Summer in the lab, 2011 edition

June has been a busy, busy month so far, so I haven’t had time to note that summer here at Carleton has indeed begun.  Summer means I can finally concentrate on research for extended blocks of time—unlike during the school year, when I’m doing research every day but most of the time it’s a half hour here or, on the really decadent days, an hour there.  Summer is when I take stock of where I am, tackle some of the thornier or less well-defined aspects of my work (the places we’ve gotten stuck), start new lines of inquiry, and write write write.  It’s also when I try to do my strategic planning for the year ahead, so that I can maximize my efficiency during those small blocks of research time during the terms.

My main hope in earning tenure was that it would give me the time, space, and freedom to figure out where I wanted my research to go in the next 5-10 years.  I love the research that I’m doing, on improving computer networks to better support video.  It’s personally fulfilling, because it’s exciting to me, has so many possible applications, and attempts to answer crucially important questions (in my opinion, anyway) about how networks work.  But I’ve been working on this problem for 10 years (!!) now, and I can see that this work, in its current form, is reaching its natural end.  So the big question is, what’s next?

There are some natural ways to extend this work within my wheelhouse of expertise, and those sound interesting to me.  But tenure brings the academic freedom to explore new, possibly slow-developing, lines of inquiry, ones that aren’t necessarily going to pay off with publications or results in the short term.  And the truth is, there are some peripherally-related areas that have interested me for a while—HCI and security, specifically.  I’m not an “expert” in either.  Pre-tenure, it was too risky to branch out.  But now, I could.  The question is, how badly do I want to take that risk now?  Can I better define the problems in these areas that interest me, and perhaps find a way to bridge my current work into either or both of these areas?  I’m excited about the possibilities here, but frankly a bit terrified too about leaving the safety of my current subfields.

This summer, I’ll take some much-needed time to explore some questions, to read a lot of recent scholarship, and to see if I can define a further-looking path forward.

In the meantime, I have 3 awesome undergrads working in my lab this summer.  This is actually their third week—it was interesting trying to juggle ending the term and grading with getting them set up and working productively in the lab, but we made it happen.  One of the key differences between this summer’s group and last summer’s group is that these students have been working with me for a term now (one has worked with me for 2 terms).  We spent spring term doing the background work on the project—reading papers, learning about networks and streaming video, practicing using the tools they’d be using this summer—so that they could start doing actual research on Day 1.  As a result, I’ve had to spend less time in the lab with them up front—although this is now changing since they’re starting to hit the really thorny problems and questions.

We have three main goals this summer:

  1. Migrate some of our data collection and analysis to the web, so that we’re not tied to one particular media player and all of its headaches
  2. Actually build and test the video quality assessment system that we’ve hinted at for years now
  3. Come up with heuristics:  basically, what should networks/media servers/etc do when all signs point to future degraded quality for a stream?  what are the rules of thumb that network operators, service providers, etc. should follow in these circumstances?

I’m excited because what we’re really doing is attempting to put into practice all of the things we’ve spent the last 10 years proving conceptually.  This is what we’ve been working towards, and as a former engineer I’m excited that we can finally build this thing and see what happens!  It’s been a while since I’ve done any systems-related work, and I expect there to be many roadblocks, but it will be fun to get back to that part of my work.

Like last summer, I hope to update you on how things are going, and specifically how this group of students is progressing.  I’m sure I’ll have some new thoughts on the care and feeding of undergraduate researchers as well.