Thursday, July 23, 2015

Indian Subcontinent Edition

Dear friends and fellow engineers in the subcontinent, here’s the bold, brilliant blue cover art for the Penguin Random House India edition of APPLIED MINDS: HOW ENGINEERS THINK. August 2015!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Think Like an Engineer

Delighted to see a beautiful copy of THINK LIKE AN ENGINEER from Oneworld. Coming out in August 2015--in UK and Australia!

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Four Words

My thoughts from the IEEE Asia Pacific (Region 10) Congress for students and young professionals, Colombo, Sri Lanka. (The picture below is a collage of images from the conference badge and poster).

Two days ago, I visited the renowned Gangaramaya temple. I got back to the hotel in an auto rickshaw.
“Do you speak Tamil?” I asked the driver.
“Yes,” he responded. 
Our conversation then covered several topics relating to Sri Lanka. Environment. Highways. Ships and harbors. Political stability. Military. Waste recycling. Cost of living. Movie stars. I received a quality foreign affairs briefing from a citizen’s point of view.
       Total travel time: 15 minutes.

Minutes later in the hotel elevator.  
“Are you with IEEE?” I asked a young man.
“Yes!” he responded and introduced himself.
Jeff is from the Philadelphia area and is an electrical and computer engineering student. In IEEE speak, he and I are in the same region, but it took a conference in a country nestled in the Indian Ocean to connect us. I learned about his co-op with a major technology automation firm, and how he has been able to persuade his firm to now sponsor IEEE student conferences. An impressive intern.

These two conversations had one thing in common. They got started with my questions“Do you speak Tamil?”; “Are you with IEEE?”—just four words each. They triggered a sense of shared identity and created a new experience for me.
Several minutes later, at the opening reception of the conference, I met a creative Pakistani engineer and author from Karachi—who's also an aspiring film actor—and an energetic Indian entrepreneur who shuttles between Cochin, Kerala and Palo Alto, California to manage his start-up. All these conversations and small talks may not really mean much to most people who often go to conferences or happy hours, but they’ve often helped fuel my understanding of the broader contexts that I find myself in.
Especially as an IEEE member, I have been routinely enriched by such conversations and networking with people from various walks of life. After all it was through a chance encounter, I became an IEEE member myself when I was a second-year undergraduate student in India. I was majoring in instrumentation and control systems engineering but once unexpectedly struck a conversation with the head of the computer science department. “You are an engineer, and you must belong to IEEE,” he told me. He then sponsored my IEEE student membership. That professor may not remember me now, but I’m grateful for his gift and gesture.   

People value IEEE for a number of reasons. It’s an extraordinary global community of leaders in engineering and technology. It’s also a technical enterprise that thrives on rationality, practicality, and global impact. For me, however, it’s a neural gymnasium that has taught me deep life lessons. It has shown me how leadership and usefulness emerges in multi-cultural contexts, and how things get done for the betterment of humanity. By allowing me to debug and refine myself, IEEE has provided me a sense of identity, a sense of belonging, a sense of responsibility, and importantly, a life strategy for continuous personal improvement.

I’ve been fortunate to gain some incredible experiences and opportunities within IEEE. The most memorable one in recent years is when I served as chair of the IEEE-USA Student Professional Awareness Committee, one of the most vibrant groups I have ever worked with. During a committee meeting that was held in Los Angeles in the fall of 2013, we invited several engineering students from nearby universities for a public symposium on leadership and career development. It dawned upon me that our goal as a committee was to actually listen to the students instead of making them listen to us drone about the logistics of organizing conferences and workshops that could in turn help their leadership and professional development.
We were going in the wrong direction.
I halted the meeting and offered that we discard the agenda (the committee members supported me). I then requested the invited students—and two brilliant Walt Disney Imagineers, our guest speakers—to take over and show us the way forward. The freshness of their ideas gripped us. During the 35th anniversary of our flagship product Student Professional Awareness Conferences (SPACs), instead of celebrating our successes we chose to have an existential crisis. This led us to completely reconfigure and rebrand SPACs into SPAx where the students solve for “x.” The “x” denotes the primacy of student experiences in their self-designed and self-organized events with IEEE-USA’s support.
Ultimately, what matters for students and young professionals of IEEE—or for that matter, any professional society—is the engagement and experience that they are able to achieve and apply. It’s the same logic that underlies Walt Disney’s tremendous success story, as the two Imagineers explained. Disney isn’t really in the business of selling tickets to their theme parks (at least not explicitly) but in the core practice of creating memorable experiences. They helped create an environment (market) in which families look forward to their Disney vacation.
One student summed it for me this way during the coffee break of the meeting: volunteers are willing to participate and contribute only when their experiences are enriched. That's the true value we are trying to create. I engage, explore, experience. These four words (that also coincidentally abbreviate as IEEE) have since informed my own reasons for volunteeringsimilar to how mind-expanding conversations began for me in the auto rickshaws and elevators of Sri Lanka, and beyond. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Coming Soon: Applied Minds

Delighted to see a beautiful finished copy of APPLIED MINDS: HOW ENGINEERS THINK. Coming out August 2015!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Young Scientists and Global Issues

Members of the Global Young Academy during the fourth general assembly held last week in Santiago, Chile. The theme of this year's meeting was "Natural Resources in a Finite World." 

(Photo Credit: The Global Young Academy, May 2014)

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Postdoc Conundrum: Avoiding Scientific Limbo

This perspectives piece, written in my personal capacity, appeared in a slightly shorter form in the Global Young Academy Connections, Winter 2013, Issue 1, pages 10-12. The following image (CCCC MS 20, f.66r) appeared along with the article, and was used with the kind permission of The Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.


Medieval Christian theologians speculated that the afterlife must include a place for those not deserving admission to heaven but not guilty of behavior that would condemn them to hell. They called it limbo. In scientific research too, we have a limbo. It contains a large number of highly trained minds in their years of peak productivity but who are not yet considered ready for a faculty position. It’s called “postdoc.”
A postdoc is not a clearly defined academic status or job title—it’s a fluid state of time, open to much interpretation. The accepted principle is that a postdoc is just a temporary appointment for gaining additional skills and experience beyond a doctoral degree. However, there’s no consensus on how long the time period could or should be. Academics argue that the time depends on the field of research and the motivation of the individual postdoctoral researcher. Sometimes that “temporary” period can span up to a decade over multiple installments in multiple labs or research specialties. That state is a “super postdoc”—though there is nothing super about it.     
            In the United States, for example, the number of scientists and engineers in postdoctoral appointments—postdoctoral fellows or trainees, research scientists or associates, the names for this position are legion—has skyrocketed in recent years. The best estimates suggest total numbers between 50,000 and 100,000, with over sixty percent of those being citizens of other countries. A large majority of those scholars are in the biomedical sciences. Engineering and related interdisciplinary research areas have seen a significant influx of postdocs in recent times.
Several specific factors are thought to explain this burgeoning population: the difficulty of publishing in certain research specialties, the shrinking success rates for research proposals, the limited number of tenure-track faculty openings at top universities. Some observers attribute it to more systemic issues: a wobbly, ill-defined labor market for scientists and engineers shaken by the recent financial crisis or the antiquated structure of an academic system, which now includes aging faculty members who are postponing their retirements.
The benefits of postdoctoral training are thought to be self-evident—intellectual growth, professional maturity, and the development of a research network. But under the surface lurks a different reality. For years many postdoctoral scholars have felt like being treated like second class citizens. Some might even call them the invisible members of the scientific community.
Let’s consider some perspectives about the postdoctoral system from those who have had first-hand experience with it: 
A recently graduated elementary particle physicist notes: “The low pay scale is extremely demoralizing: low salary, no health insurance, no retirement fund; moving to private industry would double my earnings…I expect that within two years I will be forced to leave my field (after six years of graduate training) and become a full-time computer hack in order to allow my wife and me to be able to afford to have children.”
And this from an environmental toxicologist who decided against doing a postdoc: The postdocs “...are rapidly becoming a source of labor to which senior people owe no responsibility; postdocs are cheap, non-tenured, have no seniority rights, and don’t dare complain, since they exist at the supervisor’s discretion…”
A recent solid state physics graduate who abandoned the research area for an industry position adds: “Postdocs seem to be a ‘holding pattern’ in most Ph.D.’s careers, judging from my associates’ experiences, wherein one trades peak earning years (already substantially deferred) for a low salary, ill-defined working conditions, and no accrued benefits after a one or two year stint.”
In my own line of studies—engineering—one faculty member seeking to hire postdocs said: “At present…the pay for postdocs is so low that is very difficult to find American citizen engineering candidates. Most (if not all) the candidates who applied my two postdoctoral positions were of foreign origin and citizenship…At least in engineering I think we have the makings of a future crisis.”
            A sociology postdoc at a leading program observes: “…I took this research position because it was a unique opportunity to work with special people. But now, two years later, the job market in my field has collapsed. Though I have been very productive in terms of publications, etc., I have no idea what the future will bring at this point. I’ve talked to many other young, productive sociologists about these issues lately, and the level of stress and anger is alarming.”
            And finally, as an astronomer notes, the postdoctoral positions have in “many instances been transformed from a temporary educational/maturing experience into a semi-permanent holding pattern permitting a denial of employment realities and a kind of ‘futures’ speculation against an improbable massive increase in demand for academic faculty. For all too many people whom I know personally, the speculation failed and the chain of postdoctorals ended with financial exhaustion, and under- or unemployment.”
Raw, astute, and as contemporary as they may sound, these perspectives are taken from a sweeping multi-disciplinary survey conducted by the National Research Council four decades ago that was part of the 1981 report Postdoctoral Appointments and Disappointments (National Academy Press). These issues are now well known, but the challenge is not much is being done about them in a systematic manner.
Over the past decade, some of the issues—offering health insurance, establishing university offices for postdoctoral affairs, and providing various forms of assistance to scholars on temporary visas in the United States—have already gained traction and support. Membership organizations such as the National Postdoctoral Association in the United States and the U.K. Research Staff Association have also come into existence to make a better case for postdoctoral scholars. These are encouraging steps.  
But they don’t begin to cover the root questions that may underpin the agonies of postdoctoral researchers. We must ask: What is the purpose of higher education? What is the purpose of additional training? What is the desired and practical length for each or both of them? What drives the multi-year, multi-institution, multi-field, and multi-publication postdocs for coveted entry level tenure-track positions? Why prepare a host of overqualified individuals for a very limited number of faculty positions? Why pay them so little for their advanced qualifications? Is the change difficult to make because there are no incentives in place for the mentors and institutions hosting the postdoctoral scholars? There are no simple answers to these questions.
            Instead of tackling some of these core issues, what we have instead developed are some escape mechanisms. In my experience, one way to shy away from offering policy solutions is to call for more data collection. In fact, one of the four recommendations of the 1981 report mentioned earlier was to focus on data gathering. A number of more recent reports issued by the National Institutes of Health, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the American Chemical Society among others have followed suit. Lack of quality data will be a perpetual concern. As long as the world of the public policy exists, it’s a good bet that we will continue to come across reports calling for more or better data collection.
My view is that better data would be desirable, but is there anyone in the research world who is not already aware that there are serious issues with the postdoctoral system? The morale of our highly valuable postdoctoral scientists and engineers—and by extension the vitality of the scientific enterprise—is at stake here. One way to approach this challenge would be to go beyond our bunker mentality and take a portfolio approach toward enhancing the careers of doctoral and postdoctoral-level scholars. In other words, the focus needs to be on a cornucopia of different career pathways that exists beyond the towers of academia. Some like to refer to academia (and occasionally industry) as “traditional” pathways whereas others such as creative arts, journalism, policy, law, finance, consulting, marketing and fashion design as the “alternative” pathways.
This is a flawed approach, and one of which I’m guilty. I classified careers as “traditional” and “alternative” in my co-edited book Career Development in Bioengineering and Biotechnology (Springer), which I worked on as a graduate student. This confession aside, the essence and intent of that book was to promote a portfolio approach to career development with the understanding that many career pathways are equally valuable and legitimate for a scientifically-based mind. In fact, the current reality is that academia is becoming the “alternative” career pathway as ever more PhDs and postdocs pursue non-academic careers. And this has advantages. Only by encouraging the spread of scientists and engineers through different career channels to the various corners of our society can we become better designers and communicators of our profession in the future.  
Career development of scientists and engineers across different sectors needs to be given greater weight and recognition in our scientific culture. Awareness of the portfolio of career pathways available for scientists and engineers needs to begin as early as undergraduate years, perhaps even during high school years, via counseling, publications, symposia, social media, online courses, professional societies, and both young and senior national scientific academies. The pursuit of doctoral degrees and postdoctoral experience needs to be critically evaluated by aspirants before important life-altering decisions are made. Advanced degree or training is not for everyone, and not every career pathway requires one.  
Calling for a culture change or a structural reform in the scientific enterprise is easier said than done. To reengineer the postdoctoral research system—with the ultimate goal of redesigning the academic research system—we first need to change ourselves. We also need to update our understanding of current social, economic, and labor market conditions. The early career scientists and engineers—and young national academies—can help propel these discussions, and need to take responsibility for leading this change. By ignoring these realities we remain prisoners of our tradition.
The alternative? There’s always limbo.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Young Scientists at the World Economic Forum

2013 Young Scientists (40 scientists and engineers under the age of 40 selected from 19 countries) at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of the New Champions "Summer Davos."  

(Photo Credit and Rights: World Economic Forum)

Monday, October 7, 2013

Harvey Fineberg on SMART Vaccines

Harvey Fineberg, president of the Institute of Medicine explains the benefits of SMART Vaccines in the prioritization of new vaccines for development, and how user feedback can help inform and improve subsequent versions of this software tool. 

More information at

Monday, September 30, 2013

Prioritizing New Vaccines for Development

My colleagues and I are pleased to share the release of SMART Vaccines—a first of its kind software tool developed by the National Academies with support from the National Vaccine Program Office of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dr. Harvey Fineberg, president of the Institute of Medicine, has called SMART Vaccines a “pioneering effort,” which has the “potential to contribute to strategic planning in a vaccine enterprise that confronts difficult choices and many constraints.”

In his foreword to our report RankingVaccines: A Prioritization Software Tool, Dr. Fineberg explains:

“As a software system, SMART Vaccines provides a customizable tool—with various built-in and user-defined attributes—for a vaccine enterprise that currently has no shared standards to support decision making. As a facilitator of informed discussion and decision making, SMART Vaccines has the potential to engage different users independently or cooperatively when they wish to reduce barriers for new vaccine development and delivery. Unlike many previous recommended priorities, SMART Vaccines does not impose a predetermined value system on decision makers. Instead, users are able to weigh and rank preferences that are relevant to the specific contexts in which they are making decisions.”

Please provide your comments and feedback at

Friday, May 24, 2013

Global Young Researchers at Leopoldina

Members of the Global Young Academy during the third general assembly held last week at the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina. The theme of this year's meeting was "Demography and Global Research." 

(Photo Credit: The Global Young Academy, May 2013)