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Sep 10th 2011 | from the print edition
ANIL POTTI, Joseph Nevins and their colleagues at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, garnered widespread attention in 2006. They reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that they could predict the course of a patient’s lung cancer using devices called expression arrays, which log the activity patterns of thousands of genes in a sample of tissue as a colourful picture (see above). A few months later, they wrote in Nature Medicine that they had developed a similar technique which used gene expression in laboratory cultures of cancer cells, known as cell lines, to predict which chemotherapy would be most effective for an individual patient suffering from lung, breast or ovarian cancer.
At the time, this work looked like a tremendous advance for personalised medicine—the idea that understanding the molecular specifics of an individual’s illness will lead to a tailored treatment. The papers drew adulation from other workers in the field, and many newspapers, including this one (see article), wrote about them. The team then started to organise a set of clinical trials of personalised treatments for lung and breast cancer. Unbeknown to most people in the field, however, within a few weeks of the publication of the Nature Medicine paper a group of biostatisticians at the MD Anderson Cancer Centre in Houston, led by Keith Baggerly and Kevin Coombes, had begun to find serious flaws in the work.
Dr Baggerly and Dr Coombes had been trying to reproduce Dr Potti’s results at the request of clinical researchers at the Anderson centre who wished to use the new technique. When they first encountered problems, they followed normal procedures by asking Dr Potti, who had been in charge of the day-to-day research, and Dr Nevins, who was Dr Potti’s supervisor, for the raw data on which the published analysis was based—and also for further details about the team’s methods, so that they could try to replicate the original findings.
A can of worms
Dr Potti and Dr Nevins answered the queries and publicly corrected several errors, but Dr Baggerly and Dr Coombes still found the methods’ predictions were little better than chance. Furthermore, the list of problems they uncovered continued to grow. For example, they saw that in one of their papers Dr Potti and his colleagues had mislabelled the cell lines they used to derive their chemotherapy prediction model, describing those that were sensitive as resistant, and vice versa. This meant that even if the predictive method the team at Duke were describing did work, which Dr Baggerly and Dr Coombes now seriously doubted, patients whose doctors relied on this paper would end up being given a drug they were less likely to benefit from instead of more likely.
Another alleged error the researchers at the Anderson centre discovered was a mismatch in a table that compared genes to gene-expression data. The list of genes was shifted with respect to the expression data, so that the one did not correspond with the other. On top of that, the numbers and names of cell lines used to generate the data were not consistent. In one instance, the researchers at Duke even claimed that their work made biological sense based on the presence of a gene, called ERCC1, that is not represented on the expression array used in the team’s experiments.
Even with all these alleged errors, the controversy might have been relegated to an arcane debate in the scientific literature if the team at Duke had not chosen, within a few months of the papers’ publication (and at the time questions were being raised about the data’s quality) to launch three clinical trials based on their work. Dr Potti and his colleagues also planned to use their gene-expression data to guide therapeutic choices in a lung-cancer trial paid for by America’s National Cancer Institute (NCI). That led Lisa McShane, a biostatistician at the NCI who was already concerned about Dr Potti’s results, to try to replicate the work. She had no better luck than Dr Baggerly and Dr Coombes. The more questions she asked, the less concrete the Duke methods appeared.
In light of all this, the NCI expressed its concern about what was going on to Duke University’s administrators. In October 2009, officials from the university arranged for an external review of the work of Dr Potti and Dr Nevins, and temporarily halted the three trials. The review committee, however, had access only to material supplied by the researchers themselves, and was not presented with either the NCI’s exact concerns or the problems discovered by the team at the Anderson centre. The committee found no problems, and the three trials began enrolling patients again in February 2010.
Finally, in July 2010, matters unravelled when the Cancer Letter reported that Dr Potti had lied in numerous documents and grant applications. He falsely claimed to have been a Rhodes Scholar in Australia (a curious claim in any case, since Rhodes scholars only attend Oxford University). Dr Baggerly’s observation at the time was, “I find it ironic that we have been yelling for three years about the science, which has the potential to be very damaging to patients, but that was not what has started things rolling.”
A bigger can?
By the end of 2010, Dr Potti had resigned from Duke, the university had stopped the three trials for good, scientists from elsewhere had claimed that Dr Potti had stolen their data for inclusion in his paper in the New England Journal, and officials at Duke had started the process of retracting three prominent papers, including the one in Nature Medicine. (The paper in the New England Journal, not one of these three, was also retracted, in March of this year.) At this point, the NCI and officials at Duke asked the Institute of Medicine, a board of experts that advises the American government, to investigate. Since then, a committee of the institute, appointed for the task, has been trying to find out what was happening at Duke that allowed the problems to continue undetected for so long, and to recommend minimum standards that must be met before this sort of work can be used to guide clinical trials in the future.
At the committee’s first meeting, in December 2010, Dr McShane stunned observers by revealing her previously unpublished investigation of the Duke work. Subsequently, the committee’s members interviewed Dr Baggerly about the problems he had encountered trying to sort the data. He noted that in addition to a lack of unfettered access to the computer code and consistent raw data on which the work was based, journals that had readily published Dr Potti’s papers were reluctant to publish his letters critical of the work. Nature Medicine published one letter, with a rebuttal from the team at Duke, but rejected further comments when problems continued. Other journals that had carried subsequent high-profile papers from Dr Potti behaved in similar ways. (Dr Baggerly and Dr Coombes did not approach the New England Journal because, they say, they “never could sort that work enough to make critical comments to the journal”.) Eventually, the two researchers resorted to publishing their criticisms in a statistical journal, which would be unlikely to reach the same audience as a medical journal.
Two subsequent sessions of the committee have included Duke’s point of view. At one of these, in March 2011, Dr Nevins admitted that some of the data in the papers had been “corrupted”. He continued, though, to claim ignorance of the problems identified by Dr Baggerly and Dr Coombes until the Rhodes scandal broke, and to support the overall methods used in the papers—though he could not explain why he had not detected the problems even when alerted to anomalies.
At its fourth, and most recent meeting, on August 22nd, the committee questioned eight scientists and administrators from Duke. Rob Califf, a vice-chancellor in charge of clinical research, asserted that what had happened was a case of the “Swiss-cheese effect” in which 15 different things had to go awry to let the problems slip through unheeded. Asked by The Economist to comment on what was happening, he said, “As we evaluated the issues, we had the chance to review our systems and we believe we have identified, and are implementing, an improved approach.”
The university’s lapses and errors included being slow to deal with potential financial conflicts of interest declared by Dr Potti, Dr Nevins and other investigators, including involvement in Expression Analysis Inc and CancerGuide DX, two firms to which the university also had ties. Moreover, Dr Califf and other senior administrators acknowledged that once questions arose about the work, they gave too much weight to Dr Nevins and his judgment. That led them, for example, to withhold Dr Baggerly’s criticisms from the external-review committee in 2009. They also noted that the internal committees responsible for protecting patients and overseeing clinical trials lacked the expertise to review the complex, statistics-heavy methods and data produced by experiments involving gene expression.
That is a theme the investigating committee has heard repeatedly. The process of peer review relies (as it always has done) on the goodwill of workers in the field, who have jobs of their own and frequently cannot spend the time needed to check other people’s papers in a suitably thorough manner. (Dr McShane estimates she spent 300-400 hours reviewing the Duke work, while Drs Baggerly and Coombes estimate they have spent nearly 2,000 hours.) Moreover, the methods sections of papers are supposed to provide enough information for others to replicate an experiment, but often do not. Dodgy work will out eventually, as it is found not to fit in with other, more reliable discoveries. But that all takes time and money.
The Institute of Medicine expects to complete its report, and its recommendations, in the middle of next year. In the meantime, more retractions are coming, according to Dr Califf. The results of a misconduct investigation are expected in the next few months and legal suits from patients who believe they were recruited into clinical trials under false pretences will probably follow.
The whole thing, then, is a mess. Who will carry the can remains to be seen. But the episode does serve as a timely reminder of one thing that is sometimes forgotten. Scientists are human, too.
Correction: This article originally stated that by the end of 2010 officials at Duke University began the process of retracting five papers. That should have been three papers. This was corrected on September 8th.
from the print edition | Science and technology
some of the biggest breakthroughs have comes from ruthless rogues
July 8, 2011 10:07 pm
Review by Clive Cookson
Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science, by Michael Brooks, Profile, RRP£12.99, 312 pages
Fraud and data manipulation, suppression of rivals’ research, huge egos, intensive PR campaigns, drug-induced inspiration ... The world of science described by Michael Brooks is far from the image of sober, sedate rectitude long promoted by the scientific establishment.
Free Radicals is fun to read. Brooks, a professional science writer, capers through the exploits of scores of brilliant and often ruthless rogues – some living, many long dead – who have won Nobel prizes or otherwise pushed science forward. Some of its biggest names turn out to be the dirtiest players.
Albert Einstein, whose name is synonymous with genius, crops up in several chapters – “a perfect example of the character that will produce great science and think nothing of the misdemeanours that such breakthroughs demand,” as Brooks puts it.
The author starts by reminding us of Einstein’s unappealing personal life – among other things making passes at his mistress’s daughter, breaking his promise to give all his Nobel prize money to his wife Mileva, evading tax and abandoning his schizophrenic son to die a “third-class” patient in a mental institution.
Then the book analyses the many “shady moments” in Einstein’s professional life: cherry-picking data to support his theories, appropriating advances made by others and, once he had made his name, using fame shamelessly for further self-advancement.
The equation most closely associated with Einstein, E=mc2, did not come as a surprise to those in the know when he first proposed it in 1905, Brooks claims. And Einstein failed in eight attempts to prove E=mc2 during the next 41 years, though others succeeded – yet he had appropriated the equation as his own and he dismissed attempts to set the record straight, with aggressive assertions of his “priority”.
Although Brooks denies doing his own cherry-picking by focusing on a series of celebrated scientists who blatantly cut corners and promoted their own careers, I do not accept his assertion that such behaviour runs through the whole of science. There may, indeed, be extensive low-level cheating among the scientific grassroots, as Brooks maintains, but to compare this with what happens at the top is like equating the fiddling of expenses among junior commercial staff with serious disregard for business ethics by senior executives.
All we can really conclude, if we accept the accuracy of the stories in Free Radicals, is that brilliance alone is not sufficient to shine in science, any more than in other fields. In science, just as in business, politics, sport and the arts, you also need ambition and self-promotion. It’s very rare to win honours and gain recognition if you’re spending decades quietly in the scientific wilderness.
Charm and charisma help, too. So do persistence and hard work. Honesty is more important in the more open and transparent, and I would say more moral, scientific world of today than it was in the past, though even now really clever deception can get you a long way.
Brooks believes that scientists must let their “secret anarchy” come into the open if research is to advance at the pace society needs to solve an overwhelming set of problems during the 21st century.
He is right to some extent. Scientists have been too quiet for half a century, complying with Winston Churchill’s famous observation that they “should be on tap but not on top”. They need to mobilise, agitate and kick up more of a stink on important issues, as Brooks says.
But encouraging selfish determination to succeed at any price, as exhibited by Newton, Einstein and some other great names of the past, will not help the cause of science, or society.
Clive Cookson is the FT’s science editor
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011.
By April Dembosky in San Francisco
An increase in the number of students dropping out of US universities to follow their dreams and launch start-up companies in Silicon Valley may be the latest sign of an internet bubble, according to industry experts.
Professors at MIT, Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley, three universities with a strong tradition as IT powerhouses, confirm an uptick in entrepreneurial dropouts as students seek to emulate the examples of famously successful non-graduates such as Bill Gates at Microsoft, Steve Jobs at Apple and Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook.
About a dozen college dropouts interviewed by the Financial Times said that they knew others who had made a similar choice. All confirmed investor willingness to fund them.
“They want to see that you believe your story enough to risk everything for it,” said Julia Hu, who left MIT when she got funding to build her sleeping device company, Lark. “They don’t like to fund non-committed entrepreneurs. In that sense, it’s in their interest not to deter you when you say you are dropping out of school.”
Harj Taggar, a partner with Y Combinator, an incubator founded in 2005 that funds young entrepreneurs, said applications from students were rising. He noted that there was strong interest from angel investors who were “willing to fund these 18 and 19-year-old kids”.
Part of the reason, he said, was that it was a lot cheaper to start an internet business today than during the internet bubble of the late 1990s. Laptop computers have become less expensive and web-based companies do not have manufacturing costs. Young people without families or mortgages were also willing to live in cheap apartments, eat noodles and work long hours, he said.
“Mark Zuckerberg showed that a guy sitting in his dorm room can code a website that’s worth $100bn,” Mr Taggar said, referring to the explosive growth of Facebook. “Now others have realised, next time we hear a 19-year-old who has a smart idea, we should listen.”
As investors scramble for a stake in the frenzy of online start-ups, university students are attracting funding from venture capitalists and angel investors, and are in turn choosing, or in some cases being asked, to abandon their studies.
“The environment encourages students to leave,” said Andre Marquis, director of UC Berkeley’s entrepreneurship centre, who had three students drop out of his programme last semester alone. “In Silicon Valley, it’s almost a badge of honour to have left school for your start-up,” Ms Hu said.
“Certainly people leave when there’s not a bubble,” Mr Marquis said. “It’s just more people do when there is.”
In a culture where risk-taking and making unconventional choices are seen as necessary traits to finding the next technology trend, skipping a conventional education is often celebrated rather than shunned.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011
By April Dembosky in San Francisco
When 19-year-old Ben Yu decided to drop out of Harvard in the middle of his freshman year to launch a price-comparison website for travel gear, his mother could not understand.
“In China, during the Cultural Revolution, she was sent to the farms when she was in elementary school,” he said. “She never had an opportunity for an education of any kind.”
For Mr Yu, the choice to walk away from an Ivy League school was easy. “It seemed like it was unnecessarily postponing the future,” he said. “I realised there was no reason why I couldn’t pursue what I wanted to do entrepreneurially, now.”
In Silicon Valley, investors who are clamouring for a piece of the internet action are more than happy to help entrepreneurs like Mr Yu get started.
Peter Thiel, a prominent Silicon Valley investor, said the emphasis in US society on having a college degree has created “a bubble in education”, in which the professional value doesn’t match the $200,000 price tag. He is countering that by giving $100,000 each to 24 people under 20 to pursue an entrepreneurial idea in Silicon Valley instead of going to college
“We need more innovation,” he said. “There’s a tremendous cost to having the most talented people in society take on enormous debt, then take well-paying but dead-end jobs to service those loans for the next 15 to 20 years of their lives.”
Investors often prefer to have young founders at the helm of internet companies, because they grew up with the technology and are intimate with the young audiences many are targeting.
“The technology that young people use, it’s almost critical to have young people driving it,” said Andre Marquis, director of the entrepreneurship centre at the University of California at Berkeley. Three of his students dropped out last semester when they got funding to start a website that offers daily deals to students.
College dropouts and recent graduates also have ties to broad networks of other students, who have become prime targets in an increasingly tense talent war for engineers.
“I’m inclined to ask people to drop out,” said Jessica Mah, 19, founder of the money management site inDinero. Though Ms Mah was offered venture funding during her final year at UC Berkeley, she chose to graduate, in part to give herself more time to recruit her classmates. Now she is racing to hire more engineers and is offering summer internships to college students in hopes they will become employees, perhaps before they graduate.
Though small start-ups cannot offer huge salaries, they often promise a big chunk of equity. That prospect sometimes succeeds in luring students from school, as it did with several early employees at Facebook.
“If you have an opportunity to be an early employee, that’s justification to drop out,” said Aaron Levie, founder of Box, a document management company. He dropped out of the University of Southern California after billionaire Mark Cuban invested in his start-up. He now has 200 employees and says he’ll never go back to school: “God, no. I learnt so much in the process of building the company and there’s so much excitement. Receiving a B in advanced accounting wouldn’t do much more for me now.”
University officials defend the value of degrees, but acknowledge that schools struggle to provide the most relevant training to future entrepreneurs.
“Young people doing start-ups, they’ve got to juggle 20 things at a time, how to get financing, how to manage people, how to meet commitments,” said Joel Schindall, an engineering professor at MIT who believes the lack of these “soft skills” among engineers drives the talent war.
“There was not a shortage of engineers, but a shortage of the kind of engineer who can take the responsibility of doing the engineering and also follow through on the cost, getting it done on time, and making it well suited to what the customer needed,” he said.
Even if a start-up fails, the founder is not a failure, said Max Hodak, 21, who dropped out of Duke University to start an education company. The skills one learns at a start-up make any founder a desirable employee, he said. Mr Hodak was hired by another start up as was his co-founder, who also dropped out .
“People always say Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg are the exceptions,” said Mr Hodak. “The truth is, it’s way more common. You can be a dropout and not be famous, but still be really successful.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011.
By David Gelles in New York
Published: May 22 2011 22:34 | Last updated: May 22 2011 22:34
Thick university textbooks can cost hundreds of dollars each, burdening students with expensive tomes rendered virtually worthless after just one semester.
But on Tuesday, Nature Publishing, a prominent science publisher, will unveil a digital textbook with a new pricing model that could upend the multibillion-dollar educational publishing market.
Nature, a division of Macmillan, will charge $49 for lifetime access to a regularly updated biology textbook that can be accessed via a computer, tablet or smartphone, or printed out.
“There is a deep tension in the educational market today between what consumers want to pay and what publishers say they need,” said Vikram Savkar, director of publishing at Nature.
The inaugural textbook in this new programme, Principles of Biology, will be used by three California State University campuses beginning this autumn.
Gerry Hanley, senior director for academic technology services at Cal State, said the university intended to expand the programme. On two campuses, students will be responsible for purchasing the digital textbook directly from Nature. The third Cal State campus will purchase a site licence for the textbook and pass the cost along to students, a model similar to the way academic journals are sold.
The transition from an ownership model to an access model is already upending the music and film businesses, and Nature believes textbooks could be next. The textbook business is already under assault from websites such as Chegg.com, which match buyers and sellers of used textbooks. Nature’s new programme could provide yet another hitch.
Principles of Biology will also feature interactive technology that will let teachers monitor students’ progress in real time. “This product wasn’t originally conceived for print, then repurposed for digital,” said Mr Savkar. “That means we’ve designed it to capitalise on what digital can do that text cannot do.”
Pearson, the largest educational publisher in the world, is expanding its own digital learning strategy, but does not yet have a product comparable with Nature’s. Pearson owns the Financial Times.
Mr Savkar said that while Nature has made a considerable investment in the new format, it has the potential to be a lucrative revenue stream for Macmillan, which is looking to deploy similar models across other imprints.
“If we get a reasonable share of market for a new textbook, about 10 per cent, it will be a very healthy business for us, and it will be a profitable book,” he said.
“Printing a four-colour, thousand-page textbook is very expensive, and by eliminating that you’re able to improve your margins significantly.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011.
WITH her attention focused on a book and her lecture notes strewn all over the table, Mangalan Bal looks just like any other student preparing for her mid-year examinations - except that her choice of location for studying is a foodcourt at the Khoo Teck Puat Hospital.
While it is not unusual to see students cramming with their books at public places during exam crunch time, the Yishun hospital is set to be a new hot spot, with its lush greenery and large pond.
Mangalan, 18, who was with friends, said: 'There is greenery, and it is rather peaceful. Compared with the public libraries that can get very noisy during peak periods, studying here is a better choice.'
The O-level private candidate, who lives in the area, said she was not bothered by the fact that hospitals treat sick people. 'I don't see patients around at all,' she said, adding that the NTUC Foodfare foodcourt is sited away from the clinics, and its patrons are usually visitors.
A Foodfare spokesman said staff have noticed more students since the foodcourt, which can seat more than 300 people, opened last year: 'The lounge chairs facing the pond seem to be a favourite.'
Other reasons cited by students - there were at least five when The Straits Times visited the foodcourt yesterday - were the close proximity of the hospital to their homes and schools, as well as overcrowding at public libraries.
'You have to be there before the library opens if you want to choose your seats, especially during the weekend. It's like the Great Singapore Sale - crowded even before the shutters are up,' said Singapore Institute of Management student Lai Pei Yin, 21, who was studying at the Subway outlet in the hospital.
She lives just a five-minute walk away, and has gone there five times since the start of this month, spending around 10 hours each time.
A supervisor at the outlet, Mr Chandra Mogan, 34, notices about five students dropping by to study daily. He usually leaves them alone, as they spend on food.
'However, during peak hours, we would give priority to customers who are there to eat,' he said, adding staff would politely ask the students to make way.
But an old favourite remains a hit.
At Changi Airport Terminal 3, Secondary 2 student Haziq Sani was with schoolmates in Basement 1 when The Straits Times visited yesterday afternoon.
According to a recent post on citizen journalism website Stomp, the open area next to the carpark is where students tend to congregate. It is away from the retail outlets, and there were few passers-by when The Straits Times visited.
Most students cited similar reasons for 'landing' at the airport - it was quiet, peaceful and air-conditioned.
A Changi Airport Group spokesman said the public was welcome to use the public areas, but the airport was not intended or designed to be a studying place.
'Our duty managers monitor the situation in the terminals closely, and auxiliary police officers will request students who inconvenience passengers or disrupt operations to leave,' he added.
Teachers said students can make use of school premises in the exam run-up.
Pasir Ris Secondary School principal Cheng Hwee Yeang encourages students to stay in school to do their revision 'because of the conducive environment and the fact that there are teachers around'.
Ngee Ann Secondary School principal Adrian Lim said a month before exams, the school would extend opening hours till 9pm to cater to those staying back.
He added that the initiative 'is quite popular, with over 50 students staying back on average during this period'.
Additional reporting by Heather Marie Lee and Ng Huiwen
REUSE. Repair. Repurpose.
This is the rallying cry of a growing number of DIY enthusiasts here who put hands and mind together to make robots, phone chargers or 3-D printers from scratch.
Others plug into the challenge of solving problems by writing software applications in 24-hour group hackathons.
Here, hacking refers not to cybercrime but white-hat hacking - tapping into programming smarts to create legal applications.
Engineer Limor Fried, founder of DIY electronics kit company Adafruit, explained to Wired magazine recently that the DIY movement has taken off because of easy access to cheap technology and clear instructions online.
She noted too that society is at a 'sweet spot' where people want to make things for themselves and their friends.
And in this pursuit of forming and transforming, throwing things away is out but repairing and reconfiguring them is in.
'I end up hogging stuff and my wife gets fed up,' said engineer Benjamin Khoo, 34, whose tiny storeroom in his flat is filled with spare parts.
Tinkering with spare parts may be a spare-time activity but it could also yield new commercially valuable technologies.
'Yes, it is a hobby, but in the same way that ham radio was a hobby - people were just experimenting with packet radio. But that led to Wi-Fi and cellphones,' said Ms Fried in an interview with the magazine last month.
Locally, tech consultant Adrianna Tan, 25, believes Singapore has a critical mass of people dabbling in tech projects - at least software ones.
'Although we've had grants and start-ups for some time now, I think South-east Asia has finally started to emerge from the tech backwaters to where it is now - increasingly prominent.'
Singapore benefits from its location too, she added - it is a good base from which to reach South-east and East Asia.
For example, Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin and Mr Derek Sivers, founder of indie-music site CD Baby, are based here and add to the local tech community.
Hardware tinkerers based here have produced a range of items from things as simple as a toothbrush holder to a standing fan made by cobbling together five large computer fans.
In 2008, a team of robotics enthusiasts even got to the final round of a defence robotics competition here, fielding their $8,000 homemade robot against university teams with $300,000 machines.
Elsewhere, the DIY movement is also on a roll.
The US magazine Make, launched in 2005, began organising a DIY event called Maker Faire in 2006, and this has since spread to Britain and several US cities.
Here, hackathons have been held at Nanyang Technological University.
The SuperHappyDevHouse 'hackfest' and party, an event that started in Silicon Valley, will be held on May 14 at multipurpose space The Pigeonhole on Duxton Road.
DIY enthusiasts are also flocking to Hackerspace, a clubhouse for tinkerers and hackers in a Bussorah Street shophouse.
Since its inception in late 2009, Hackerspace now has a 300-strong mailing list and has grown from an initial 24 members to more than 60.
They pay between $32 and $512 for using the space, from a casual basis to permanent access seven days a week.
But the path to DIY nirvana in Singapore is not without some potholes.
The country does not have readily available tooling shops to custom-make parts and few homes have a garage space to tinker in.
Shipping in parts from overseas is also prohibitively expensive for some.
Still, the biggest obstacle to the DIY movement's growth here is the local attitude to consumption.
As Mr Khoo put it: 'We have a 'use and throw' culture. Sometimes because the DIY output is not as 'swee' ('attractive' in Hokkien) as the commercial thing, people would rather not make their own items.'
Additional reporting by Lester Kok
It'll take some doing, but Stanford aims to put a T in "engineer"—not an easy fit.
The School of Engineering sees the task as its signature challenge in a rapidly changing world. It wants to reformat students of all shapes and sizes, intellectually speaking, into people who envision themselves as capital Ts—vertically supported by strong math and science training but stretching laterally with extensive business and communication skills. The prototypical 21st-century engineer, says Dean James Plummer, will be someone who combines a deep grounding in the technical fundamentals with an entrepreneurial outlook and an instinct for lifelong learning.
To foster that, Plummer says, "we are pushing the bounds of an engineering education." And that can be tough going, in part because everyone from accrediting examiners to each new wave of students must be willing to buy into some edgy rethinking. Stanford offers and promotes a prominent set of nontraditional courses, such as those involving design-based problem solving—but as electives that have to win acceptance as professionally valuable.
Can an exceptional technical curriculum be combined with a broad interdisciplinary mindset? It has to be, asserts Plummer.
"The half-life of engineering information is probably three to five years," says Plummer, citing the furious pace of technological advances. "We need to teach students how to keep learning. . . . They may even change technical fields multiple times."
Engineers who once would have remained employed for decades with the same large companies now require the business and collaboration skills to work effectively in the small firms and start-ups of the so-called new economy.
Careers will be spent in a global environment, with an international set of customers and clients. Engineers who find themselves living in different parts of the world will benefit from an understanding of diverse cultures and people. With that in mind, a summer internship program places students with companies in China for nitty-gritty experience.
Engineers aspiring to leadership positions will compete in creativity and decision-making abilities as well as technical knowledge and business smarts. And there are ways to tailor undergraduate programs to enhance those qualities, says Plummer.
Can an exceptional technical curriculum be combined with a broad interdisciplinary mindset? It has to be, asserts Plummer.
But every serious effort to integrate all these skills, notes Plummer, is susceptible to "real resistance against cutting into the technical part of the education." Four years ago, he points out, his school's increasing focus on a less traditional approach complicated its accreditation, although the maximum six-year renewal was received.
Thomas Stahovich, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UC-Riverside, has written about the issues involved in remodeling engineering curricula. He sees the right balance of vertical and horizontal ingredients at Stanford.
"Both skill sets are essential for students to be able to put their knowledge into practice," he said by email. "Stanford's approach of infusing the curriculum with an emphasis on communication skills, innovation, international experiences, teamwork skills and the like should be quite effective at producing engineers who can make an impact on the world."
To implement its vision, Engineering particularly looks to two buzz-worthy assets: the Stanford Technology Ventures Program and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, or d.school, which uses interdisciplinary teams of faculty but was organized within the school.
The STVP curriculum, which emphasizes entrepreneurship and innovation in high-tech ventures, draws more than 1,000 students a year to its elective courses. Co-director Tom Byers, a professor of management science and engineering, and executive director Tina Seelig received the National Academy of Engineering's top award for teaching last year.
The d.school, headed by mechanical engineering professor and design-firm IDEO guru David Kelley, encourages the notion of tackling "nearly any challenge" with collaborative expertise. This spring, it moved into renovated space where expansive, highly adjustable work areas reflect the same spirit of innovation as the design projects.
A first-year graduate student in the management science and engineering program, Asha Gupta had barely started Design Garage, a course aptly characterized as an "imagination dunk tank"—and she was getting soaked. Gupta and her classmates were challenged to develop a prototype that would improve the gift-giving experience. They had 54 minutes.
The students—an eclectic group with a budding musicologist, a neuroscientist, a journalist and two future lawyers—paired off to interview each other about anything that made them unhappy when giving gifts. Before long they were whirling in a melee of ideas summoned on the spot. Why not a button that glows whenever the recipient uses the gift?
"Ah, so the gift involves magic!" deadpanned instructor Perry Klebahn.
In nine rapid-fire stages, the students lobbed questions, exchanged answers, sketched out multiple solutions and then frenetically hacked together crude 3D mockups from materials seemingly stolen from a kindergarten playroom: pipe cleaners, yarn, spaghetti, glue, aluminum foil, construction paper.
Plunged into this and similar exercises, "you kind of feel like you should be intimidated . . . that it's going to be hard," Gupta says. "But then, you're just forced to do them, and do them in very short time frames—two minutes to 20 minutes. And I'm just shocked by the quality of the results that are produced."
Such exuberant activity is the essence of the d.school, or, formally, the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford. Housed in a renovated building not far from the Main Quad, it's an offshoot of the Engineering School. Though just 6 years old, it already has a mystique as a teaching center others want to imitate. Graduate students from every division of the University, plus the occasional undergrad infiltrator, compete fiercely to get into the courses. Multidisciplinary pools of teachers then immerse them in a system of innovative thinking, with specific goals for solving practical problems. Bundled into project teams that blur all the traditional academic lines, the students who converge here focus first on reinventing themselves, then maybe the world.
The d.school's defining mission is to foment personal transformation. Founder David Kelley, a guru of ingenuity and intuition, loves any scenario in which students are collaborating, the more radically the better, and prototyping their imagined solutions using everything from mallets and pliers to cameras and laptops. It all falls under the rubric of "design thinking." Students who absorb that method, says Kelley with a gregarious twinkle, can apply it to nearly any part of their lives, from finding a suitable spouse to throwing a killer dinner party.
"I think everybody's creative," says Kelley, who has taught in Stanford's venerable product design program since 1975. "I just always felt like they had blocks, that they weren't being allowed to be creative. So it became more and more clear to me that this was something that was pent up inside of people."
The d.school is his ultimate solution to that problem. Despite the institute's relatively short history, its tangible achievements—inexpensive, solar-powered lamps for the rural poor in the developing world, for example—are impressive. But Kelley prefers to emphasize the process rather than the products. What really matters, he says, is the creative confidence students acquire as they connect with their inner inventor.
During decades of work inside and outside of Stanford, Kelley honed an array of techniques for spurring innovation. What often sounded fuzzy to others—a process for unlocking dormant creativity—was coalescing in Kelley's mind like a coach's playbook. "I started to see," Kelley recalls, "that we could teach this as a methodology that everyone else could pick up on."
The fundamental nature of an assignment has been overhauled: Rather than asking a class to grapple with somebody else's idea of a problem that needs solving, the d.school approach is to designate squads of students as investigators of social or institutional conditions that pose challenges for human beings. A recent example: studying the everyday struggles of parents with young children, from installing car seats to negotiating day-care drop-off to preparing dinner. Through direct observation and interviews, student teams seek to identify what needs fixing and how to go about it.
"We want to try to develop empathy for people, see what they value as humans and try to use that to come up with big ideas, so we call our method human-centered design," Kelley explains. "There's a creative act in trying to decide what problem is worth working on in the first place."
Armed with that understanding and a definition of the problem, students then engage in ideation, a robust exercise in imagining possibilities, similar to the gift-giving crucible of Gupta and her classmates. Finally, they select a potential solution, develop a prototype and test it. Then it may be time to redo the entire cycle. And then redo it again, perhaps rearranging the sequence of steps as they go, or ping-ponging back and forth between them. The outcome might be a physical product, a virtual product, a service or a reinvented activity.
The fundamental nature of an assignment has been overhauled. The d.school approach is to designate squads of students as investigators of social or institutional conditions that pose challenges for human beings.
Not every course is as consuming as the two-quarter Design Garage, but all hew to the d.school's jump-in-and-swim style of learning. They immerse students in a constant churning of rethinking, repurposing and recommitting, even when they've been battered by a series of early failures. The courses can spring from the institute's acuity about contemporary business and social issues or input from any slice of the University. They can be about fostering democracy (Designing Liberation Technologies); aiding individuals with threatening medical profiles (d.health: You've Been Warned); or paving the way for the next great startups (LaunchPad: Design and Launch Your Product or Service). Many times, the environment percolates with all the different perspectives drawn from the students' core disciplines. Many times, just inhabiting the institute's vibe can be keenly invigorating.
Indeed, much of the attention garnered by the d.school has focused on its physical environment, the most striking manifestation of the institute's founding money, a $35 million gift from German software magnate Hasso Plattner. After bouncing among some temporary homes, including a dilapidated doublewide trailer, the school settled into the Peterson Building, a 1900-era structure on the hill behind the Geology Corner.
The restored sandstone exterior gives no hint of the dramatic interior renovations. Classes meet in rooms configured to avoid a sense of hierarchy. (A professor doesn't stand front-and-center, commanding rows of eyes from floor-bolted seats.) Spaces can be rearranged endlessly with sliding partitions or furniture on wheels. The second-floor Bay Studio is full of rolling stools and pushed-together tables, manipulated in whatever way come-and-go batches of students need, and is accessible 24-7. Students from one project may slap a drive-by Post-it suggestion on another group's whiteboard notes. One nearby prototyping room has six Macs; an adjoining area features two walls of wrenches, drills and other hand tools.
Exactly how these quirky nooks and diverse materials are used is up to the students who need to demonstrate ideas to one another. "Build to think," Kelley exhorts. If someone's creative energy gets drained, there's a shoes-off white room to retreat to, where scrawling on the floor and walls may stir a breakthrough.
Ask about the impact of all this, and the answers compose a litany of successes, "millions of lives" affected by the collective efforts of student teams, especially in the developing world. Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability, a course closely identified with business professor Jim Patell, has made a profound international impact. In 2006, for example, a team went from project inception to product sales in 19 months while redesigning a water pump that has sharply improved the ability of farmers in Myanmar to irrigate their land. Perhaps the most celebrated innovation to come out of the class: the Embrace low-cost baby incubator, a pouch-like warmer that potentially can reduce the large number of hypothermia-related infant deaths around the world.
Word is out. The d.school averages about five inquiries every week from parties interested in creating similar educational programs. Its staff have helped construct curricula, demonstrate classes or offer workshops in more than 30 countries, including China, Kenya, the Netherlands, Singapore and Taiwan.
The d.school offers no degree. Rather than a credential, students are imbued with a mindset and a problem-solving approach that augments the knowledge and skills they acquire in their degree programs at Stanford's seven schools. There are, however, master's degrees offered to students in the mechanical engineering department's design program, which dates to 1958. That program operates in conjunction with the art department and dedicates itself to innovative and/or socially beneficial products. It's also the program where Kelley, MS '78, was a graduate student and teaching assistant before becoming a professor, as well as where he hit on the concept of the d.school.
The d.school further benefits from an extraordinary network extending from IDEO, the design firm Kelley founded in 1991 and whose reputation for creative flair has made it a household name in the international business world. Its clients have included Microsoft, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble and Eli Lilly. When Plattner, the co-founder of the SAP AG software corporation, sought out IDEO because of his similar interests in innovation, Kelley found an eager benefactor for the d.school concept he then convinced the University to launch.
As pivotal as Plattner's funding was, the d.school couldn't have been established without extensive administrative backing. Engineering Dean James Plummer, MS '67, PhD '71, and his school provided the organizational and planning support that enabled everything from cross-departmental interactions to moving into the Peterson building. (For more on Plummer's view about broadening technical education, particularly through an interdisciplinary mindset, see "Breaking with Tradition," Farm Report, July/August 2010).
As the d.school grows—and keeps reflecting on itself—Kelley is intent on maintaining a fresh outlook with the help of two younger staffers. Executive director George Kembel, '94, MS '97, instrumental in helping Kelley launch the institute, is charged with preserving the culture of ceaseless innovation. Managing director Sarah Stein Greenberg, MBA '06, is a former d.school student and fellow, with experience that includes the Myanmar water-pump project. "Her vision will take us forward," Kelley says. "I'd rather have her vision than mine. She represents d.school 2.0."
There's interest, too, in deploying the d.school's teaching model across the University. "Creativity represents an important characteristic that we would seek to inculcate in our students, and obviously one that's harder to put a firm framework around," President John Hennessy says. "It's unlike teaching some analytical method. Will a bridge stay up? Well, we know what to teach. You teach physics, you teach some mathematics and you can do the analysis.
Rather than a credential, students are imbued with a mindset and a problem-solving approach that augments the knowledge and skills they acquire in their degree programs at Stanford's seven schools.
"It's much harder to teach creativity. [It involves] multiple routes, multiple approaches and, obviously, it's virtually impossible to test whether or not you've succeeded. The measure of success is likely to come long after, not unlike many of the other things we try to teach: To prepare students to be educated citizens, to prepare them for dealing with people from diverse and different walks of life. Those are things that play out over a long time, whether or not we've done a good job."
Students are attuned to the track record Kelley established outside Stanford. Understanding that the d.school has the same intellectual roots as IDEO is a bit like being tipped off to a lucky blackjack table. And that can't-lose feeling becomes more pronounced when students realize the depth of the d.school's teaching talent.
Consider the Design Garage teaching team: Kelley, Bill Burnett and Perry Klebahn. Burnett, '79, MS '82, is a graduate of the design program, its executive director and someone whose résumé includes working on Apple computers and Star Wars action figures. Klebahn, MS '91, designed a high performance snowshoe, built and sold a company (Atlas Snow-Shoe) and later served for a time as CEO of Timbuk2 Designs, a manufacturer of messenger bags.
Asha Gupta first saw them when Design Garage projects were showcased for prospective participants late last year. She succeeded in joining the Move Together project, which hopes to spur increased carpooling among young professionals. Adventurous immersion exercises like the gift-giving critique set the tone, and after repeating the rapid prototyping sequence multiple times—one involved exploring ways to improve pedestrian and bike safety on campus—Gupta began to see the process blossom. "Basically, the results are extremely innovative solutions for something, and in some cases they approach a finished product that you could almost implement."
The core of what the students learned—interviewing, observing, suggesting, tinkering, reviewing and then perhaps completely restarting two, three or four times—guides the process of attempting to fully realize the Design Garage projects. They include Project Goldfinger, which aims to remedy male mid-life crisis; Culture Kitchen, an effort to help recent immigrant women by monetizing their diverse cooking knowledge; and Project Amplify, about crowd-sourced micro-investments in emerging musical artists.
But whatever happens to the projects, the exposure to this kind of thinking-and-doing savvy can be life altering. When students are dunked in the design experience, says Burnett, "some of them say, 'I'm not going to go back to business school, I'm not going back to law school.' "
Alums of the d.school's still nascent influence talk passionately about the lasting changes they sense in themselves. Jacob Klein, '01, MA '10, is the co-founder of Motion Math, an educational game company. Its first game, an iPod-iPhone-iPad product also called Motion Math, originated as a project at the School of Education. Bolstering that work, says Klein, was his exposure to the d.school. He took two courses, including d.media: Designing Media that Matters, which "radically changed my expectations for how much innovation you can accomplish."
Ankit Gupta (no relation to Asha), MS '10, recalls how "I really wanted to forget about my computer science degree and just take d.school classes." He took three, and one, the LaunchPad course specifically geared to starting a business, was enough to rocket Gupta and a partner to national notice after they created a mobile app, Pulse, that allows users to aggregate news from their choice of publications and blogs. The company formed by Gupta and his co-inventor, Akshay Kothari, MS '10, announced late last year that it has raised $800,000 in venture capital.
Gupta says the d.school gave him an appreciation "for small things that you do that make a huge difference in the end." But even more fundamentally, he found a specific new confidence—a comfort level when speaking publicly to large audiences—that has been valuable in all his interactions.
Kelley has seen many similar transformations, some emotionally intense. "We have these people who just start crying [when describing] how 'I used to be the kind of person who didn't have that much fun' or 'I used to be the kind of person who was purely analytical.'
"They've flipped," Kelley says, "to some place [where] they just feel different about themselves."
You don't have to get into Stanford to qualify for the d.school's brand of educational adventure. The right kindergarten might do.
"Having creative confidence is as important as literacy," says d.school founder David Kelley; hence the wide range of initiatives to bring design thinking techniques to K-12 classrooms. "There's a chance," Kelley adds, to "turn on a whole group of children who are usually turned off" at one grade or another.
The hope is to engage as many teachers and administrators as possible and help them translate the d.school's approach into relevant lessons for students of all ages. Last summer the d.school hosted workshops for more than 100 administrators from 11 California school districts, as well as some charter schools, and welcomed staffers from Henry Ford Learning Institutes around the country.
Melissa Pelochino, academic dean at Phoenix Academy, a charter school in East Palo Alto, refers to the d.school methodology as a mindset and says she has seen it produce "exponential" change in elementary school pupils. She participated in a two-day primer on applying design thinking in the classroom when she was a reading specialist at Stanford's East Palo Alto Academy charter school, then adapted the process for her work with seventh and eighth graders reading far below standard level. She spun off assignments based on the experiences of characters in books, such as asking her students to design solutions for bullying. Their interest in schoolwork soared.
"That hooked me," says Pelochino, who now advocates for the d.school approach in several charter schools operated by Aspire. "These kids were always considered failures. Design thinking unlocked something magical, because it led to them always succeeding."
Rich Crandall, MBA '07, director of the d.school's K-12 initiative, expects upcoming workshop participants to spread the message even more widely: He has applicants from Africa, Asia and South America.
NUS exchange student to Cambridge KOH YAN TIAN is proud to study at two prestigious universities
I COUNT myself lucky to have found great interest in subjects that some of my peers thought were boring because these have led me to where I am today. Mathematics, physics and chemistry were subjects that caught my attention and fuelled my curiosity when I was growing up because I used to wonder how everything worked around me.
|Having a good time: Dining at the Cambridge dressed in formal college gowns sort of made me feel like I was in a Harry Potter novel, says Ms Koh, who also had an opportunity to attend other social activities|
This was also the beginning of my fascination for learning more about technology and enjoying how much these lessons reveal to me. And, when the time came to choose my major for university studies, it was a natural progression to take mechanical engineering at the National University of Singapore (NUS).
Entering the Faculty of Engineering has proved to be my best choice as it is exactly the kind of education I had in mind; one that provides students with an excellent learning environment to build a solid foundation in engineering skills and principles while getting a unique global learning perspective.
For me, the overseas opportunity to interact and better hone my skills came in the form of the unique Shell NUS-Cambridge Student Exchange Programme. I was successfully chosen as one of the two NUS students in September 2010 to exchange places with two Cambridge students.
In the five months I have been in Cambridge, I have gained a much deeper insight into how engineering is viewed in Europe and have also realised that what I learned in NUS has grounded me in adjusting to the various demands that Cambridge students are expected to meet.
Although the idea of living alone for the first time in a foreign land was difficult to get used to as I initially planned for the one year away, I did not let this hamper my decision to study engineering in a prestigious overseas university.
But there was no lack of hurdles I have had to cross.
As a second-year NUS engineering student studying third-year modules at Cambridge, there were certain fundamentals that I had not yet mastered. This meant I had to muster up a lot of courage and effort to seek additional tuition and help from professors and friends to teach me everything so that I am up to speed on the curriculum.
Bridging the gap
The academic and emotional support I encountered was most overwhelming. In no time, I'd managed to bridge the gap and am much more confident about my final examinations now. It also took more effort at the beginning to negotiate the difference my Singaporean accent presented to my English lecturers' accent and vice versa as well.
But because of these situations, I was even more fired up that I should savour these precious experiences that Shell Singapore, NUS and the University of Cambridge have awarded me with.
In addition, Cambridge has many unique and fascinating traditions that I have grown to love.
The unique one-on-one mentorship with the professors greatly facilitated a swift learning process. Residential living at Cambridge is fun and, for one thing, dining at the Formal Halls dressed in formal college gowns at a long table to enjoy a hearty three-course meal is always a great way to meet new friends and sort of made me feel like I was in a Harry Potter novel.
Another was the popular activity punting, which basically means to boat in a punt. I am also taking the opportunity to pick up Ballroom Dancing and Salsa as part of the Cambridge Dancers' Club.
My college, Christ's College, also offers many opportunities to serve for the welfare of students. So I am currently one of the Christ's College Welfare Officers who volunteers to help students facing issues at school - this is especially meaningful for me.
With my remaining time at Cambridge and at NUS, I am more inspired to keep going because when I graduate at NUS, I would have experienced two prestigious university engineering programmes instead of one.
I am grateful for this programme as I believe the sum of these two has given me great aspirations. I am also confident in challenging myself when an opportunity arises because I can achieve more than what I set out to be.
Just as Thomas Alva Edison's quote reminds, I strongly believe it now that 'if we did all the things we were capable of doing, we would astound ourselves'.
The writer is a second-year undergraduate from the National University of Singapore's Division of Mechanical Engineering at the Faculty of Engineering