Yesterday, I had the opportunity to give a keynote seminar at the University of Western Ontario (UWO) for their first graduate “Putting it into Practice” (PIIP) conference. The goal of the conference was to encourage UWO grad students to look beyond the confines of their research / graduate program and consider how to put their skills and knowledge to a broader use beyond academia. There were two keynote speakers, a series of workshops and job-fair booths in order to allow attendees to learn and explore the range of possibilities out there.
My stripped-down keynote presentation is posted at Slideboom if you’d like to check it out. In it, I discuss briefly my research background and how I combine both applied and basic research. Working with lakes, water quality and fish inevitably leads oneself to consider the importance and impact of that research on people and our environment. Even if I do basic research on how a particular element is transferred through the foodchain, I seem to find myself talking about the ramifications of exposure and sources of that element on an every-day basis. Concerned people, government managers and industry all want to prevent future environmental issues.
I started off with a discussion of the concept of innovation and how research is important for generating capacity for innovation (e.g., ingenuity gap, quoting Dr. Thomas Homer-Dixon) in Canada. Graduate and undergraduate training in both applied and basic research is necessary if Canada needs to develop its human capacity and the ability to adapt to a fast-changing world. Highly trained citizens with a range of problem-solving and creative skills ensures a country can deal with a fast-emerging issues promptly. Moreover, the ability to innovate requires expertise in your chosen field and understanding of key concepts in other fields. Making connections and discussing issues often leads to important solutions and ideas – you want to be “a jack of all trades and master of one trade”. Your degree can just be a piece of a paper — what you do with your expertise and qualifications during and after your degree is what will lead to success.
Universities provide the ideal environment for developing of those skills. Take time to learn more about your department, but also seek out people from other fields and listen to what they have to say. Talk with these people and learn what they are concerned about. Assess your passion, skills and what you truly want to learn. Finally, teaching, research and problem solving skills do not have a clear division. Regardless of whether you are in government, business or academia, you will always doing some combination of all three.
Then I discuss approaches and strategies for being innovative, applying your research within your field and beyond the narrow constraints of one’s discipline. It is important to be an expert in your field, expanding your in-depth expertise as much as you can by reading, writing and presenting. However, understanding how your expertise fits in the big picture and how you can apply your skills across disciplines is a challenge. Multi-disciplinary approaches are common and often involves various experts working on projects and each reporting independently — this likely is far from ideal. True innovation can arise from inter-disciplinary approaches where experts talk about their work with each other and attempt to bridge the gaps. Even better, and far more challenging, are trans-disciplinary work where experts truly learn and understand diverse approaches needed to solve major issues and attempt to synthesize approaches from across disciplines.
Towards the end, I touch upon the challenges becoming a specialized expert in one’s field while still retaining a broad knowledge base and the obstacles which can get in the way of innovative application of your expertise and skills. Ideas are cheap, but nuturing and establishing a really good idea in the “real world” can be challenging. Networking, collaboration, persistence and a clear focus are important.
I ended on a personal note talking about the frustrations of doing my MSc research on a mountain lake where fish couldn’t be found and there were huge July snowstorms. I explained how Cosmoboy joined me thinking he lucked into a free trip to Banff. He found himself rowing across rough waters and pondering blisters on his frozen hands as he assisted me. I showed a photograph of us at this lake taken two years ago and explained that we now look back to that time with some nostalgia and how that started off so many good things despite the frustrations of the moment.
This was an excellent opportunity for me to experiment with new communication styles and approaches. I used a more visual style of presentation incorporating photographic images, and then shared the presentation online. Dr. Munir was the first speaker, so I also had the opportunity to incorporate a bit of “real-time” aspects of the conference in my talk by inserting a photograph of Dr. Munir’s keynote with one of his quotes. Also I found out that I cannot embed slides on our online wordpress blog! Apparently you must download wordpress in order to take advantage of all the plug-ins, including the one for embedding files.
Overall, it was a great deal of fun! I appreciated the opportunity to meet the students, faculty and staff at UWO, and the chance to experiment with various approaches.