Researcher. Technologist. Designer.
I'm one of those people who hesitates a bit when asked what I do because I have so many professional roles and interests: I have clients. I perform research. I teach students. I make stuff. Sometimes I even teach students how to perform research and make stuff for clients—but how do I characterize all of the other things that I do?
My background is in physics and engineering, which means I spent the first part of my career making physical things related to science and technology. My time in graduate school was particularly important for this because I worked in a shop that created one-of-a-kind prototypes, and I really liked the challenge of designing and making parts from scratch. Back then, I relied on a prized hardcopy of a McMaster catalog, my skills in the machine shop, and my intuition to design things that would assemble easily and actually work. I imagine that it was a lot like working on Mythbusters: It wasn't always pretty, but the process rewarded simple, elegant solutions.
After graduation, I moved into a more formal design role where I spent four years designing telescopes for space satellites. During this time, I relied heavily on my prior experience actually building things, because I knew what would be easy to build and which specs were going to prompt an anxious phone call from the machinists.
In 2008, I transitioned to my current role as a researcher at the RAND Corporation. This turned out to be much less of a left turn than I was expecting because research and design are linked: The end product is only going to work if the designer understands the context for how the object will be used, and this understanding comes from research. Being at RAND has taught me the value of objective, rigorous research, and I've also learned to harness the power of bringing interdisciplinary views from the physical and social sciences together with art and design to solve complicated problems.
These days, I don't just design physical artifacts; I design and manage research projects to help decisionmakers make informed choices. I've designed everything from metrics that assess performance within our national labs to new education systems that can train the problem solvers of the future. And, just as I did back in the machine shop, I still strive for simplicity and elegance.
Throughout it all, my background as a technologist still complements my research interests. The rapid pace of tech is driving the world to become more specialized—including the knowledge workers who keep everything advancing. Ironically, amidst all of this specialization, we need people who can work at the intersections, straddle multiple disciplines, and fluidly translate between subject matter experts. People who are comfortable with uncertainty and are fearless about diving into a situation where they aren't the expert in the room. People who are skilled at seeing patterns and structure where others see mess and disorder.
That's where I come in.
As a researcher, technologist, and designer, I help people make sense of the choices they face. I bring a deep understanding of the science and technology that is driving our collective future. And I use all of this context to design smart, intuitive tools people can use to navigate the future.
Tools of My Trade.
Whether I'm leading a year long project, designing a brainstorming exercise, or meeting a new client for the first time, I rely on a core set of talents that make up my professional disposition:
Exercising deep listening and empathy
The difference between an engineer and a designer is that the designer—if they're any good—exercises a high level of empathy for the human experience. Doing this requires an ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes and think about how they experience the world. It also requires an ability to listen deeply, or to hear while exercising objectivity without judgement.
Finding the compelling narrative
At the end of the day, a good researcher has a lot in common with a trial attorney. Both spend months learning as much as they can about a problem by uncovering data from a variety of sources: reviewing written materials, examining physical artifacts & environments, and interviewing human experts. But at some point, the research and analysis phase ends and it's time to take a step back and ask, "What have we learned? What's the key message in all of this work?"
The result from this step is finding the story that ties all of the work together, and there are two reasons why it is so important. First, putting all of the evidence in context within a compelling narrative is a really effective way to build coherence across the work—the analysis will be more effective if the researcher can show how it all hangs together. And second, a good narrative makes the work more accessible and memorable, which gives it a greater chance of making positive change.
Designing to a high level of fit & finish
The difference between something that looks "good enough" and something that stops people in their tracks is in the details. I once spent 6 weeks making hundreds of French macarons. I had the basics figured out after 3 days, but it took me another 5 1/2 weeks to figure out how to make sure that every batch looked consistent. While this tendency may drive my assistant a little crazy, this is a key factor that sets my work apart from others. I am constantly pushing to understand the variables that control the details so I can carefully control those variables to create a highly designed end product by the time the project is complete.
Bridging the physical and social sciences
If you've made it this far on my website, it won't surprise you to find out that I went to a liberal arts college. These days, this means that I am a really effective bridge between the physical and (increasingly quantitative) social sciences.
In 2011, I started working part time as a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School, which is the nation's largest PhD program in public policy. Fully accredited and with 120 students in residence, candidates spend the first two years taking courses before transitioning to dissertation research in their third year. One of my favorite roles at the school is leading a series of dissertation workshops where 2nd year students spend 9 months developing, refining, and eventually pitching their research proposals to their committees. I love this role because I function as the bridge in the classroom, connecting students to new research methodologies and to one another. As an example, the topics last year ranged from reformation of Los Angeles area drug courts to developing new public health policies in India that mitigate the effects of heat waves.