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Trying to answer the unanswerable

Worcester Polytechnic Institute President Laurie Leshin talks about the motivation of discovery
University Business, March 2015
Worcester Polytechnic Institute President Laurie Leshin, who will speak at UBTech in June, has been involved in the search for life on Mars.
Worcester Polytechnic Institute President Laurie Leshin, who will speak at UBTech in June, has been involved in the search for life on Mars.

A self-described “space nerd,” Laurie Leshin brings an infectious sense of wonderment and discovery to almost everything she does.

Leshin will share that enthusiasm as a keynote speaker at UBTech in Orlando (June 15 to 17), discussing “How innovation is unleashed by asking unanswerable questions.”

As president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute (and the first female president in the institution’s 149-year history), she is committed to elevating WPI’s impact in communities worldwide. Before joining WPI, Leshin served as dean of the School of Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York.

Leshin has also served as the deputy director of NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate and as a professor of geological sciences at Arizona State University.

I have to start by asking about your Twitter handle, @LaurieofMars.

The science work I participate in when I’m not being a president is largely focused on Mars and its environment and its history—was it once a habitable planet and could it still have life on it? The name is just a bit of fun.

We all work hard and we all care deeply about training the next generation of professionals and explorers, if you will. If you can’t have fun while you are doing it, then what’s the point?

Your UBTech keynote is titled “How innovation is unleashed by asking unanswerable questions.”

Basically it’s about the inspiration and wonder and motivation that comes from trying to discover things that seem unknowable, or trying to solve problems that seem intractable. I think those are inspiring and motivating approaches, especially in the STEM fields.

In 1961, President Kennedy told Congress, “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

I think a lot of people today don’t realize that we had absolutely no idea how we were going to do that. We hadn’t even orbited the earth with a human at that point, and the guys at NASA were wondering how we would do this on Kennedy’s timeline.

But the amount of innovation that it unleashed, and the amount of economic prosperity and technological advancement that came from that massive, seemingly impossible task positioned our country for the success that we see today. I have always been inspired by that.

Kennedy’s challenge sparked all kinds of new discoveries. Do you get the sense that could happen today?

Absolutely. But what are the driving questions that might enable us to innovate today’s challenges? Certainly the space program is still an exciting place to think about this and I think the “Are we alone?” question is a really compelling one to ask.

All of us, as kids, looked up at the stars in the night sky and wondered whether some kids on another planet were looking at our sun and asking the same question. I think we are currently living in a time when we can answer that question, yet it is a huge technological challenge—and an inspiring one.

But there are other ones too. Eradicating disease and really understanding how to dramatically increase lifespan. How to harness the energy sources of our world without endangering it. How to unleash the potential of every person on this planet to make it better.

There are some great challenges out there that I see motivating our students, and that’s what drives me.

Freshmen at Worcester Polytechnic Institute participate in something called “The Great Problem Seminar,” where we challenge them to take on today’s problems and find solutions. We’re not talking about just thinking about them, but actually proposing ways to solve them.

I see the impact it has on their motivation to learn the fundamentals of science and engineering that they need. They are doing it from this perspective of, “Wow, there’s this massive problem, but I can get in there and help solve it.” It’s quite exciting to see.

I would imagine that in the process of looking for answers, other unconnected ideas reveal themselves, leading to new discovery.

Yes. There is a serendipitous aspect to virtually all exploration and discovery that is also very motivating.

The best way to make that happen is to ask really big, open-ended questions and let that exploration drive students to define the questions in a way that is self-motivating. They can actually see themselves making an impact in that way.

Give me an example of an unanswerable question that motivates you to go further?

As I mentioned, I’ve been involved in a lot of discussions about life on Mars and that has been a quest for me over the course of my career, but I still don’t have the answer. And I’ve come at this from trying to understand the role of water on Mars and whether there were happy aqueous environments where a bug or a microscopic organism would have survived. I do think we’ve reached the point where we are pretty confident that that answer is yes.

Now the question is, with water and all the raw materials that make up living things, is it enough to make the primordial soup on Mars? We don’t know that yet, so that’s the reason I stay involved with the Curiosity Mars rover team.

It’s the reason I push for samples to be brought back from Mars. I think that’s how we’ll have the best shot at answering those unanswerable questions in the near term. It will have an impact on how we care for our own environment here and on how we think about ourselves as residents of this planet.

How is innovation unleashed?

Innovation is unleashed when talent meets opportunity. When smart, motivated, well-trained people meet and confront challenging concepts, they can think about ways to solve them. That, of course, is what universities are all about, right?

When we talk about innovation, I think about impact. How do we take these great ideas and discoveries and turn them into true, demonstrable change for good in the world? That is an interesting piece of the puzzle as well. I think it’s something a lot of scientific fields—and universities, for that matter—struggle with.

We all say we train our students so they can go out and change the world. But then I ask, did you teach them how to change the world?

I think we are really trying to embrace this concept of not only training them to have the potential to change the world, but also trying to give them the tools that translate their great ideas and innovations to the marketplace or to communities to have the greatest possible impact.

Our students work at about 40 project centers around the world. Every student does basically three major projects during their time at WPI. About two-thirds of them travel with faculty to places like Namibia, New Zealand, Panama, Bangkok, Switzerland and elsewhere to work in real communities on problems that sit at the intersection of technology and society.

They have to think, for example, about how the way a community in Namibia might deal with waste disposal is probably not the same way a community in Washington, D.C., deals with the same issue.

So, as they are thinking about how to make the most impact with the solutions they come up with, they also have to make sure that they are doing so in a way that is compatible and sustainable to the community or location they are in.

What can other university leaders do to create those opportunities?

I like to say—and I can say—it ain’t rocket science to be doing this. Of course it’s the right thing to be doing. That’s not really the question.

But conferences like UBTech present an incredible opportunity to share ideas. I would love to be able to have conversations with other leaders at UBTech about what they are doing and how they are doing it. How can we make sure that, as we are teaching these students, they are really learning how to make the most impact in the world that they can?

At WPI, we do that through project-based learning. We’ve been doing it that way for 40 years. We send students out in the world to actually apply what they are learning to solve problems.

Other universities probably have other ways to do it, and I would love to have those conversations with them.

Tim Goral is senior editor

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