Saturday, October 31, 2009

NSF Previous Research

I have substantial research experience through undergraduate research programs and engineering companies. I have done well at each project and job because in addition to be technically skilled, I take initiative, and I persevere. These assets generalize to systems engineering. First-hand knowledge of the innovation and development process helps me better understand the challenges for technology policy. Since I’m particularly interested in energy systems engineering, experience in the electrical engineering industry is extremely relevant. Plus, some of the problem solving skills and math I learned from electrical engineering is related to the math in systems engineering.

During the summer after my junior year, I did a UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program) in the Smart Cities Group headed by Bill Mitchell. I worked on a project called Tripwire for Tad Hirsch, then a PhD candidate in the group. The San Jose airport is located near residential areas, inhabited primarily by low-income minorities, and there is evidence that the resulting noise pollution is harmful to children as well as wildlife. I made a wireless device that would listen for planes overhead and then automatically call the customer complaint hotline for the airport. I used a small microphone to listen for planes, and a microcontroller to process the signal and communicate with an attached cell phone. These battery powered components were put in a hollowed-out coconut and hung in a tree. When a plane is detected, the microcontroller commands the cell phone to call a server that Tad set up, which would then call the airport with recorded messages from people and animals complaining about the noise. It was installed at ZeroOne San Jose: A Global Festival of Art on the Edge & the Thirteenth International Symposium of Electronic Art (ISEA2006) August 7-13, 2006. It was exciting to consider the wider impacts of the device as a tool to empower the disenfranchised.

When I worked in industry, I found that goals of funders and customers really influence research and technology development. I worked at Boston Dynamics, a legged robotics company that was founded by Marc Raibert in 1992 from the Legged Robotics Lab at MIT. Boston Dynamics was a research company, and Big Dog was almost wholly funded by DARPA grants. As a result, it was presented as a pack mule for the army, and the research was geared towards things that would be useful to the army, which are for it to be able to climb hills while carrying a load. I also worked at Tagsense, a small RFID company founded by Rich Fletcher, who is also a researcher at the MIT Media Lab. Tagsense has a few standard products, but a large part of their business was custom design solutions. Most of the customers are businesses interested in implementing RFID technology into their products. Many technology firms start out doing custom designs before putting out standard products so that the design engineers can work on new technology rather than making small custom modifications to the same product. That was the case for Synqor as well, a power electronics company I have been working at since I graduated. They now have hundreds of standard products. However, they continue to work on custom designs, which are sometimes completely new designs that start a new line of standard products. Working at so many different places has given me insight into the industry. It has made me more interested in policy to identify research and technology needed for a sustainable world since I am no longer sure that the most needed technology necessarily gets the funding needed to get developed.

I also worked at a startup venture called Reaction Time LLC as the sole engineer. I worked with Thomas Hawkins, who had an idea for reaction time training device for lacrosse players that would be connected to a computer. He wanted a training device that would simulate a ball machine so that athletes in college can practice in their dorms to accommodate their busy schedules. That is, instead of actually shooting a ball towards a player, it plays a movie of a ball being shot towards a player in one of eight positions. The player responds by putting the racket in the corresponding position. There are eight USB devices to be positioned around a room, and they have proximity sensors, which send signals back to the software when the racket comes close. The software calculates the time it took for the player to “hit” the right device, records the data, and then draws a graph. Not only would this be more convenient, this would allow sports training to be more quantitative and methodical. I designed and built the software, hardware, and firmware. I learned a lot since I was the only engineer, and it was exciting to be a part of a start up venture.

At Reaction Time LLC and at my UROP, I worked for people who were not in my field, and I had to discern the best course of action and work more independently. Tad is a computer programmer and artist rather than an electrical engineer so it was up to me to design and build the hardware. Thomas Hawkins is a manager in the medical insurance field. He had the idea for a product, but I also contributed significantly to the details of the product design as I was implementing his idea. For Tad and Tom, I researched options with estimated execution times and budgets and present them along with my recommendations. It was risky, and I was not always right, but it is important try things out instead of being paralyzed with indecision. In cases where I am wrong or make a mistake, I simply reevaluate the situation, present my findings, and change the plans.

At Synqor, I had more guidance, and I also gained experience working in a team. Synqor is a power electronics company founded by MIT professor Marty Schlecht, coauthor of the textbook for the power electronics graduate class. One of the responsibilities of my team is to troubleshoot and fix units that have failed at the automatic testing stations. I have become very rigorous at collecting proof so that I can communicate my findings to others especially senior design engineers. Several times, things I noticed that seemed like component tolerance issues turned out to be design issues or wrong components. I also characterize new products and design tests to make sure they are robust before they go onto the market. I assist the head design engineers by debugging the problems and collecting data so they can fix the design. One product line I brought to release earlier this year is used in a fuel cell drone by NRL, which recently completed a 23 hour flight.

I have been part of almost every stage of innovation and product development, and I have worked at companies at different stages of growth. I am an independent worker, and I enjoy taking initiative on projects. I work well with many different kinds of people because I have strong communication skills. I also have a strong math background from all my engineering experiences. I have also taken a few policy courses including Rise of China and Regulation of Chemicals, Radiation, and Biotechnology. I have done independent research on social issues, and I have helped develop content for talks on sustainability. I want to combine the skills I have acquired from engineering with my interest in policy. When designing electronic circuits, it’s important to have a good model to simulate the design on the computer. I want to apply this concept to designing energy technology policy, and I can do that as a systems engineer.

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