Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Intuitive Engineering: a few thoughts

I had a conversation recently about different approaches to problem-solving and used the term "intuitive engineer" when describing my decision-making approach.  For me, this has always been a logical way to explain the methodology I follow when interacting with engineering (or even just generic life) challenges, but the surprised reaction I received at this term has gotten me thinking.

In my experience (limited to a trek through academia and a few years in industry), engineering decisions tend to come in two major flavors:  intuitive (instinctual) & data-driven (evidence-based).  Obviously, the best kind of decisions are made with a balance between the two, but I have observed that most engineers tend to rely on one of the two more heavily.

To be more clear about what I mean: by intuitive engineering I am referring not so much to a touchy-feely emotional decisions, but more to a decision-making process that is heavily informed by previous experience and academic knowledge.  It can oftentimes result from instinct/reflex rather than careful calculation, and can allow for quick turnaround with little hard evidence on the table.  This isn't to say that it's uninformed; rather, it relies on a deliberate understanding of past experience and careful extrapolation into novel problems.  For example (one drawn from my life with a one-year-old): we've recently started building towers and fort structures with the pillows and couch cushions.  My daughter loves it and runs with reckless abandon through the "tunnels".  She also enjoys diving onto the pillow piles and flopping against any structure I've created.  Regardless of how soft a collapsing structure may be, I still will make an effort to create pillow forts that are relatively kid-proof and stable.  Having spent years building pillow forts with my own siblings throughout childhood (combined with an engineer's need to always create more perfect solutions), I automatically fall back on certain structures and supports.  Knowing ahead of time which arrangements of cushions are most able to stand up to rough-housing makes it trivial to build one just when my daughter needs to be distracted from grabbing mommy's phone.

Two observations about intuitive engineering that make increasingly more sense to me the more I speak with experienced engineers and scientists: the first is that intuition can also be hard to break.  We spend years in academia and even more in industry being told how the world works; so when a disruptive technology comes around and turns what we know upside-down, it can be a bit hard to accept the new paradigm.  Early adopters of new tech are not necessarily smarter or can better forecast industry changes: they just have an easier time reorganizing their internal tool belt to incorporate changes.  This is really where the system can break down: disruptive technologies and novel fields of development force changes in fundamental approach.  If we don't recognize the need to build new intuition and a supportive knowledge base, then the novel technology doesn't get implemented.  (More on this in a later post).  Secondly, intuitive engineering is ineffective is there isn't a basis of trust established between workers and their management.  I personally have had many occasions sitting in meetings where stating my gut-instinct in response to a hypothetical was dismissed for lack of substantiated evidence.  --Didn't matter that I was right (or that I would later provide the data to back-up my claims); until I established a record of accuracy with my peers, the trust wasn't there.  The onus was then on me to prove my engineering worth.  

On the other hand, the data-driven engineer can be equally challenging, even when relying on hard evidence.  Heavy on due diligence, this route can get muddled with disproving low-hanging fruit questions (aka "checking off boxes") rather than tackling the main problems.  In it's favor, however, is that it is much more effective in larger groups with disparate opinions.  At some point, data-driven decisions are less contestable... that is, assuming that the interpretation is sound.

The ideal is, of course, to find the sweet spot where you can balance the two types of approaches and their accompanying quirks.  Knowing how to establish the kind of trust that allows for leeway when making judgement calls before the data is in is immensely useful.  Additionally, creating a flexible "tool belt" that can adapt to new technologies, that can adjust on the fly, and that can be accessed quickly in new situations, makes a truly effective engineer.

Friday, May 20, 2016


A short post while I continue to work on another longer post about intuitive engineering:

I go through phases where I focus on reading different types of books; sci-fi of all flavors, (embarrassingly) young adult dystopian trilogies, magical realism-infused latino writers, heavy hard-bound non-fiction treatises on the rise and fall of european monarchies, sociological studies on modern culture, etc etc.  But I always take breaks to come back to David Foster Wallace, particularly his collections of short-stories.  I've found that I can only read DFW in short bursts: his obsessive observational prose both invigorates and exhausts me.  -But I've noticed something really interesting recently.  I started working my way through Oblivion, a collection of short stories in the last week.  And consequently, I've noticed that I've also started paying more attention to the mundane.  It is almost as if reading DFW makes me refocus and causes me to be more detail-oriented in my own life.  I also think more about the small aspects of the every-day, and become better about tracking marginal information.  In short, it makes me more mindful.  Which, in turn, makes me a better engineer.

How interesting is that?  The idea that reading a particular author's works of literature and observational stories can make someone a better engineer...

I'll have to come back to this later when I've been able to give it some more thought.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Interdisciplinary life

However zeitgeisty it sounds, interdisciplinary engineering is a growing movement, and a truly beneficial one.  The synthesis of disciplines, and the cross-functionality of engineering studies is increasingly more important as we blur the lines between mechanical, electrical, computer, aerospace, chemical, and biological fields.  Disciplines that used to have nothing to do with each other are starting to realize the benefits of having broad expertise, and departments are popping up around the countries top research universities that encourage and foster this kind of interdisciplinary environment.

Cross-functional engineering in everyday life experiences can manifest many ways.  In a previous post I noted how learning about water hammers in my graduate research lab helped me diagnose a problem with my washing machine years later.  The following story is only mildly related to this concept, but bear with me.  This morning, while desperately trying to keep my 10 month old entertained so that I could shower and feel human, I synthesized three very different experiences together to form one very fun distraction technique:

Part (1): Band Geek

Part (2): My undergrad alma mater's world-renowned pipes and drum band

Part (3): A Sonicare toothbrush.

Let me explain...

I played music for many years, most of my childhood/adolescence.  I started with one of those tiny 1/2 size violins when I was in 2nd or 3rd grade, and then switched to the flute in 5th grade.  Many years of private lessons led into becoming a full-blown band geek in high school.  Marching band, pep band, pit orchestra for the spring musical, parade band, the whole lot.  I was even drum major my senior year.  Yes, that kind of band geek.  Through the standard wind ensemble repertoire, I became familiarized with the works of Frank Ticheli, Percy Grainger, and other pieces inspired by the British Isles.  This love of all things bagpipe-y continued into my collegiate experience.  Though I did not continue participating in the music world as a player, I thoroughly enjoyed the presence of all things Scottish on the Carnegie Mellon campus, including the pipes & drum band.  Wednesday afternoons the band would practice on the Cut and I frequently (in good weather) took to sitting at a picnic table nearby to enjoy some music while working on a problem set.  There is nothing remotely Scottish about me (although my husband is fractionally Scotch from his mother's side), but for some reason the music gives me goosebumps and uplifts my spirit.

In a seemingly unrelated fact: I love my Sonicare toothbrush.  My grandfather Z"L was a dentist and I come from a healthy teeth family.  Regular Sonicare brushings, along with a superb childhood dentist, has yielded me a string of happy adult cleaning appointments with complimentary dental hygienists.  A now for the kicker: I realized recently that the buzzing sound that accompanies the satisfying clean of the Sonicare is almost exactly the same pitch as the drone emitted by a bagpipe.

Circling back, we are back in the bathroom where I am trying to keep my daughter busy while brushing my teeth.  The discovery that the toothbrush emits a bagpipe-esque drone means that I now delight her with a performance of all the music i know that is bagpipe or bagpipe-inspired, hummed with my mouth full of toothpaste.  Some of our favorites are Loch Lomond, Dueling Pipers, an assortment of Percy Grainger's works including Lincolnshire Posy, and Shenandoah.  It may be that she is giggling about mommy's silly faces rather than in delight for the tastefully-delivered renditions of the classics... but regardless.  I get to brush my teeth, and my daughter gets a show.  Everyone wins!

In all seriousness, being able to draw on seemingly unconnected experiences while problem solving is invaluable and merits a continual, conscious push towards erasing the boundaries between fields.  Interdisciplinary engineering is the future: get ready.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

How technology controls us and liberates us: The Internet of Things

When my daughter was first born I downloaded an app to my phone that allowed me to track her wellness: feedings, diapers, sleep habits, doctors appointments, and milestones all in one convenient location.  It even gave me regular feedback (in satisfying chart form) on how she was developing on a weekly or monthly basis.  As a first-time mom and an engineer, I found the plethora of stats comforting.  I had data evidence to show that I wasn't royally screwing up in the rearing of my child, and could confidently answer the medical assistant's questions about the frequency of my daughter's bowel movements*.  Though at times tedious, the regular data entry also gave me peace of mind and allowed me to free up the brain space needed to remember her coos and smiles rather than when she last ate.  Though I abandoned the meticulous record keeping after my daughter weaned herself at eight months, I believe it was an invaluable asset in the first several months of  her life.  Taking a step back and thinking about the impact that one small data-collecting app had on the first few months of my daughter's life, it can only follow how much of a game-changer similar technologies can have on our lives when utilized on a much larger scale.

We often start conversations and give names to concepts before having a concrete idea of their impact, which inadvertently leads us to overstating their magnitude; but the so-called Internet of Things (IoT) has potential to create tidal waves in myriad industries.  Led by the rise of the internet/cloud-based services, semiconductor manufacturing advances, and big data strategies, the IoT is being touted as the basis for the next stage in the industrial revolution.  Surprisingly, one of the largest industries currently bought into the IoT movement is agriculture.

The adaptation of the IoT into the agricultural industry is varied and increasingly complex.  Some of the many implementation points include: real-time monitoring of weather, irrigation, and soil quality, and their inevitable impact on crop yield.  Semios, a company that utilizes wireless sensor networks, detects problematic pest populations and deploys pheromone-based deterrent automatically at the point of need.  Between monitoring cattle health, minimizing water usage and waste, and tracking equipment deployed amongst the crops, IoT is already impacting a wide range of agricultural production.

It is inevitable, as a modern internet-savvy mom, that I run into the occasional parenting blog rant about the dangers of feeding children GMO produce treated with commercial pesticides.  I have to admit that I do not feel strongly in either direction, but I find that (as in most things) everything in moderation is a fine way to lead life.  However, a recent conversation with a good childhood friend (who is now a research entomologist working on the impact of pesticides) about the deteriorating honeybee population got me thinking about how the IoT can further impact the industry.  Similar to the technology already deployed by companies like Semios, it is imaginable that the industry could shift to a continual spot checking of pests/crop disease as a means to ensure product health.  Drone monitoring of remotely embedded sensors (or even a LPWAN deployed across hundreds of acres) could identify and treat/isolate localized issues, removing the need for blanket pesticide treatments.  Rather than assuming a plural contamination, the crop could rely on the "herd immunity" provided through tackling the source of the problem.

Some obvious challenges are associated with this level of data collection and analysis: first and foremost, the size of the gathered data.  For each crop and local pest populations, weather patterns and water availability, a new model has to be assessed, vetted, and deployed.  --The added complication being an overall lower tolerance for experimental methods because of the potential negative impact to a valuable resource.   However, something amazing can also yield from this brave new world: the ability to identify a more ideal symbiotic relationship between crops and the environment.  We already acknowledge the need to maintain a minimum population of pests for the benefit of their natural predators (e.g. bees and birds), but imagine using IoT to find the "sweet spot."  Because of this new shift to data-driven production, standards and threshold tolerances will need to be reconsidered.  Hyperawareness of environmental impact on crop yield makes old standards and practice obsolete.  Even the concept of "economic threshold," which may rely on partial information or subjective standards, will need revamping.  In essence, fully assimilating IoT into agriculture, or any industry for that matter, will require building a new intuition.  Something that I have found makes engineers nervous is when you suddenly violate their intuitive sense of how the world works.  Paradigm shifts are scary, but they are also inevitable in this rapidly changing world.  IoT brings to the table the incredible power of data and hyper-connectivity, and we need to work hard to not only develop the technology, but the mindset around the use of the technology as well.

* Side note: asking why your child's bowel movements smell like trash is not, apparently, a legitimate question and will get you laughed at.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Spice of life

It's not a secret but here's a confession anyways: I love to eat.  More specifically, I love to eat good food.  Wholesome, fresh, crunchy, earthy, dense, light, tangy, complex, savory, sweet, spicy, umami et al.  I love all of it.    I was raised in the kitchen: stirring dishes and chopping vegetables, learning how to beat egg whites to patient perfection, watching my dad make an Argentine asado every Sunday night, flipping through my mom's cobbled-together binder cookbook with plastic sleeves holding torn out pages from magazines and print-outs from the web...the list goes on.  My parents have a step stool/chair in the corner of the kitchen, and I spent my childhood camped out on it watching my folks cook.  I grew up having an intense appreciation for not only eating quality ingredients, but for the process of cooking them as well.

One of my newly developed (by reason of becoming a mom) techniques for multitasking is something my husband and I call "cooking show."  It's not that our daughter constantly needs attention: she is perfectly able to play alone for 30-45 minutes uninterrupted, and can accomplish some truly impressive destruction in her play area if left to her own devices.  But I discovered that if mommy is banging pots in the kitchen, she wants to be a part of it.  So I plop her into her high chair or into the doorway jumper, and narrate the steps as if I'm the star of my own Food Network show. (I will admit that sometimes I also do funny accents and dramatically sing the ingredient list to keep things interesting).  My daughter loves it and watches all the steps intently; I could probably convince myself that she is learning how to cook at 10 months old.  I was in the middle of this week's episode of "cooking show" (Sautéed tofu with fresh basil & garlic) when it occurred to me that one of the reasons I enjoy cooking so much is its relationship to my engineering background.

The previously addressed topic of mindful engineering/science relies heavily on building up an effective intuition about common events.  Deeply ingrained procedures make a useful "tool belt" for rapid problem analysis and solving.  The creation of a "tool belt" directly relates to my experience in the kitchen.  I love spices.  I have an entire, fairly large, cabinet just for my spices.  I am always looking for new and unique combinations, and read cookbooks and foodie blogs to better understand how spices balance and mix together.  One of the greatest pleasures I derive from cooking is being able to look at a fridge full of raw ingredients and know how to create a meal of dishes that balance and compliment each other.  The ability to know ahead of time the expected outcome, even without having tried it before, is exciting and empowering.  It drives my mother crazy (she's more of a textbook recipe follower) but I never measure spices,  making it impossible for her to recreate my dishes.

My husband, who plays the guitar, pointed out to me while I was drafting this post that the way I mix spices together is very much like musical improvisation.  A strong improvisor will have a repertoire of rehearsed licks that they can rely on for a particular style or performed piece.  This really got me thinking, because I always thought of musical improvisation as a channel of pure creative expression, rather than a demonstration of seamlessly rehearsed technical ability.  --But that's exactly how it manifests.  Applied to mindful engineering, the same tool belt of intuitive problem solving knowledge can look elegant, beautiful, and creative, even when it is built upon a solid understanding of the theory and highly-technical aptitude.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The parenting experimentalist

I know not every woman is blessed with a gracious and helpful mother-in-law, so I'll refrain from bragging too much.  That being said: she's pretty cool and I'm lucky to have her around, especially since we live on the opposite coast from my parents.  She comes over once or twice a week to watch the baby so I can get some quiet writing time (rather than furiously drafting letters and posts while the little one naps).  Something she mentioned this morning got me thinking about the parallels between raising a well-scheduled baby and being a successful experimentalist.

First a caveat: I have been a parent for a little less than ten glorious months and am expressing my own opinions below (I am a doctor, but not the medical kind).

As far as I can tell, there are two major camps in the child-rearing arena: free-range parenting vs. rigid-schedule parenting.  I think both sides catch a lot of flack, mostly because sticking to extremes does not appear to benefit anyone.  I certainly do not advocate trashing a parent whose theories contrast with mine, unless of course that parent also feels strongly about how graphene is the material of the future, in which case I will semi-jokingly comment with a straight face that your ideas are garbage and you should rethink your belief system (more on this in a future post).  That being said, I will admit I fall in-line closer with those brave parents who stand up to their kids and strongly suggest to them that they are, in fact, tired and should go to bed.

The important factor for functionally scheduling a baby is learning how and when to be flexible, and how to appropriately react to deviations in schedule without melting down.  There are some days I feel like I should tape a picture of the Hitchhiker's Guide to my baby's onesie (the cover says "Don't Panic" in large, friendly letters... for those of you who aren't huge nerds).  Overall, however, I think I do a fairly good job of balancing schedule with improvisation, and this I attribute to my background as an experimentalist.

How being an experimentalist prepared me for motherhood:

1) Never expect the same outcome for the same procedures
Expecting that an experiment will yield a positive result just because it worked last time is setting yourself up for failure.  Nothing makes a negative result more disappointing than banking on it working and then watching it fail.  Even routine procedures sometimes fail because of circumstances out of your control.  We used to joke in grad school that all you need to graduate is a "hero sample": the one time a device or major experiment works and rescues you from interminable grad school purgatory.  If all you need is for it to work once, then by all means, get your hopes up.  If you need repeatability, then buckle down because you're in for the long haul.

There seems to be a strong consensus among my mom-friends that a well-executed bedtime routine makes tucking the little one into her crib much, much easier.  However, just because I do everything exactly the same night after night, I can never guarantee that she is going to fall asleep and (more importantly) stay asleep for an extended period of time.  Consistency is important, but it does not mean that it will work.   And that is okay.

2) Adjust on the fly: be over-prepared and have a backup plan
Because outcomes vary, sometimes you have to make quick decisions to keep everything together.  In an experimental lab, equipment often times will (spectacularly) fail, even against your best efforts.  Remembering to breathe in critical moments can make the difference between rescuing the situation with dignity and absolute mayhem.  There was a moment in my last year of grad school when another member of the lab was moving a sample inside the vacuum chamber and it mostly slipped off the transfer mechanism.  We were very close to losing the sample and also potentially having to take the costly steps to open the chamber in order to unblock the transfer mechanism.  As the senior student in the lab, I had to step up and save the sample.  Even while I was working on this misalignment, I already had the backup plan thought out.  We could conceivably get the chamber opened, re-establish vacuum, and have it up and running again in a few days.  Standard operating procedures set in place ahead of time detailed the work to recover from this kind of error and prevented any sort of extended panic.

It would be easy to never leave the safe haven of the house with the baby, but then we might go stir-crazy.  A strategically packed diaper bag is the only reason I can take her anywhere and not worry about getting caught at the store during a meal time.  In anticipation of these circumstances, we taught her to eat from a squeeze pouch (which, incidentally, she loves) in order to gain one meal on the road at any given time.  Additionally, being prepared in advance is critical when planning a vacation away from home and familiar settings.  The last long road trip we took as a family, we ended up driving from D.C. to Atlanta in one long stretch.  I packed a big bag of her toys that I used to rotate a new distraction into her car seat every 30 minutes, and we managed to only have to stop three times in 11 hours.

3) Learn how to turn sh*t into gold (don't allow failures to phase you)
This is one of my advisor's favorite sayings in grad school, and it held true for a multitude of reasons.  Many, many aspects of an experiment are out of your control; sometimes you have to learn how to turn a bad situation into something useful.  In graduate school, this meant figuring out how to publish results when the systems were broken or under repair.  You had to be creative with samples and experiments that occurred in years prior, but I definitely got at least one conference talk out of this kind of situation.

There are plenty of examples of how to turn a bad moment with baby into something awesome, but I'm going to go with a literal one: my daughter has impressive bowel movements.  No really, they're epic. And I could certainly be phased by every time she busts through a newly-changed diaper and ruins an outfit, but I could also just enjoy the bath that necessarily follows and teach her how to splash in the tub and that her rubber ducky says "quack."  --As long as it doesn't get on my hands.  That really is the worst.

**And lastly**

4) Pay attention to the background noise, because it really really helps
I keep saying this, but I really think it makes a big difference.  The importance of mindfulness in the lab cannot be overstated.  Same goes for raising a scheduled, but flexible, baby.  Paying attention to small details helps notify me of an impending meltdown, or hunger, or an off-schedule nap.  My daughter may not be able to talk yet, but she communicates so much as long as I stay attentive.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

SOPs for every day life

The other day I was grilling chicken and burgers for dinner while simultaneously rushing around cleaning the house and feeding the baby her late-afternoon meal.  Bless her little heart, she tends to have her hangry (hungry-angry) meltdowns at exactly the least convenient times.  All of this combined led to a somewhat frenetic session with the grill, compounding my already serious distaste for touching raw meat.  As much as I love cooking, I have never acclimated to prepping and touching raw meats; my health-conscious self doesn't allow for me to leave the skin on the chicken, which then necessitates additional handling to remove the said skin (btw, kitchen scissors are incredibly useful for this purpose!).  Already hyperaware of the contaminants that live on raw meat, I'm even more paranoid now because i regularly have to check in with the baby while in the middle of a cooking.

In the midst of this chaos, I found myself keenly aware of which hand had touched the raw meat and which had not.  Designating "clean" and "dirty" hands made it simpler to get in and out of the house to the grill without worrying about collateral raw chicken damage on the doorknobs or countertops.  Without even thinking, I had reverted to one of the most basic and fundamental SOPs from my grad school training.

SOPs, or standard operating procedures, are the basis of any well-functioning lab or workspace.  They ensure that every member of the team follows the same maintenance steps, experimental design methods, and lab hygiene norms.  Without strong clearly-defined SOPs small details can be lost, and mistakes that seem innocuous can ruin someone's day (or month).  Diagnosing a problem can also be made much simpler, going back through the SOP and identifying the deviations from procedure.  The focus on having unambiguous and thoughtful SOP reflects the mindful engineering described in a previous post.   The more rigorous and careful the procedures, the more intuitive the basic operation becomes, allowing the user to be more aware of deviations from the norm.  It is both a method for habituating to good practices as well as a way to stay acutely cognizant of the noise.

While a graduate student, I probably trained 8-10 new students in lab procedures.  The first SOP that every grad student learned was, at face value, stupidly easy, but also ended being somewhat of a litmus test for their ability to pick up and maintain procedures.  The basic premise was learning how to put on and maintain "clean" gloves.  Sounds easy, right?  In many respects it is a simple procedure, but it is absolutely crucial for the type of work we did.  In molecular beam epitaxy (MBE) research, the quality of work depends heavily on the purity of the vacuum (or ultra-high vacuum) achievable in the machine.  Ideally in the 1E-12 - 1E-14 Torr range, even marginal amounts of water vapor contamination can ruin your experiment.  (Unless of course you are running an oxide MBE system, but I digress).  So you can imagine how critical it is to keep contaminants from reaching the inside of the system.  Hence the procedure for clean gloves.  Every student had to learn to distinguish "clean" and "dirty" gloves, even though "dirty" in this case doesn't mean actual dirt.  The procedure was two-fold:

1) Learning to put on a "clean" nitrile glove over the "dirty" base-layer glove without touching any part of the "clean" glove (other than the cuff).

And (even more importantly):

2) Keeping the "clean" glove clean.

The latter requires a good amount of spatial awareness and unconscious focus.  Mindfulness was critical, and I spent many hours demonstrating how to complete procedures that depended at their core on the immaculate condition of the gloves performing the steps.  Without this basic SOP, none of the following SOPs would matter.  It's mindful engineering that helps keep something as simple as having on clean gloves above the noise of all the other complex steps.  Simple, but critical. Mindless but for applied mindfulness.


By the way, I did manage to get everything done in time and the chicken turned out fantastic.