Monday, June 28, 2010

Window of Insight #2: Michael Grant

This window of insight focuses on a non-writer, and, by many accounts, a non-creative (but don't be fooled). Michael Grant is a computational mathematics researcher who focuses on the concept of optimization, which he applies to a variety of topics. Here's what makes Michael creative (all answers are copyright Michael Grant).

1. Please describe the kind of work that you do.

My degrees claim that I am an electrical engineer. But over the course of my college work, I discovered that I was more interested in the computational and mathematical details than in the specific engineering applications.

For my doctoral work, I focused on the field of optimization: the mathematics behind selecting the best choice among a family of alternatives. Whether the challenge is to find the highest performance, the lowest cost, the most efficient use of resources, or the lowest risk—any time the notion of “best” can be expressed mathematically—optimization is the method. Not surprisingly, optimization has applications in a wide variety of fields, including engineering (of course), the applied sciences, business, and finance.

My work these days takes several forms. I teach a graduate-level course in optimization at the local university, and I give seminars and lectures in academic and corporate settings. I develop and maintain software that is used by a variety of researchers around the world that makes it easier for them to use optimization in their work. And I apply optimization and related concepts to a variety of engineering problems.

2. How does the creative process fit into your work?

I think it is fair to say that people typically associate creativity with, well, the creative and aesthetic arts: music and dance, visual arts, fictional writing, and so forth.

But at its most basic, creativity is simply the act of generating concepts and works that are new and original (at least to their creator). And in that sense, it is clear that creativity can be found in many technical fields as well, and engineering in particular. Any time I am developing the first solution to a new problem, or a new and better solution to an old problem, I am being creative.

Constructing a new piece of software certainly can a creative act, depending upon how much latitude the programmer is being given to accomplish it. But in the case of my most popular software, CVX, I created not just some new code but also a new methodology: a new way of thinking about or approaching the problems it is designed to solve. So there was creativity involved not just in its construction, but in its very conception.

Creativity enters into the teaching and communication as well. Every student or audience member approaches the material with a different background, so I must often invent new ways to explain or demonstrate particular concepts.

3. Where do you find sources of inspiration?

I try to keep up with the latest developments in my field by reading a lot of papers and speaking with colleagues. I typically have a number of problems percolating in the back of my mind, each stuck in limbo waiting for the right new idea or concept to come along that enables me to solve them. I would love to say that I always invent that critical missing piece on my own. But frequently, perhaps more often than not, I will find it in other people’s work and adapt it to my purposes.

4. What role do you feel that creativity plays in your life (in your work and beyond)?

I think I’ve addressed how creativity is involved in my work. But of course I think creativity is useful and even essential in a vibrant life outside of work as well.

Certainly, family life benefits tremendously from creativity. My wife is probably better about this than I am, but we both strive to find creative new ways to teach our daughter new ideas and behaviors. I’d like to think I apply creativity in how I treat with my wife as well; at the very least, we can agree that it would be nice if it were true. :)

One interesting outlet for creativity I’ve enjoyed lately is my work at church. I volunteer one or two Sundays a month to work on the light board, a bank of levers and buttons that control the house lights, spot lights, and decorative stage lights. As with many contemporary church settings, the feel is at times reminiscent of a concert! Along with the objective technical aspects like making sure that the singer or pastor is adequately lit, I have the opportunity to be creative in the selection the colors and patterns to follow the mood of the service.

5. What is the most challenging part of the creative process for you?

I often find it hard to finish a project and send it out to be consumed, used, and critiqued. I’m always finding something I can improve, tweak, rework, re-cast… Of course, what good is a creation that cannot be shared? My challenge is to set aside that urge to perfect and just get the work out there. It seems to me that this challenge would be more intense with the creative arts, because once a work is out there it often cannot be revised. In my case, I frequently have the opportunity to improve upon my work after people have had the chance to try it out. It is good for me to remember that.

6. What is the most rewarding part of the creative process?

Certainly, the accolades and encouraging words of others are among the most important rewards. But more than these are the implicit accolades that come when people use my work to further their own, citing my software or papers in theirs. I recently had someone incorporate the use my software into a textbook. I think that means I am immortal! :)

The “Eureka!” moments that come when I make a new discovery or solve a particularly vexing problem are intensely rewarding as well, and I’d say that they are the reasons I love to do research versus straight-ahead development.

7. At what point do you feel that you have succeeded with a creative endeavor?

I think it is when the external rewards come in that I discussed in the previous question. I certainly acknowledge that a personal satisfaction in the quality of my work is important. But truthfully, the very purpose of my core work is to enable others to solve problems that they would have been unwilling or unable to do without it. So without the positive feedback from others, I could not be certain I had succeeded.

* * *

Thanks, Michael, for the insight. As for immortality, that's Creativity with a capital C: what a lot of creatives secretly crave. ;-)


  1. This is a very neat feature, Alison. Windows of Insight...I will be looking out for more of your dialogues (I went back and read #1, too). Creativity in all its forms is a big interest for me, too.

  2. Hi Toby, glad to hear it! I've got some great people lined up, and am always looking for new people to contribute, if you have some suggestions (hint, hint). ;)