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Researchers share ‘magic’ of their creative work

Scientists and artists take pleasure in the discovery and the meaning of the inner working of things. Although they use different tools and methods adapted to their particular craft, they share the need to deal with uncertainty, to interpret reality, and ultimately to nourish the soul, said Dr. Ariel Gomez, interim vice president for research and public service.

In their search, the most precious tool that they have at their disposal is creativity. Without it, the successful generation of new knowledge and beauty would be virtually impossible, he said.

“The discovery process is filled with creativity, and, contrary to common belief, does nothing to take away the magic of it. In fact, every new discovery brings a fresh sense of awe and beauty, followed by a renewed quest for knowledge. Scientists and artists search for patterns, signs and threads that allow them to piece together a better understanding of the universe that we inhabit and that inhabits us.”

What follows are a few examples of the creative work of scientists and artists from U.Va.’s faculty. Whether dealing with a molecule or a musical note, there is beauty and knowledge embedded in each of them, Gomez said. ”The magic lies in between.”

Building change into real-time computing

Jack Stankovic
Photos by Tom Cogill
Jack Stankovic

For Jack Stankovic, solving a difficult problem in computer science is like picking a lock. It’s not until you have aligned and ordered your assumptions about the problem that the solution can be released. “You start by selecting a problem that seems interesting and important,” he says. “The next step is to think about your assumptions to give you a way into the problem that will reveal a solution. This is where the creative leap occurs.”

Stankovic, the BP America Professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science, has been highly successful at making just this kind of creative leap. He is an internationally respected specialist in real-time computing, building machines that interact with their environment within very specific time constraints.

Real-time systems are everywhere, from nuclear power plant control and medical monitoring to antilock braking and burglar alarms. An example of a hard real-time system is a digital fly-by-wire system in an airplane; catastrophes can occur when such systems fail. A (fee-based) Web service is an example of a soft real-time system. If the service doesn’t perform in a timely manner, the worst that can happen is that you’ll gradually lose revenue and repeat customers.

One of Stankovic’s interests is creating real-time computer operating systems. “Traditionally, real-time operating systems had been built to work in well-defined environments,” he says. When the environment becomes complex and highly dynamic, this approach becomes both unwieldy and unworkable, especially if real-time interaction is your goal.

Stankovic challenged the assumption that real-time operating systems must be independent of specific information about the application. Instead, he built a reflective operating system that could incorporate changing information and application semantics. “Other people had begun to move in this direction, but I saw that this principle should be at the heart of any dynamic real-time system,” he says.

The tools that Stankovic uses to unlock solutions like these are inherently collaborative.” When I approach a problem, I look carefully at the ways other investigators have approached similar challenges,” he notes. “I read papers, identify their underlying assumptions, and see how they map to the problem I’m working on. Then, many times, by challenging key, almost implicitly accepted assumptions, a better solution emerges.”

He also finds it helpful to get out of the office and get together with a colleague or two to test ideas and brainstorm. “In a small group, you tend to listen to each other more intently,” he observes. “If you do this well, the excitement builds as you exchange ideas.”

Finally, Stankovic makes it a matter of intellectual discipline to try new approaches. “It’s all too easy to be a perfectionist and to focus on making incremental changes,” he says. “I try to encourage my students to invent, rather than to refine.”

Learn more about Stankovic’s work
at www.virginia.eduresearchandpublic service/explorations/W2002/Stankovic/

Writing on the threshold of disorder

Greg OrrGreg Orr quite naturally has thought carefully about the nature of lyric poetry, having written lyric poems for more than 38 years. He has considered it as a cultural artifact present in virtually every culture, a fact that suggests the lyric serves some fundamental human need. And he has observed the way it has functioned in his own life, initially as he struggled to deal with the shock of having killed his brother in a childhood hunting accident and, later, through the inevitable crises of adolescence and adulthood. His views are collected in a forthcoming volume, Three Strange Angels: Trauma and Transformation in Lyric Poetry.

“We have a deep personal need for order,” Orr explains. “The lyric poem, which could be described simply as a poem about experience that features an I, contains within it many of the techniques such as story, symbol, and the rhythmic presentation of sound that can order personal experience.” In a sense, a lyric poem is an external scaffolding or framework of language that counters, and to some extent contains, the disorder the poet is experiencing. As Orr sees it, it’s a way to dramatize and, in the process, stabilize the self.

Some people ignore or resist the disorder they feel. The role of the lyric poet is to move to the threshold of disorder and dramatize the encounter with it. Both disorder and order are real, and the poem is an arena where both realities can be powerfully present. In the course of acknowledging disorder, the self masters it by assimilating it into the ordering process of the poem.

Orr’s own technique requires a good deal of patience and, in some cases, a good cup of coffee. “I wait until an image or phrase appears in my mind that seems to bring with it a sense of emotional or intellectual confusion,” he says. “The effort is to align yourself with the phrase and follow it as quickly as possible toward more language.” The skill, partly innate and partly learned over time, is the ability to discern whether the initial fragment possesses the necessary emotional resonance. “When I write prose,” Orr explains, “I’m interested in how one associative idea leads to another. When I write poetry, I look for phrases that are saturated with emotional content, but I initially don’t know exactly what that content is about.” Orr begins to discover this during the process of revision, often going over a poem 50 to 100 times before he is satisfied.

Such an image lies at the root of “When I was alive . . . ,” a poem in Orpheus & Eurydice, a sequence of lyric poems Orr published in 2001. The poem ends with the sentence, “How could he know how free I felt as I unwound the long bandage of my skin and stepped out?” Orr recalls struggling with this image for more than 20 years. “It was looking for a place to explain itself,” Orr says. “I sensed in this phrase the anguish of embodiment, of being a body in the world. Placed at the end of this poem, the image proposed a vision of death as release, transcendence, even a kind of fulfillment.”

Orr reads two of his recent poems online at: www.virginia.edu/researchandpublicservice/explorations/W2002/Orr/index.html

A common language for patients and physicians

Dr. Margaret MohrmannAnyone who has glanced at a prescription pad knows that a doctor’s language can be arcane.

All too often, patients find their doctor’s spoken words equally difficult to understand and hard to relate to their situation. This realization motivated Dr. Margaret Mohrmann to pursue a doctorate in religious ethics at U.Va., with the idea of finding a language in which to communicate with patients. The medical director of the pediatric intensive care unit and residency program in pediatrics at the Medical University of South Carolina, Mohrmann was looking for a new language and a new way to view the experience of healing and suffering.

“I had a very good medical education,” she recalls. “It was an education in how to describe experience and to think about it in a very specific, dispassionate way. Within its experiences of suffering and to make medical constructions intelligible to patients and their families,” she says.

Mohrmann found a solution in the language of theology, drawn by what she sees is its ability to encompass paradoxes without having to resolve them. She wrote her dissertation on Ambrose of Milan, a fourth-century bishop who played a key role in the development of Christianity in Europe and who was known for his pastoral writings. Mohrmann decided to study religious ethics rather than anthropology or sociology because she found that families tended to speak of suffering in religious terms. She was also drawn to it because of her personal beliefs.

Mohrmann sees in theology a way to help people integrate the experience of pain and suffering into their lives. As she describes it, the medical care of children in an intensive care unit is “an encompassable challenge” compared to the care of their families. As director, her job was to focus her resources and knowledge to help each patient. Helping families she found to be a much less tangible and less finite problem. She needed to give them a way to be heard and to help them come to terms with their experience. “Theology is designed to address experience from the largest possible perspective,” she says. “It also encourages the kind of self-examination and introspection that is a prerequisite for helping others.”

The creative tension in Mohrmann’s work comes not simply from couching medical experiences in theological terms, but also from moving back and forth between the language of medicine and the language of spirituality. As the Harrison Medical Teaching Associate Professor of Generalist Medicine, she teaches her students both religious studies and medicine. In the Religious Studies Department, she helps students ground theological concepts in real, complex situations that occur every day in hospitals and clinics. In the Medical School, she helps students appreciate the ethical and spiritual dimensions of their practice and to recognize how important it is to assist patients and their families to live with the experience of pain, suffering and healing.

To learn more about Dr. Mohrmann’s research and publications, go to:

Reprinted from the Winter 2002 issue of Explorations, produced by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Public Service and the University Development Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations.



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