Cows and College

Any college student has to deal with a concept of the ‘bubble’.  I’m not talking about the soapy bubbles that you probably blew when you were 5 years old.  This bubble is more of a shield, a shield that is strong during freshman year but slowly decreases is size, or thickness, and becomes more vulnerable as you move through the undergraduate experience.  Around junior year, the strength of the bubble has decreased immensely, and the realities of adulthood, or what undergrads call, “real life”, begin to set in.  Now…as my second semester of junior year dawns on me, I am totally feeling that the bubble is almost gone.  See my excitement below:

ready fo' class (yes I am in a Sbux)

good old Snapchat

So…as I was sitting in Starbucks today wondering what I want to do with my life (ya know, little things…right?), I began to do the normal thing a college student does when productivity seems possible.  I started to surf the internet.   My search began with a trip to Facebook…followed by randomly clicking on links to Wikipedia.  I learned that you can actually ski in Arizona, that someone in Australia recently caught a crazy-looking shark, and that Bill Nye is spending his time on ESPN proving Bill Belichick doesn’t know how footballs deflate.

NFL: New England Patriots Rookie Minicamp

“I did not have relations with that…football”…oops wrong quote?

But…I also found something pretty cool, and yes it does involve a little engineering (but we’re not going to get too technical this time!).  There’s a non-profit development company based in San Francisco, called D-Rev that’s designing solutions to many world issues.  They’re currently developing low-cost devices to help babies with jaundice, and a knee-joint for amputees in the developing world.  Yes, this does sound very Bioengineering-esque, but I wanted to highlight one of their older projects to show that engineering can be more than applying math concepts to solve issues, it lets us design solutions to problems that are present in the every-day world.

According to their past-project page, D-Rev once found a problem they wanted to solve in East Africa.  As D-Rev states:

“Remote rural farmers with dairy livestock face challenges getting their milk to market since unpasteurized milk can spoil quickly in warm climates. Pasteurized milk spoils in as little as four hours in 30°C temperatures. To prolong shelf life, farmers in East Africa must bring their fresh milk to a chilling plant immediately after milking. For rural farmers, this is simply not possible—they live too far away.” (content was taken from here).



Now…this sounds more like a public health problem then an engineering problem.  But, much of the creative processes that engineers use attempt to solve problems like this.  This type of thinking is called “Design Thinking”, or as I like to think of it, simply using creativity to solve problems and build something.  That something might be a prosthetic, it might be a particle collider, a new business process, or a way to help a community preserve milk.  In the end, it’s something that is not limited to engineers or designers, it’s a concept we use in our daily lives.

How D-Rev attempted to solve this milk issue was to isolate the true problem.  If you know anything about bacteria (which is what spoils milk), bacteria multiple exponentially.  If you need a little math brush-up, this means that if we originally have 2 bacteria, we might have 4 the next second, 8 one second afterwards, and this growth is multiplied by 2 each second.  This is called exponential growth (though in reality the exponential function is a little more complicated…but we won’t get too much into that).  Essentially, once we reach a certain amount of bacterial growth, the milk is spoiled.  The company also noted that there aren’t a lot of available resources to preserve milk.  Therefore, they thought that the solution involved either protecting the milk from getting spoiled, or to somehow kill off the bacteria before spoilage could occur.

It's a little more complicated than that Garfield...

It’s a little more complicated than that Garfield…

D-Rev tried to explore a technological innovation to help solve the problem, but decided that they needed to really explore more about the user-side of the milk process before moving forward.  Sadly, funding for the project was insufficient, and they closed it in 2010.  You can read the study they wrote here.  It’s pretty cool!

So…I got a little technical with the whole “exponential growth” deal, but it wasn’t too bad!  As you can see, math, engineering and design thinking are intertwined in a very beautiful way.  Bringing people together who are creative thinkers can lead to some pretty cool results and tackle the world’s biggest problems.  D-Rev is just one example, but there are many companies who are solving real-world issues using design thinking as their basis.  Definitely check them out when you get a chance!

Now, it’s your turn to find your own problem in the world, and help solve it to create a better future.  For me right now, I guess it’s the personal problem of figuring out the next steps in my life and dealing with the bubble bursting.  But…if I ever have the opportunity to do something like D-Rev’s project above, and use my background to help people live better lives, I think there’s one beautiful future ahead.


The Problem with My Memory

First off, thank you to the random person who followed my blog a few weeks ago (Emily I believe), reminding me that this exists and something needs to be done about it.  In case you have lost all belief in my writing, I would like to take a second and shed a little light on the fact that I gave an attempt to write a post this summer.  To make this anticlimactic…I have absolutely know idea where that post went and what it was about (facepalm to follow).


Yes Conan, I feel the same way

But, life has been quite exciting regardless.  This past summer, I worked at an amazing med-tech start-up company at the Fogarty Institute for Innovation in Mountain View California.  I published my first research paper (woo), had the poster presented at a conference, and learned that I am actually somewhat artistic (well…I can code and let computers do artistry for me; I suppose that’s how web development works…but check out my site!).  Then afterwards, my junior year of college started and well, as Vonnegut would say:

I don't want to bore you with my life

I don’t want to bore you with my life

And to think all of this happened in such a short period of time is amazing and scary!  As you see from my lack of blogging, my memory can only handle so much…with so much occurring in our lives, you start to wonder how we remember anything!

So…because ya know…this is an engineering blog of sorts, let’s look into this whole memory thing.  And to help us, we’re going to use the work of Atkinson-Shiffrin’s memory model and look how it uses one of the core theories in engineering, called Control Theory.  Though it’s not the perfect model, it gives great insight into putting this engineering principle into good use!

Atkinson-Shiffrin’s memory model is simple.  It states our memory is composed of a sensory registrar, short-term memory, and a long term-memory.  Essentially, drawing attention to something in the sensory registrar creates a short-term memory.  This memory remains in the short-term memory through a process called rehearsal, until it is transferred into the long-term memory where it is stored.  When we remember it later, it is temporarily retrieved from the long-term memory and stored as a short term memory again (original paper is here).

Yeah...I guess that was a lot to handle

Yeah…I guess that was a lot to handle

So, if you feel like Louis above, we can actually make what I just said a little easier.  And you guessed it, we’re going to use control theory to do it.  Control theory is simple.  The basic idea is an input is taken into some sort of “black box” system (a thing that changes the input), which creates an output.  This output is then also placed into a new system, which somehow measures information about what the intended output was supposed to be based upon the input that was given.  It then relays this information back into the original system, and the system slowly works to reach its intended output after more inputs are given.  This is called a “feedback loop”, and an example of a basic control system is below:

check it check it

check it check it

Now…these guys are used everywhere.  One easy example can be seen when you drive a car and your brain takes in visual feedback.  When you press the pedal of the car (the input), the car (our system) moves at a certain speed and the dashboard translates the output into visual feedback.  Our brain (which measures the difference on the intended and actual output) then looks at the dashboard; after, we either press the pedal harder or lighten up until the speed displayed on the dashboard aligns with the speed at which our brain has determined we want to move.  So, next time your brain decides it should pass that wonderful car moving 35 mph on the highway (sums up my afternoon), you have a great model to explain how you go about that pass.

You know how I feel

You know how I feel

How does this apply to the memory model we explained above?  Simply, sensory memory gets passed as an input into short-term memory.  Short-term memory has its own feedback loop through the process of rehearsal.  It then transfers into long-term memory after a certain amount of rehearsal has occurred, and long-term memory passes back into short-term memory through retrieval, creating another loop.  All of this can be seen in the picture below:

(drum roll) here it is

(drum roll) here it is

And that’s a wrap.  So what’s the take home message?  Well…life has a lot to offer.  And when you’re just moving through the paces and not taking the time to reflect, we get a lot of the left side of the picture and not the right.  As I’m finishing up college and dealing with everything school has to offer, I’ve realized that I have been letting things slip and not grasping and treasuring everything that I used to.  This is why I’m back writing- so that I can take a second to pause and place down on paper (or my computer) these words, and relay these messages to you so that you may also pause and reflect on the great things that have happened in your life.  And hopefully we can share these memories, creating our own little feedback loop, and enjoy this beautiful thing called life together.