I have learned a lot from the Corner Office columns written by my colleagues during the past few months. In order to write about something that has not already been covered, I have decided to focus here on the themes of productivity in academia, industry relations, student mentoring, and international collaborations.
My research is at the intersection of Computer Engineering and micro/nano-systems. To be successful as a researcher in this field, significant collaboration with industry partners is necessary. Therefore, let me first elaborate on the recipes for successful university/industry collaboration.
How to Promote University/Industry Research Collaboration
Research collaboration between university researchers and industry experts requires a number of key ingredients. The first requirement for promoting collaboration is that university researchers work on the right problems. What is a right problem to work on? That depends on the expertise of the researchers, the challenges being faced in companies for which no solutions exist today, and on whether the problem is one of research or development of known technology in a company setting. For example, I have never attempted to collaborate with companies in the area of RF circuit design because my knowledge in this domain is very limited. Also, I have never approached industry partners with proposals for providing ready-to-use tools and software.
Early in my career, I was successful in developing significant industry collaboration in the area of system-on-chip (SOC) design and testing, thanks to the right timing (SOC was the new thing in the mid- and late-90s), research grants from NSF that offered matching funds and strong encouragement for industry collaboration, and interactions with many industry colleagues who could have been university professors with their research mindset. I would travel extensively and give talks at companies, and quite often I would get follow-up emails and phone calls for further discussions. NSF funding was a great facilitator and early career awards from Government funding agencies are always a credibility booster. There is clearly a “winner take all” scenario that prevails in these situations, an outcome no doubt of the emphasis on excellence and merit.
In contrast to the above examples of success, a few collaborations failed to take off when the companies insisted on IP agreements and the university lawyers could not agree with company lawyers. Other attempts at collaboration failed when key people in the companies left for other jobs. Finally, collaborative efforts failed when companies showed no appreciation for theoretical insights and dictated the intellectual content of the research, resulting in frustration and a lack of true collaboration.
In later years, most of my successful collaborations with companies have been a result of outstanding PhD students. Most companies view PhD students as a long-term investment and they appreciate the training provided to them by the university research environment. (Some industry sponsors have even told me with a fair bit of seriousness that they do not care so much for the research that professors do, but they greatly value the training of graduate students.) In my case, for example, my collaborations with companies in board/system-level diagnosis and 3D chip testing have been driven by the hard work of many top-rate students. It is of course incumbent on the Professors in such scenarios to ensure that the companies work with only the best students, those who are motivated, qualified, and willing to make the extra effort to understand industry challenges and practical issues.
Therefore, successful university/collaboration requires a research model that is somewhat different from the traditional university model of “blue sky” research, yet retains the characteristics of independence of thinking and a focus on longer-term problems of tomorrow.
University/Industry Collaboration Models
University researchers must sustain their research programs through external financial support, the right mix of research topics, and high-quality graduate students. In my field (and I believe this is true for many of my colleagues), there is the added burden of ensuring that research is directed towards problems that are relevant to medium- and long-term industry needs, and students are adequately trained for a career in the semiconductor industry. I am faced with a vibrant industry community that includes top-rate researchers and visionaries. Therefore, I have to always ask myself: “How should university researchers engage with this community, and conversely how should industry interact in a meaningful way with the university community?
Several engagement models come to mind as I think about this question:
The oblivious model: Each side deliberately ignores to a large extent the existence of the other, and limits engagement to occasional meetings at conferences and student hiring. This model allows freedom of thought in the most complete sense for a university researcher but deprives the researcher from early access to exciting developments in industry, and it deprives companies from the benefits of harnessing the intellectual prowess and creativity available at universities. Unfettered thinking can lead to major breakthroughs but success stories are rare amidst a large body of mediocre, low-impact research.
The consulting model: A university researcher provides expert opinions and insights on a specific but narrowly defined problem of interest to a company. While such short-term engagements are certainly more meaningful than the oblivious model, they often do not provide benefits to the larger community. Neither do they foster longer-term synergistic relationships. The company dictates the problem to be solved and a university professor completes a “homework assignment”.
The directed research model: Companies often provide research funding to universities in the form of contracts. Many of us in academia have been recipients of such contracts and we have undoubtedly benefited from the support and mentoring provided to graduate students, access to industry data, and guidance on research directions. However, it is often frustrating for university researchers to navigate the hurdles of IP agreements between universities and companies, and the barriers placed on publications and broader dissemination of research findings. In addition, identifying concrete deliverables a priori and meeting them in a timely manner can detract from the intellectual freedom necessary for high-quality research.
The true research collaboration and partnership model: A research collaboration can be most successful and lead to longer-term benefits when the partnership is between equals, research is truly open, problem areas and specific topics are discussed without excessive consideration of commercial benefits for the company, and where mutual respect reigns. Funding in the form of gifts with no IP barriers or burden of deliverables is surely the best way to sustain longer-term collaboration that is beneficial to all. University researchers have the luxury of being able to think in unconventional ways and “out of the box”. Indeed it is incumbent upon them to do so. They can identify and exploit theoretical methods from other fields, as well as form connections between problems that are not obvious to an industry practitioner. In addition to gift funding, such an interaction model is sustained and enriched by the participation of industry mentors in PhD theses committees, industry internships for students, and systematic transition of basic research into industry practice and automation tools. Quite often, such collaborative relationships transcend university/affiliations; collaborations continue in the form of new institutional partnerships when key personnel change jobs.
Irrespective of the collaboration model between university researchers and companies, constant vigilance on both sides is needed to ensure that added value is an outcome of the collaboration, industry sees more value than simply a pipeline for trained graduates, and university researchers find the collaboration to be an enriching intellectual experience. From a university perspective, successful industry collaboration requires a change in mindset—publications should no longer be the only yardstick for measuring success. Publications will always arise from a truly open and success research collaboration, hence the emphasis must be placed on professional relationships that build trust and mutual respect. Making unreasonable demands for funds, data, or resources is counter-productive for a university researcher while the industry collaborator must understand that university research is not expected to lead to ready-to-use design flows or tools. We must start modestly, take small steps, and then go on to bigger things. That is surely a recipe for success.
The Right Research Topics
Academic freedom is a great thing. I am free to work on research problems of my choice, but of course with the caveat that I have to be able to sustain the research program through external grants and the right graduate students. It is tempting to be opportunistic and target research topics that are in vogue, where there is a lot of federal funding, or where there are significant opportunities for collaboration. Such opportunism helps a faculty member in many situations, but the agility with which we change research focus or jump into new areas must be sustained through a genuine appreciation of the area at an intellectual level. When we choose a research topic, we have to ask ourselves whether we will be as excited by this topic after 5+ years, whether our liking for it borders on the obsessive (obsession is sometimes good for research!), and whether we can in reasonable time reach a sufficient level of excellence to compete successfully and be rated as among the very best in the field. I always remember the words of George Bernard Shaw: “Take care to get what you like or you will be forced to like what you get”.
As engineers, we often have to grapple with the need to link new ideas with applications. Conceptual advances in theory or new breakthroughs in technology are often reined in by the need to justify practical applications. Whenever in doubt in such situations, I remind myself of the words of Prof. Herbert Kroemer from the ECE department in UC-Santa Barbara, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2000: “The principal applications of any sufficiently new and innovative technology have always been—and will continue to be—applications created by that technology.” This is also referred to as Kroemer’s Lemma of New Technology! The logic is circular, but so is research and so is the universe in a metaphysical sense.
So how do we start working on a new problem? Our PhD degrees have prepared us to learn new things, and to be prepared to change (as eloquently expressed by Richard Fair in his Corner Office column). First, we have to use our imagination and look beyond the short term. In the words of the French Nobel laureate Andre Gide, “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time“. Also, we have to start “doing” and not just “think” all the time. Finally, we have to be prepared to go against the general consensus and take risks judiciously. I like the pictures below, which express just these thoughts (adapted from originals by Rob Rutenbar, now at University of Illinois).
In my experience, I have found that it helps to have one core area (“home”) where I can maintain a leadership role over a long period of time. With the sure footing of a home base, it becomes easier to feel more secure, and to “roam” and explore newer areas. Research must lead to impact; of course, impact can be measured in different ways, but as a researcher, I need to know in advance how the impact will be measured when I start a new project. There is a certain of sense of speculation involved since we have to select research topics that are just emerging, so that we can ride the wave and be a leader. So this process is a lot like buying stocks.
When I started my academic career, a mentor advised me to always have three bags of ideas. The first bag should contain ideas that could be explained quickly to a practitioner, and through which I could get industry projects and make immediate impact. The second bag should contain ideas for longer-term projects, possibly leading to PhD theses, multi-year grants, and good publications. We should not underestimate the importance of the second bag and revisiting with a critical eye what we already know. Again, I quote Andre Gide: “Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again.” The third bag is the most interesting, since it should contain the most high-risk ideas, which might not even be appropriate for graduate student research, might require years of thinking and mulling, but which might one day lead to my magnum opus. I still remember this advice and I make a conscious effort to have all three bags with me!
Another way of looking at research topics is to imagine the figure shown here. My portfolio of research problems at any time includes several points in this space. This strategy has served me well and, again, it reminds me of how we invest money in stocks.
Students are arguably the most important “products” of any university. We do not manufacture artifacts for the marketplace. Instead, we train students for the workplace for a wide range of professions. Hence student mentoring is for me a key job requirement. Here let me dwell on my philosophy of working with graduate students.
Broadly speaking, my role as a mentor for graduate students aspect involves two important tasks: (1) Explain a big problem; (2) Give sound advice and be a trusted guide. I read somewhere long back that a good mentor must be a good listener (key to good communication), be a good problem-solver, and be a good observer (able to spot “problems”).
The first job of an advisor is to dispel fear from the minds of students. When a grad student starts research, we would expect the student to start with a clean slate, i.e., more like a blank sheet of paper on which nothing has been written yet. However, we often overlook the fear mentality that prevents the student from taking the first steps towards leaving his or her imprint on this sheet of paper. In my role as advisor, I take inspiration from India’s Nobel laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore, who penned these famous lines in Gitanjali (the poet’s own translation from Bengali):
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action;
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
A fearless and proud student is almost always a productive student. All we have to do is to appeal to a student’s pride, and there is hardly a better motivator than the pride that comes from having achieved something notable. A fearless student is never afraid to ask why, question the status quo without being dismissive, and seek answers to difficult questions. In the words of Aristotle, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Furthermore, students have to understand that success in research requires patience and an inner calm that helps us focus our creative energies (yoga and meditation are of course highly recommended!). When I was new to Duke, Provost Peter Lange told me: “tenure is not an event, it is a process”. Likewise research is not a sprint, it is more akin to a marathon. Again, in the words of Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Every student is different, and instead of insisting that every student adjust to my style or personality, I make efforts to understand the unique needs of students and meet them halfway. I have, at various times, provided gratis service (of course with the rider that I am not a professional in these matters!) as a marriage counselor, tax advisor, immigration consultant, mental health counselor, personal safety guide, etc.
One of the most satisfying aspects of my job is the opportunity to collaborate with outstanding researchers in my field all over the world. The Duke brand name is a privilege, and it is an honor to be a Duke ambassador in these activities. International collaborations offer many benefitstangible and intangible. Tangible benefits include the opportunity to work first-hand with students who ultimately join Duke and work with me for their PhD degrees. This is an example of risk mitigation, whereby I already know a student through a joint project before he or she joins our PhD program. I regularly host visiting researchers from overseas and their presence at Duke for short- to medium-term visits enriches the graduate school experience for my PhD students. Other tangible benefits include participation in joint research proposals (such as EU projects, special programs at NSF, grants from EPRSC-UK and the National Science Council in Taiwan), and an understanding of cultural differences that help me to do a better job in teaching and student advising at Duke. Many companies today are globalized, and US students must understand the challenges and opportunities involved in such a work environment. Researchers from other countries often approach the same problem in different ways, and many of my most satisfying research accomplishments have been inspired by different ways of problem solving. In addition to my Duke family of graduate students (present and graduated), I have a large extended family worldwide that includes students from nearly all the countries that I have visited. Good working relationships with the best researchers all over the world (and an understanding of how they carry out their research) helps me to be a better Editor-in-Chief and Associate Editor of journals.
I have always valued efforts aimed at bridging different cultures, and additional benefits of international collaborations include the opportunity to see amazing places, enjoy exotic food, and learn about history, politics, languages, architecture, lifestyles, and religions. The list is endless.
My colleagues Dan Sorin and Chris Dwyer like to do some good-natured leg pulling. They calculated my average velocity based on all the international travel that I do. Of course, they were technically incorrect; my average velocity is zero since I always return home to Duke. What they actually calculated was my average speed, which admittedly is a really large number.
Final Words of Advice
In my experience in mentoring graduate students and working with colleagues from other countries and cultures, I have learned that I can make a point much more effectively using allegories. So here are three stories with their associated morals (told to me by a friend in Germany).
A crow was sitting on a tree, doing nothing all day.
A small rabbit saw the crow, and asked him, “Can I also sit like you and do nothing all day long?”
The crow answered: “Sure, why not.”
So, the rabbit sat on the ground below the crow, and rested.
All of a sudden, a fox appeared,
Jumped on the rabbit… and ate it.
Moral of the story: To be sitting and doing nothing, you must be sitting very, very high up!
A turkey was chatting with a bull.
“I would love to be able to get to the top of that tree,” sighed the turkey, “but I haven’t got the energy.”
Well, why don’t you nibble on some of my droppings?” replied the bull. “They’re packed with nutrients.”
The turkey pecked at a lump of dung and found that it gave him enough strength to reach the first branch of the tree.
The next day, after eating more dung, he reached the second branch.
Finally after a fortnight, there he was proudly perched at the top of the tree
Soon he was spotted by a farmer, who promptly shot the turkey out of the tree.
Moral of the story: Bull*#*@ might get you to the top, but it won’t keep you there.
A little bird was flying south for the winter.
It was so cold, the bird froze and fell to the ground in a large field.
While it was lying there, a cow came by and dropped some dung on it.
As the frozen bird lay there in the pile of cow dung, it began to realize how warm it was. The dung was actually thawing him out!
He lay there all warm and happy, and soon began to sing for joy.
A passing cat heard the bird singing and came to investigate.
Following the sound, the cat discovered the bird under the pile of cow dung, and promptly dug him out and ate him!
Morals of the story:
1) Not everyone who drops s$*t on you is your enemy.
2) Not everyone who gets you out of s$*t is your friend.
3) And when you are in deep s$*t, keep your mouth shut.
The above lessons can be useful for all of us, as we navigate different roles at different times in our academic career.
In closing, I stress that productivity in an academic career is not possible without a supportive environment. I have been fortunate to have many excellent role models in Duke ECE and an administration that has always been appreciative of my efforts in research, mentoring, industry partnerships, and international collaborations. When I first arrived at Duke, I was under the impression that I am expected to work on a specific problem and in a specific area. I asked Loren Nolte (the department chair at that time) what problem I should work on. I can imagine how much amused Loren must have been, and he still chuckles and reminds me of that episode. I guess I have come a long way since then!