13 May 2011

A (Scientific) Miracle on Graduation Day

UC Berkeley, College of Engineering

I wanted to share this story as a follow up to my recent post on the creativity and imagination inherent, yet under-acknowledged, in the STEM fields. I suggest taking a look at the article in full.

Austin Whitney, a young man paralyzed in a 2007 alcohol-related car accident, will graduate from UC Berkeley this weekend. Along with his classmates, he will cross the dais, accept his diploma, and shake hands with Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. And, again like his classmates, he will do it on foot.

Thanks to some remarkable innovations developed by mechanical engineering faculty and graduate students, Austin will be able to walk across the stage with the aid of a robotic exoskeleton. The research and achievement themselves are remarkable but I thought it was worth noting that the team behind this breakthrough have made it clear that research and design in this case have not been an exercise in knowledge and progress "for their own sake."

Throughout the research and design process, which Austin has participated in for the last several years, the team has focused on questions of usability, reliability, and affordability. They weren’t simply focused on making the fanciest contraption possible and adding lines to their resumes. The temptation to flex some design muscle was there of course and at least one of the researchers acknowledged the challenge of avoiding over-engineering. But, as another researcher explained, “Our goal was to create a workhorse device able to faithfully handle the most essential tasks of daily life.”

The result, Austin said, is “much more than just steel and circuits – it has been built with compassion and a great devotion to the idea of touching lives all around this world.”

It’s just one more example of the way in which university-based research – including work in the STEM fields – is not, at least not when it is at its best, about useless abstractions and journal publications. The great innovators and practitioners on campuses around the world work tirelessly to balance the purely intellectual value of new knowledge and technology against other, very human concerns. They do it with a deep-seated desire to make the world a better place… not on paper or in the lab but in the lives of real people and communities. For that, I believe, they deserve more credit than they get.

And, by the way, can I get a “GO BEARS!?”

* * *

Congratulations to the graduating Class of 2011. Where ever you are and whatever your field of study, accept your degree and celebrate your achievement with pride. (However, as Austin Whitney would remind you, please celebrate responsibly and safely.) As you head out for your next venture, take the best traditions of higher learning with you. You never know… by combining your knowledge and achievement with creativity, compassion, and a desire to accomplish meaningful and relevant things outside of yourself, you might perform something close to a miracle.