On a recent night in Chesebrough Auditorium, dozens of engineering students gathered to hear Prof. Emerita Lynn Conway speak on a topic that was decidedly and unashamedly atypical for an engineering lecture: gender dynamics. Conway, an electrical engineer credited with developing some of the design principles responsible for revolutionizing microelectronics and advanced computing, was speaking as part of the Own It keynote lecture, Leading Inclusion: Gender in Engineering. Own It is a student led initiative to promote awareness of social topics in the College of Engineering.

Julia Zarina

Throughout her career as an engineer and prominent transgender activist, Conway has inspired radical changes in both the technological standards and social climates of her field. In addressing some of her own experiences as an acclaimed innovator at both IBM and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and as associate dean of engineering here at the University, Conway’s message to the audience gathered before her was clear: in your personal and professional lives, strive to be daring and adventurous in both what you do and who you are.

It’s a point that speaks to one of the most elusive and rarely addressed issues faced by the engineering community: as people who are largely expected to define ourselves by our competencies, we often struggle with identity in the variety of forms in which it presents itself. On a societal level, we grapple with some of the issues Own It works to discuss. How do we reconcile our identities as diverse individuals with a culture that places the utmost emphasis on uniform technical capability? On an intellectual level, how do we balance our curiosity for the abstract with the concrete demands of real life? And on a technical level: how much do we value the less quantifiable, less practical, but more human aspects of the people we are designing for?

When it comes to research in STEM fields, one of the biggest hurdles engineers and innovators face is relatability. Beyond the cultural stereotypes that all scientists are socially awkward recluses, translating what we consider to be beautiful and timely ideas into marketable, applicable products or systems comes with its own set of challenges. In a world motivated largely by financial and material gain, the usefulness and necessity of a venture is often framed and quantified in terms of its profitability, whether that be economic or otherwise.

There is no more striking example of this external justification than the progression of our national space program. In the United States, space exploration has never been more widely or ardently supported than it was when it aligned with our national security interests during the Space Race. Even today, the upcoming Orion mission to Mars is often justified in the media as worthwhile because of the arguably feasible potential for interstellar mineral mining or as an alternate habitat in a not-so-distant future where our environmentally unsustainable habits have led to the destruction of Earth.

As political and social climates prove to be increasingly unreceptive to funding research programs, the success of appealing for public support is largely contingent on whether the ideas we seek to explore can turn a profit. Congress, Wall Street and our future employers all demand answers to seemingly important questions. Will that product be the next iPhone? Are we graduating enough engineering majors to keep up with India and China? What, exactly, is the point?

Although these may be important considerations to stay grounded in, when taken alone they are misguided motivators that detract from the spirit and true potential of scientific discovery. Limiting the scope of what we are willing to research to areas we foresee to be imminently and materially profitable drastically limits the potential range of discoveries. As advocated by Conway, the future of engineering lies in challenging ourselves to ask the most fundamental and curious questions, even — and especially — when the answers are uncertain.

Even from a strictly economic perspective, the foundations of many of the most significant innovations in the last century were discovered mainly by accident. Spin-offs of seemingly obscure and abstract research have resulted in products no one could have foreseen. Widespread use of GPS systems, cell phones and the Internet are all examples of extremely profitable indirect derivatives of space research — a field of study that politicians and policymakers have slammed in the years following the political power play of the Space Race for literally being too “out there” or irrelevant to life on Earth to be worth our time and money.

In “Particle Fever,” a documentary about the experiments leading up to the identification of the Higgs boson in 2012, David Kaplan discusses his research as a particle physicist at the Large Hadron Collider and addresses some of the most biting criticisms the public has thrown at a project that has been 30 years and billions of dollars in the making.

“Why are we doing it?” he muses in one segment of the film, “One answer is what we tell people, and one answer is the truth … He goes on to identify these two lines of reasoning with one being more grounded in the potential tangible outcomes and the other is simply that exploration is for the sake of understanding. “There’s nothing incorrect about the first answer, but it’s not the thing that drives (scientists) … Basic science for big breakthroughs needs to occur at a level where you are not asking ‘What is the economic gain?’ You’re asking, ‘What do we not know, and how can we make progress?’”

The experiments at the LHC are at the heart of this quest for understanding. The landmark observation of the Higgs boson was, at its essence, an attempt to answer some of these incredibly fundamental questions about the biggest system we are a part of: the known universe. Are the seemingly inflexible laws of nature that we are familiar with just a random statistical blip that has allowed life as we know it to exist in one of infinite multiverses? Are there unseen particles that provide an even bigger picture of the observable universe we think we see fully?

Research motivated purely by economic gain is, quite literally, unfathomably limiting. Even taken at a smaller scale, to explore the unknown simply for the sake of understanding is an eloquent and uniquely human undertaking. While we may be compelled to study finance and government to be masters of our own systems and rise above our peers, we are also compelled to compose new music and build new structures and explore the unknown so that we rise together both collectively and individually.

Some of the greatest achievements in human existence have resulted from ventures where the risk of failure, or at the very least, the risk of no certain financial or material gain, has been highest. Putting a man on the moon, the search for clean and renewable energy and the experiments taking place at the LHC have all been truly diverse, collaborative efforts in which people were willing to put aside their arbitrary differences, instead using them productively to redefine and expand history and our own knowledge.

As an engineer, I am interested in examining these vast, seemingly unsolvable questions in part because it puts our own systems and related problems in perspective. In an interview with The Michigan Daily last year, former Space Shuttle pilot Col. Jack Lousma likened our lives on Earth to the lives of crew members on a giant spaceship orbiting one of an infinite number of stars.

Imagine sending a crew of different and diverse astronauts into orbit on a spaceship perfectly equipped with the conditions they need to thrive and the talents they need to be able to understand new and interesting information about our universe.

Now imagine that instead of using these resources to work toward a successful mission, they instead start killing each other over who gets which corner of the spaceship, polluting the water and air supplies onboard, and suddenly some of the crew arbitrarily decide that their fellow, equally talented crewmates are inherently inferior and develop a set of rules that prevents them from effectively contributing to the mission.

Obviously, such an outcome would ensure that no self-respecting space agency would fund something similar again. It’s an interesting conclusion when you consider the implications of the metaphor in our own, actual lives on Earth where the very things that lead to war, pollution and political power in the first place are often motivated largely by whether they will produce material and personal gain.

As engineers, we are conditioned to think practically, often to a fault. However, there is inherent value both to engineering as a profession and to wider society in focusing on the more abstract questions that seemingly have no answer. We need to be advocates and agents for continued support of exploration. Perhaps in doing so, we will be the ones to develop the next iPhone. Perhaps we won’t. But either way, in the process we will learn to understand ourselves — and the very systems we’ve created — better.

Julia Zarina can be reached at jumilton@umich.edu.

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