Each morning during my train ride to work, I routinely behold how many sets of eyes—often including my own—are cast downwards and locked into little glass screens. As the line between physical and digital is blurred, this progressive cultural shift causes me to wonder: what we are missing in the world around us, in spite of the endless flow of data afforded by the interfaces we interact with? If we monitored the people and objects around us as intently as our news feeds, could we significantly change the way we understand the world in this age of information overload?
Given this daily reminder of the indelible social and behavioral changes which have resulted from the meeting of humans and technology, I believe we, as STEM practitioners, have a responsibility to think critically not only about the technical, but the human, social, and cultural, aspects of the work that we do. As humans, we typically accept our window of perception of the surrounding world as the single, definitive view of reality. However, individuals create their own window of perception, which endlessly metamorphoses as they experience life and, in turn, creates and reshapes their interpretation of the world itself. I believe that technological innovations have the potential to improve our human ability to overcome barriers in learning from and understanding others; to help us reach new heights of coherence and emotional intelligence in digital communicators; and to ultimately help give rise to a more empathetic human culture. It has been my personal goal to design and build technologies which expand the human window of perception, surpassing the constraints of our biology and experiences to enrich our understanding of ourselves, the world, and others. However, in order to do this, we need to tackle the problems of our lifetime in cross-disciplinary teams encompassing diverse experiences, worldviews, and skill sets.
We need to think outside of the "left-brained" box to come up with solutions which are truly innovative. Many of the greatest innovations of history have stemmed from the work of interdisciplinary thinkers...
Thinkers like Michelangelo, Ben Franklin, and Leonardo Da Vinci, who once said "Study the science of art, study the art of science. Develop your senses, especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else." So, I say to you, my future generation of engineers and scientists, makers and leaders: I challenge you to recognize that there is nobody like you. I challenge you to forge your own path to find your own passions, even when it means shattering the single story of what is "inside the box," in order to author your own. I challenge you to recognize the power you possess in the rich, multidimensional stories that you bring to the table—stories that will inform and enrich the designs of the next greatest technologies, the cure for cancer, and the engineering feats that will knock down boundaries our parents' generations faced. I challenge you to start where you are, use what you have, do what you can. And most importantly, I challenge you to embrace failure. To not also embrace our moments of failure and challenge, of perseverance and grit, would be to flatten our very unique, meaningful experiences. So, I challenge you to remember, in these moments, that the master has failed more times than the beginner has ever tried.
I'd like to leave you with a very powerful message from engineer & artist, Bran Ferren, who was inspired to pursue both his passions for art & science after seeing the Pantheon, a famous building in Rome as a young child:
"I've come to believe that the ingredients for the next Pantheons are all around us, just waiting for visionary people with the broad knowledge, multidisciplinary skills, and intense passion to harness them to make their dreams a reality. But these people don't spontaneously pop into existence. They need to be nurtured and encouraged from when they're little kids.
We need to love them and help them discover their passions. We need to encourage them to work hard and help them understand that failure is a necessary ingredient for success as is perseverance. We need to help them find their own role models, and give them the confidence to believe in themselves and to believe that anything is possible, and just as my grandpa did when he took me shopping for a surplus, and just as my parents did when they took me to Science Museum, we need to encourage them to find their own path, even if it's very difficult from our own.
But a cautionary note: We also need to periodically pry them away from their modern miracles, the computers, phones, tablets, game machines and TVs, take them out into the sunlight so they can experience both natural and design wonders of our world, our planet and our civilization. If we don't, they won't understand what these precious things are that someday they will be responsible for protecting and improving. We also need them to understand something that doesn't seem adequately appreciated in are increasingly text dependent world that art and design are not luxuries, or somehow incompatible with science and engineering. They're in fact essential to what makes us special.”
I can't wait to see where discovery will take you all. Keep on re-discovering you.
In Awe Of You,
Danielle M. Olsen
PhD Student & Research Assistant
Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Laboratory
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Chantilly High School (Fairfax County) Class of 2010