At different milestones in our career, we should look back and reflect on our successes and failures, to learn from them and continue to mindfully move forward. As we are celebrating MobiCom’s twentieth year, we are honored to have the opportunity to discuss our successes and failures at this particular milestone with three OCA winners, namely Professor Leonard Kleinrock, Professor Randy H. Katz, and Professor David J. Goodman. The moderator of this panel was Victor Bahl from MSR.
Throughout the Q&A, the panel is presented with questions by either Victor Bahl or from the audience. For many of the fundamental questions, particularly regarding academia, research, as well as the elements of success and failure as a researcher and academic, the panel members were in close agreement – so much so in fact that a few of the questions were answered by a single panel member. The panel was also not void of any humor 🙂 It was a fun, humorous, insightful, and informal discussion with three great minds.
The questions directed to the OCA winners covered various topics, from trivia such as their favorite book, to deep questions such as how do they decide on the winning research direction, and whether in their reputable career, they knew that the directions they were going to pursue would be successful. I will start with a few of the trivia questions. You will find that this blogger shamefully forgot some of the trivia details. Pitch in if you have a better recollection of that discussion!
The trivia questions were a fun way to get to know the panel a little informally. They were first asked who influenced them the most. What this blogger was touched by was that Leonard sighted his mother as his greatest influencer (we should all be very grateful for the strong and loving women in our lives and the kind of support that provides us with early on). Professor Kleinrock’s mother allowed him to play around without restrictions. He says this fostered his experimental mindset, where anything can be subject to fun exploration. David in his turn mentions that the person that influenced him the most was in fact Leonard Kleinrock! David says that he read Leonard’s thesis in the library. Finally, Randy says that he was influenced by Isaac Asimov.
The second trivia question was on which book influenced them the most. Randy refers to a science fiction author, which unfortunately this blogger cannot remember 🙂 Leonard was influenced by some book on management, which this blogger does not remember either! To the reader, please pitch in if you remember! (This is turning out to be quite embarrassing, but luckily it ends here)
The panel was then presented with more serious questions, starting with how do they decide on the winning research direction, and whether in their reputable career, they knew that the directions they were going to pursue would be successful. The panel unanimously agreed that a researcher should purse “the directions that are new” as Leonard puts it, or the “low hanging fruit” as David describes it, and primarily to pursue the directions the researcher would feel passionate about. Randy particularly says “you have to love what you do and do what you love.” As for whether they knew that the directions they pursued were going to be successful, Leonard emphasizes that one does not initially know for sure.
The discussion then transitions to the panel members’ thoughts on research today, and particularly the pressures and requirements placed on starting professors. The question is preceded with a question to the audience, as to how many of the professors felt pressure in publishing before tenureship, and there was quite a raise of hands. Leonard then comments and laments that the tenureship process makes research competitive rather than cooperative, which is an unfortunate circumstance. He emphasizes that change is required to make the tenureship process less pressured, but that this change will not happen anytime soon, as it has become part of the working system.
Randy then adds that, “you either do good research, or you do a lot of it.” He emphasizes that despite the pressure, it is still important to ignore the formalities and requirements and focus on doing good research. Leonard particularly agreed on Randy’s point, as that was the approach he adopted in his day, and the one that he recommends to follow.
David then pitches in by describing his PhD process. He talks about how his adviser had given David the complete freedom to pursue the research that he felt compelled to do. He reflects on how this process might be different from the advisor-student experience today, particularly for pre-tenureship professors, and how the professor’s pressure to publish also affects the student’s process of research discovery.
We then ask the panel what was the most challenging thing for them to do, and if there was something that they did that was against the grain. Randy replied that for him, the most challenging thing was learning not to overreach. He talks about a big research arrangement he had with some companies just before the financial crash. After the crash, he spent the next five years searching for funding for about 20 grad students and post docs that he had already hired. He then continues that taking up a job in Washington was something he did that was against the grain, and this gave him a different perspective on how research funding is allocated and could actually influence something.
Finally, they were asked what is their impression on the next big sensor. Leonard indicates bio-sensors, while Randy the Internet of Things.
We then asked the panel what they love most about research. They collectively agreed that it is the family tree: the graduate students. They seem to like the idea of having influenced lives rather than actually making technical contributions of any sort. Leonard then adds that in academia, we can believe that publications are the point of the realm, but in his opinion, it is actually the students that are the point of the realm: how students can challenge their advisers through new topics and the interesting things they bring to the table, and even in how they ignore their advisor’s advice.
This discussion with three extremely successful (and fun!) academics shed some light on their perspectives concerning research and what they believe is important in academia. They also bring up a topic that we do not discuss too often: the importance of apprenticing our graduate students to do good research of their own.