in academia, but how do we get to those hard results in the most efficient way possible?

One road to attainment, Newport posits, is to seek simplicity in problems and complexity in technical skill. In Albert Einstein’s famous words, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Newport cites the graduate student who continues to expand their research topic for fear that a narrow focus will trivialize their work. (Sound familiar?) Complexity will eventually arise, but the deeper one examines the fundamentals, the greater understanding one gains with which to (more efficiently and effectively) address the problem’s full complexity. And of course, the more adept one becomes at solving a wide variety of complex problems, the more likely one is to solve one of the world’s “big” problems. This is how one succeeds* in academia, writes Newport. What do you think?

Personal context: I’ve been thinking about simplicity, complexity, and competency as I approach my dissertation defense. So much of the dissertation is completed silently, tucked away in corners of the library or lab. The portions not completed silently usually involve Q&A or brainstorming sessions focused on particular issues of particular chapters. This is simply one of the necessities of intensive research. In between officially scheduled research meetings, however, one sometimes needs feedback of a different sort. This is where the art of data-inspired storytelling comes into play.

Data-inspired storytelling is one way to measure competency and it is a technique to which I return time after time. For example, can I explain each and every chapter of my dissertation to three groups of people: 1) my committee members (professors who know my research), 2) academic colleagues, in and outside of my field, and 3) non-academic family and friends? Where do people get confused? Where do I stumble? Where do the results truly shine? To tell a story, or to deliver a presentation, is ultimately to take ownership of one’s work and of the path along which the hard results were created.


*Definitions of “count” and “success” vary from person to person. Here they refer to traditional academic hierarchy from student to professor to upper administration, where promotion to a higher status is usually directly proportional to the amount of knowledge (publications) one has contributed to the broader academic community.


Ownership May 3, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Dr. Briana @ 3:18 pm

“Take ownership of your work.”

I’ve heard this statement countless times along my PhD journey, usually as a phantom voice in the back of my mind, but also from professors, advisors, and others whom I admire.

There’s just one problem: confidence vs. arrogance. When we conduct “research”, we are re-searching, learning about what has come before us, and building upon the ideas of others. To detect and herald one’s own “novel contribution” seems inauthentic and arrogant. My work is but a grain of sand compared to what has come before. To define its value and place means to define my own value and place in the sea of “sustainable engineering researchers” or whatever group in which I happen to find myself. It is not easy, but it is becoming necessary. It is time to cross that bridge.


Announcement March 25, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Dr. Briana @ 1:43 am

I have a post-doc interview!!!

(Yes, the multiple exclamation points are warranted.)



Rejection & Opportunity March 8, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Dr. Briana @ 10:28 am

Earlier this week, I was rejected from a fellowship program that I was really looking forward to participating in. I thought I had a decent chance of making the cut (and according to the rejection letter, my proposal and credentials were excellent), but I just wasn’t at the right place at the right time. The program co-director also stated that geographic diversity was a consideration, and as a white woman from the U.S., I can see that I lack the lived experience of someone from the Global South, for example.

The experience of rejection from this particular program opened my eyes to how tightly I had been clinging to the possibility of being accepted. Now that I don’t have to worry about the outcome, I am free to explore other opportunities! While I am still waiting to hear about one post-doc in particular, there are many other paths I could take — so many that I started to map them all out.


Figure 1. Selected post-doctorate trajectories. (Click to enlarge.)

The traditional academic routes for someone with a Ph.D. include: 1) a two-year post-doc to gain experience with a new lab group and especially to publish papers and 2) applying directly for faculty positions (among others). Even though I’ve been told otherwise, I think I lack the expertise to go directly into a faculty position, so I am more interested in applying to post-docs for now. I have some interest in working for a national lab, but it depends on which lab and what the focus is. The last thing I want to do is work in a lab that makes weapons for the military, but on the other hand, some of our national labs are doing excellent work in the renewable energy sector, for example. It would be wonderful to be a part of that! In the realm of “office jobs”, there is always environmental consulting and sustainability research for NGOs. The NGO route is more to my liking than a for-profit consulting firm, but not by much, because in the end I really don’t want to get stuck in an office-only setting. I’d rather be out in the field. Finally, there’s my love for humanitarian engineering, especially in the Global South. These are the organizations like Engineers Without Borders and Water for People, organizations with deep understanding of what works in developing communities, what doesn’t, and how to connect communities in need with people who have skills to help meet those needs. If I knew I’d have secure funding, I’d hop from project to project for the rest of my life. There is nothing more fulfilling than working together with a community to address some portion of their fundamental needs (and rights!): clean water, sanitation, sustainable agriculture, these are a few of the Great Challenges in which I find inspiration.

Of course, there’s also the possibility of a short-term adventure once I graduate. I’ve been tossing around ideas, such as biking across the country with Global Exchange, volunteering on organic farms around the world with WWOOF, learning about permaculture and getting my certification, or even volunteering at a meditation retreat center like Karmê Chöling in Vermont. There are so many possibilities!

Even amid the endless revisions of dissertation chapters and a rather open-ended question of “What the heck am I doing post-graduation?”, I am still grateful to be where I am right now. Life is good. It is throwing me all of these questions to think about, and to even have the opportunity to consider them all, is quite a privilege in and of itself. Who knows? I may end up doing something so far off this list that the possibility never even occurred to me. Stay tuned!


Burn Out, Intuition, & Decisions February 28, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Dr. Briana @ 9:27 pm

Here is some interesting advice to those of us who have ever felt we were burning out. That includes most people I know, especially those who bridge the academic and activist communities. The short article, or discussion thread rather, was originally posted on Reddit. I found it on Study Hacks, which is a great success-pattern blog of Georgetown Professor Cal Newport. Enjoy.

  Intelligence is Irrelevant: An MIT Alum’s Advice to a Struggling Student

by Study Hacks

A Reddit Gem

A reader recently sent me a link to this fascinating Reddit thread. It’s titled:”I’m not as smart as I thought I was,” and it features a high school senior worried that his intellectual abilities are lacking.

Over 700 people wrote comments in response. One of the top comments was from an MIT graduate who had struggled with and then overcame similar feelings of inadequacy when he first arrived in Cambridge.

Below, I’ve reproduced key passages from his note (edited slightly), as I think he has something important to say — for both students and graduates — about the psychological complexity of the quest to become so good they can’t ignore you…

The people who fail to graduate from MIT, fail because they come in, encounter problems that are harder than anything they’ve had to do before, and not knowing how to look for help or how to go about wrestling those problems, burn out.

The students who are successful, by contrast, look at that challenge, wrestle with feelings of inadequacy and stupidity, and then begin to take steps hiking that mountain, knowing that bruised pride is a small price to pay for getting to see the view from the top. They ask for help, they acknowledge their inadequacies. They don’t blame their lack of intelligence, they blame their lack of motivation.

During my freshman year, I almost failed out of differential equations.  I was able to recover and go on to be very successful in my studies. When I was a senior, I would sit down with the freshmen in my dorm and show them the same things that had been shown to me, and I would watch them struggle with the same feelings, and overcome them. By the time I graduated MIT, I had become the person I looked up to when I first got in.

You feel like you are burnt out or that you are on the verge of burning out, but in reality you are on the verge of deciding whether or not you will burn out. It’s scary to acknowledge that it’s a decision because it puts the onus on you to to do something about it, but it’s empoweringbecause it means there is something you can do about it.

So do it.


Other dimensions

Filed under: Uncategorized — Dr. Briana @ 9:15 pm

Inside the world of GIS, there is a perfect cube of Nirvana. It catches me every time I work on an intensive mapping project. Uninterrupted by the outside world, I dive deeper and deeper into the map world. Even debugging can be enjoyable: effort, reward, satisfaction.

At one point in high school, I wanted to become a graphic artist. It’s all coming back to me now.


Static vs. Interactive February 15, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Dr. Briana @ 4:49 am

Figures, at their best, are data-driven stories. Stories are not static: they ebb and flow with the plot. This fluidity is part of why I enjoy exploring interactive data-sharing applications moreso than static figures and tables. The interaction engages the reader and can help them to understand.

Harvard and MIT just released one of these applications, or apps, named the “Atlas of Economic Complexity,” which examines global trade from a mixed country-product-percentage perspective. The apps visualize the data in several different formats, such as tree map, stacked graph, and product space. Here’s one to get you started. Have fun learning about global trade!