bridging interfaces

bridging interfaces

We need to do a better job of intentionally putting ourselves at interfaces.

A simple example from this past weekend.

I’m in Boston with my sister, partly to celebrate her 23rd birthday with her (tomorrow!) and partly to be her moral support as she speaks at a medical conference.

We’re staying with Chang, one of her friends from Princeton, and this past Saturday, had a little night-time gathering with other alumni who were in the area.

So, we’re sipping sparkling cider out of transparent plastic cups, and the conversation inevitably swerved towards politics, specifically the recent Supreme Court ruling in favour of the Christian baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a homosexual couple.

I have to confess that I’ve been pretty disconnected from American politics, and so chose reticence over blurting out something that would only reinforce the stereotype of an uninformed, dogmatic Conservative.

And so, I sat back and let the echo chamber unintentionally created simply by an elevated concentration of Ivy League graduates in one area play out in front of me.

“I don’t understand how anyone could vote for Trump. How could anyone see past his misogyny?” Of course, the discussion had culminated into an extended outcry against Trump, and by extension, Trump-voters.

I wonder if this fundamental misunderstanding of a Trump-voter perspective is what perpetuates polarization and even strengthens the pro-Trump camp, who feel unfairly misrepresented.

David Brooks writes in the New York Times:

Part of the problem is that anti-Trumpism has a tendency to be insufferably condescending. Trump opponents, the academics say, are open-minded and value independence and novelty. Trump supporters, they continue, are closed-minded, change-averse and desperate for security.

Is this black-and-white division of people a fair treatment of the complexities that form unique individuals?

Or do they arise from our desire to have our own worldview and ideologies reinforced, our unwillingness to interface with “the other” so that we can sort complex people into these neat boxes of adjectives?

What makes a good PhD student? This question occupies my mind space quite frequently.

My answer to it has evolved over my first year in graduate school.

When I entered grad school, my archetype of a successful PhD student was one who published a lot in high-impact journals, churned out results in a predictable manner and worked in the lab long hours.

To my dismay, even though I very much desired to conform to this archetype, I wasn’t producing these results.

Staying in the lab longer did not have a correlation with more results. And without these results, I couldn’t publish high-impact. I became stuck a lot. I couldn’t replicate results. I didn’t know what was in my control to change this.

A year later, success looks more like staying inspired and motivated. It’s thinking in a different way, finding new ways to innovate and create.

It looks like not simply repeating the same failed experiment over again, but being able to disconnect for a bit from the emotional investment, and re-evaluate your process. From Step One.

It looks like finding that one paper, that flash of inspiration, that “what if” creeping up on you, swelling into young, perhaps premature hope.

And it looks like forcing yourself to stay at that interface, instead of getting sucked into the black hole of your own field – so that you can continue to vision of how the technology you’re working on will be relevant and useful to the world.

In fact, I believe the best innovation happens at the interface.

If we are to create better biomedical technologies that significantly improve patient outcomes, there needs to be greater focus on bridging translation from the lab to the clinic.

As academic biomedical scientists, it is not enough to simply focus on churning out papers, and expect someone else to chance upon our results and make the technology a viable option in the clinic.

We need to know what the major challenges doctors are facing, and how we can specifically meet the most pertinent needs of diagnostics and therapy

So that’s me – I’m curious about what would happen when we reach across boundaries.

The intersection of the doctor with the academic scientist, the Liberal with the Conservative, the rural Chinese peasant with the city-raised American, the Muslim with the Christian, the poor and homeless with the rich and educated.

The farm-fresh eggs are nestled in their carton – smooth, light brown, except for one that is white, slightly speckled.

I tap the brown egg against the black metal of the frying pan, the porcelain shell cracking on the third tap.

Fingering the crack and pulling the two halves gently apart, I release its gelatinous contents into the smoking pan.

It sizzles loudly on impact, then spreads out lazily, the bulging yolk lolling about in its fluid.

I do the same with the white egg and their fluids coalesce into a misshapen glob.

Chang peers over my shoulder, examining the two sunny-side-up globs in the pan.

“Did you crack the white one in?”

“Yup, it’s that one,” I use my spatula I’m wielding to point to the egg on the left.

He pauses, and we both think the same thing:

“It’s crazy eh, how they may look different on the outside, but are exactly the same on the inside,” Chang breaks the silence.

I nod as I check the undersides of the eggs with my spatula.

If we truly believed that, perhaps we would find more of us at interfaces where real human connection and creative innovation take place.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How do you intentionally place yourself at interfaces – be they social, political, economic, or vocational? What have you learned at that interface? How has it made you grow as a person?

  2. What do you think can be done to bridge these oft-disparate realms of society? How we can see more collaboration between doctors and scientists? Between liberals and conservatives?

Leave a thought :)

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