Monday, June 22, 2009

Learning to write

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a great article on the importance of writing skills for graduate students. (Thanks to Jitu Padhye for the pointer.) Though nothing in the article surprises me, the article highlights a widespread concern about the lack of formal writing training for grad students. Learning to write effectively is one of the most important skills you need as a grad student, and, of course, as a researcher or faculty member later in life. But we don't actually teach this skill. Most faculty (myself included) seem to expect students know how to write, or will somehow pick it up in the course of their research -- and, presumably, having enough conference papers rejected. Even worse, most students don't realize how bad their writing is. This becomes a real problem if you're a new faculty member trying to get funding, and people can't follow your papers or are unconvinced by your grant proposals. Good writing is everything.

I'm not sure how to solve this problem. Putting my grad students through dry technical writing classes doesn't seem to be the answer. Good scientific writing involves a great deal of subtlety. It is not just about being grammatically correct, but conveying ideas in a convincing manner. This is especially true in computer science, where the goal of most conference papers is to persuade -- to seduce the reader with a Big New Idea, not just to report on the results of a study or new finding. Many courses on scientific writing fail to meet the needs of CS, focusing instead on the dry presentation of methods and data. That is important in CS, of course, but if you compare the structure of your typical Nature or Science article to, say, an SOSP paper, the differences are stark. (On the flip side, I often find CS papers tend to fluff up a fairly simple idea with a lot of marketing to make the ideas seem more earth-shattering than they really are. Seriously, how is a minor tweak to the 802.11 MAC protocol going to change the way we think about the nature of human communication?)

Any suggestions on better ways to teach our grad students how to become great writers?

Monday, June 1, 2009

Making collaborations work

I've been fortunate to have several productive collaborations with domain scientists in fields such as seismology, emergency medicine, rehabilitation medicine, and public health. One of the exciting things about sensor networks is that they open up avenues for this kind of cross-disciplinary work, but there are always challenges in getting new collaborations off the ground. I've been doing some thinking about some of the keys to successful links between CS and domain science.

Mutual respect for each other's field. I often hear CS people say that "those physicists" (for example) just need CS people to "make their code run fast." It's a conceit that only computer scientists know how to program -- the domain scientists I've worked with often build and maintain complex software systems. By the same token, it's really helpful when domain scientists "gets" what turns a computer scientist on -- not just implementing something to get the job done, but trying to do it in the right way, or more efficiently, generally, or elegantly than what you might try at first blush. If each side sees a caricature of the other it's harder to find common ground where you can work together for mutual benefit.

Research potential. Of course, for a collaboration to make sense there has to be publishable research on both the CS and the domain science side. Unfortunately, when first starting out it is rarely evident that this is the case, so some amount of blind faith is necessary to get the ball rolling. Hopefully, by the time you've solved the "easy" problems you've opened the door to some really exciting "hard" problems. I'm better now than I used to be at determining whether a given collaboration has long-term potential, but it's not always straightforward. As an example, when we first started working with clinicians at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, most of the work was straightforward hacking to stream data from a set of motes to a laptop base station. This has evolved into a long-term research effort involving innovations in sensor network resource management, signal processing, and data quality optimizations. This was not obvious when we first started the project.

Patience. Cross-domain collaborations take a lot of time to get established and yield results. This steep learning curve definitely slows down the research effort. Our first volcano sensor network deployment in 2004 was really about us learning how the seismologists do field work, and how they collect and analyze data. It wasn't for another year that we were able to go back to the field with a system that was remotely useful. Likewise, our colleagues in seismology haven't yet been able to directly use the data we have collected with our sensor networks, since it is not a direct replacement for how they do their work. All the same, we've been able to publish a number of papers together and have learned many things that have fed into our ongoing research and no small number of grant proposals.

Blind luck. It's also true that I've been extremely lucky to find some of the collaborators that I have. I got connected with seismology through a former student of Margo Seltzer's who happened to do some summer work with Jonathan Lees, a geophysicist at UNC who happens to work on volcanoes (and is a huge geek to boot). Some of our medical projects got started by people simply coming up to me after I gave a talk on my work. It helps to be open to opportunities, though it involves building many "bridges to nowhere." In the end I think it's been worth it.