The Grey Zone

The Grey Zone

This week, as part of Theme Week, we’re discussing our roles as engineers and how it might change depending on the level/status of the company. Now, I’ve already started by breaking the rules about our little post figure because my ‘company’, SnowU is actually a research university which deals heavily with the research end of the spectrum. However, my area within the spectrum is slightly different because I like to think that my research is right on the border between fundamental research and launching startups, which I’ve dubbed The Grey Zone (and hence the grey arrow). The Grey Zone is that terrible-yet-extraordinarily-wonderful place where you get to work on research topics that feel like they might be commercial products someday.

The Grey Zone is fantastic because…

  1. It’s an easy sell for under/graduate students because not all of them want to be professors. Some fully recognize that working on a practical research topic may provide more benefits than getting a co-authorship in Science or Nature.
  2. There’s a potential to have a startup company spinoff from your research group. I worked for one of those before grad school and it was a fantastic experience. There’s a ton of energy and a sense of purpose to your work.
  3. Once you have a demonstrator of your instrument/product, reliable and consistent funding (so I’m told) can be found which is a good for maintaining a research base in your group. I’m in the process of building several demonstrators so I’ll let you know how it goes in my case.

The Grey Zone is terrible because…

  1. You’re not doing fundamental research which limits your sources of funding. This means you need to incorporate something new and shiny for your proposals which is easily sniffed out by good reviewers. Thus, it makes funding your fantastic ideas more difficult. (I’m in that boat right now with proposals to agencies.)
  2. You’re not doing anything that will be a product in 6 months, thus it’s too far away for companies that have the capital to fund a project to care about it. Presumably, the company will want a tight lip on the project, whereas you’ll want to publish your results. Your grad students would like to graduate and writing a thesis takes away time from actual research. Thus, it makes funding your fantastic ideas more difficult. (I’m in that boat right now with proposals to companies.)
  3. Some of the best students you would want to work with are the ones that want papers in Science, Nature, PRL, Nano Letters, etc. None of my work will ever get a sniff of those types of journals, meaning some very bright and capable students would choose to work in different groups where they had a better shot at publishing in those journals.

As a tenure track prof who dabbles on the more practical side of research, I get to wear many different hats, some of which I like and some I do not. Interacting with and mentoring students is pretty fun. You get to see how, one by one, lights start to go on as they slowly start to understand their research and then build on their basic understanding. Likewise, improving your research results has a similar flavor to it. I’ve written previously that success breeds success for me so I want to work more as I publish/patent more. I also wear a pretty big hat labeled “Fundraiser” which is annoying yet necessary because we do need salaries and toys for the lab.

Overall though, I still think I’m fresh enough at SnowU to say that I haven’t found my exact role (not that it has to be found). But I’m still working out the kinks of managing my research group, securing funding, being a effective teacher, and finding my place within the faculty.


sounds like a cool place to be! up in the Cambridge, MA area, I see a lot of cool work and interesting people coming out of the MIT Media lab, where they very much toe the line between research / product development /startup technology.

on a related note, how would you compare fundamental research to say, a PhD in Shakespearean English? i’m trying to suggest that both sort of evoke the response “oh, that’s interesting from an academic point of you, but how is it useful?”

I would still say that fundamental research (specifically STEM fields) is vastly different than PhD’s in the Humanities. Some of my colleague work on some pretty crazy and “out there” stuff. I think they’re finding interesting, creative, and novel ways to do some amazing things. (I don’t want to be too specific and give some of it away.) But they tend to be at the “can this be done stage” rather than “let’s engineer ways to scale this for practical use”.

For instance, it’s one thing demonstrate that it’s feasible to detect bio/chem agents in the area in small quantities (atomic scales). It’s entirely different to transfer that technology to something that’s ~99% reliable, runs on a AAA battery, and has the same size and cost of an iphone.

I guess on the Humanities side, it’s analogous to understanding the subtle intricacies of Shakespeare’s work versus being a playwright.

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