Jenny Qiu is a PhD candidate at the Thayer School of Engineering, Dartmouth College and a TREAT Entrepreneur Fellow. Here, she gives her perspective on the importance of talking to potential end users early on in your research.
An Engineering PhD is a deep commitment to the development of an idea or concept. For the odd 4-5 years, the majority of time is spent acquiring the background and the techniques through classes and experiments so that a meaningful contribution to the academic community might be produced. In the process of detailed research and enlightenment, we researchers can get excited that an idea is so revolutionary that it might change the lives of the general public in some way. However, in the rush to bring that idea into reality, researchers can underestimate the complexity of the process of commercialization. For example, the application of the idea that we originally envision is sometimes not one that consumers actually want. We forget to listen to the people that we want to help.
My PhD thesis work in brain computer interfaces is primarily made of two ideas. The first is observing the evolution of EEG signals during the process of learning. The second is manipulating the learning environment using those changes in EEG signals. In Fall 2017, I was looking for an application for my project. At the time, I was intrigued with the idea of using this technology to revolutionize e-learning. I needed to know whether this work could go anywhere.
As a TREAT Entrepreneur Fellow, I had the opportunity to research the commercialization process and the value of seeking consumer input. I learned how to ask better questions and how to listen for information from consumers. Through my customer interviews, I found a potential market not in e-learning as I originally envisioned, but through special education. I researched how centers in both NH and VT handled funding and investigated new technology. I was most surprised to learn that one of the most difficult challenges in special education is training new teachers.
The application in educating teachers in special education was not something that I originally envisioned my product to be a part of. However, I can see myself working toward this direction. If it weren’t for the team I’ve met through TREAT, I would have continued to work on my thesis without ever consulting the people who could benefit from my product. Only by speaking directly to potential consumers was I able to identify an application for my thesis.
Jenny Qiu is a TREAT Entrepreneur Fellow and a PhD Candidate at the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College. She received a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and formally worked in robotics at the Boeing Company. Jenny has multiple interests including human-computer interfaces, machine learning, and marathon running.