A Way to Make a Contribution

I know excellent Information Technology people who have traveled winding professional byways to arrive at their current position.  From where I stand, that’s great – contributions can come from many different experiences and perspectives.

Which isn’t to say I’m never surprised. I was traveling – believe it or not – from Syracuse  New York to Pasco Washington (with stops at Chicago O’Hare and Denver). That’s a lot of stops, and therefore a lot of things to go wrong. My National Lab friends in Washington gave me about a 50-50 chance of running the gauntlet and arriving in Pasco in the early afternoon (Pacific Time).

If I got there, we were to continue our work on a very interesting project in predictive analytics, involving the estimation of inorganic semiconductor materials design properties.  That’s both a mouthful, and a rather obscure corner of the analytics world, but the idea is simple enough: use information on existing materials to estimate the properties of unmade ones. Semiconductor development is very expensive – so if you can estimate well enough you can focus on the stuff that’s going to be good, saving much time and many dollars.

I left Syracuse at 6 AM ET, and – so far, so good – arrived at O’Hare on time. On time meant, in this case, a little time on my hands, so I got breakfast and parked myself, my suitcase, and my laptop computer in a seat at the departure gate.   I don’t know the reason for this, but there are gates at O’Hare with far too few seats for the departing aircraft.  This gate area had perhaps 100 seats, and the aircraft had, well, more.

No matter – I was there early, so I easily found a seat,  opened up my laptop, and started to work.  I had a presentation slide to finish – this had become an urgent matter, as it was to be completed by the time I arrived in Washington.  The actual work was done, but my Powerpoint slides were, shall we say, still coming together.  One slide – a status summary – had my full attention – it was a flotsam of charts,  graphs, diagrams, and uncooperative molecules.  No title yet – just stuff.

Apparently as I was working, I had pushed my suitcase away with my feet, my laptop case had fallen over, and I was the guy in the gate who was hogging multiple seats, in a  gate area that was now full of people.  But no one bothered me at first – I suppose they looked at me working and thought, Oh, I’ve been there. Leave the poor guy alone.

I was reintroduced to my surroundings by a voice saying “Excuse me.”  I looked up, to see a woman holding my suitcase. “I’m sorry to bother you – is this yours?  Would you mind if I sat down?”

I realized what I had been doing, so I apologized, thanked her for collecting my bag, and asked her to have a seat.  She was a uniformed flight attendant, very pleasant and talkative. She couldn’t resist ribbing me slightly about my bag; she volunteered she had been a flight attendant for a year or so;  she liked it pretty well so far; the airline was a good company; it was great to be able to visit family and friends; she felt her job was secure.  I was learning a lot.

Then, “I’m sorry to be talking so much.  I should let you get back to your presentation – it looks pretty interesting.” Presuming that the commercial airlines did not require their flight attendants to be conversant in physics and predictive analytics, I wondered for a moment about “interesting,” but took this as as a typical small talk conversation-closer. “Interesting” can be one of those words – whatever it means, it often isn’t what the dictionary says.  But it’s a good way to nicely wrap up a short talk.

My neighbor retrieved her phone and began to text, and I returned to the Battle of the Uncooperative Slide. She was probably making better progress than I was.  I tried moving a couple of things, and blew away something that was entirely extraneous.  Yeah, that might be a better.  I was starting to feel like I was getting someplace.  I made a safety copy, and tried a few more changes.  I thought, OK, that’s enough.  As I leaned back to stretch, I became aware that my new acquaintance had donned glasses, and was reviewing the contents of my screen with genuine focus and dictionary-definition interest.  I looked over.

She was embarrassed. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t plan to look at your computer, but when I glanced at it before it was so interesting.”

OK, but I had worked on the slide far too long, and now I wasn’t sure it was interesting. But I told her, “It’s not a problem at all. Everything’s in the public domain, and you’re welcome to look.” I turned my laptop screen in her direction, so she didn’t have to strain to see my slightly improved PowerPoint slide.

After a minute or so of study, she looked at me and said, “Are you working on predictive analytics for inorganic materials design – like semiconductors or something?”

Or something? But when you’re right, you’re right. “That’s correct – it’s a semiconductor design problem.” While I’ve learned not to be surprised by people’s backgrounds or interests, I did find myself thinking: Is there not an incongruity here?  This woman is probably in her low-to-mid 20’s, has sufficient knowledge of chemistry, physics, and analytics to interpret my slide, and is now enjoying her new career as a flight attendant.  I thought I’d just wait to see what next question was – the trajectory of this discussion clearly had little to do with me.

She asked to have my laptop for a moment, to better see the details of one of the plots.    “Is that graph really true?  Generated current per photon is not a function of density? That seems strange – doesn’t electron density matter?”

“Well it does, but not from a design perspective. Other properties are more important.”

She frowned – this was an unexpected development. After a pause she said, “Oh – wait a minute. The other properties are correlated! Oh, right. And the current will be much more sensitive to things like band gap. OK, I get it!”

Which was pretty interesting, because there were a lot of people in the scientific community who did not understand this.  I finally decided I had better ask, “Where did you study chemistry?”

She had studied at a Big Ten school, and as part of her senior thesis decided to look into analytics-driven materials design. By pure coincidence, she worked with a guy in the same field as our research.   An economic meltdown occurred near the time she was graduating, so she was looking for any available job. The airlines were hiring, and she liked travel – bringing her to the O’Hare airport on this particular Wednesday.    “Besides, I didn’t want to just camp out with my parents,” she told me.

So, she made a little contribution to what we were doing.   She had enough of the qualifications – and more importantly none of the disqualifications – to look at a graph and validate our reasoning from an outside perspective.  The undercurrent of established research thought made it harder for people in the community to accept our graph, although eventually they did.

Later that day I arrived at my destination on time (!) and with my slides mostly ready. We went out to a late lunch, and of course my friends asked about my flight. No one expects to get a real response to that question – doctors will check your pulse, and friends will ask about your flight, all for the same reason – to see if you’re essentially functional.  But this time I was ready for them.  “You guys,” I told them, “wait until I tell you who just validated some of our analytics reasoning.”

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