Marcia O’Malley explains how to convey an engineering story

Rice Engineering professor helps her students share their research through communication.

Marcia O'Malley headshot

“Like most budding engineers, I loved math and science,” said Marcia K. O’Malley, the Thomas Michael Panos Family Professor in Mechanical Engineering at Rice University. Though she also loved reading, she did not love writing, much to the chagrin of her mother, an English teacher.

“My dad was Mr. Fix-it; he could do anything with duct tape and coat hangers. When he restored a vintage car for my mom to drive, I was his assistant. Later, my undergraduate research was in healthcare related robotic systems. Those would be formative experiences, although I didn’t know it at the time.”

She was also influenced by a high school anatomy and physiology class where she wrote a report on a metal frame used to gently stretch bones. The stress of the stretching prompted cell growth, and the technique was also used to treat congenital birth anomalies and stimulate healing after massive bone breaks.

“Decades after writing the report, this same technology was recommended for my mother, to realign ankle bones that had broken and healed imperfectly when she was a child,” O’Malley said. “In high school, I knew I did not want to become a doctor. Instead, I was fascinated with the engineers who came up with this kind of mechanical solution – a contraption with a significant health outcome.

“I pursued mechanical engineering in college and found work in a biomechanics research lab focused on developing new and more robust prosthetic knee implant materials. In our research, we ran cadaver knees and prosthetic knees through thousands of gait cycles using a robotic knee simulator. The device was used to gauge the load and endurance of the prosthetic materials compared to the performance of cadaver knees. While working with a graduate student in the lab to improve how the knee simulator mimicked the way the tendon connected to the patella, I realized my interest wasn’t in the prosthetic knee joint as much as the robotic device that was used to imitate gaits in a human knee.”

These days, O’Malley relishes the variety of interdisciplinary opportunities that arise for a mechanical engineer specializing in health care applications. But the very nature of interdisciplinary collaboration requires her to be a strong communicator, a fact that never fails to invoke a grin from her mother, the English teacher.

“I have to talk to experts in divergent fields and we use dissimilar vocabulary, or we use the same vocabulary but mean very different things,” said O’Malley. “I have to listen carefully and restate phrases to make sure my interpretation is correct, especially when it comes to translating that issue or constraint into my own area of expertise.

“In addition to accurately understanding the vocabulary used by my interdisciplinary colleagues, it is just as critical to put myself in their shoes. What is important to them? The clinicians care about patient health outcomes; the patient wants to know —if they agree to participate in the research— what will be their time commitment and if their health will benefit in any way from the trial. Engineers want to test the device or algorithm and make sure it is working in the way we expect. To be a successful interdisciplinary collaborator, you have to step outside your own niche, address all these expectations, and focus on the whole problem.”

Learning to put herself in her interdisciplinary colleagues’ shoes is a technique that works well in both presentations and publications. O’Malley said if she is writing about research for a rehabilitation robotics publication, she can move quickly into the specifics of the breakthrough. For a broader audience, she begins with a justification of why her team’s approach is important or worthwhile.

“Some audiences might not even realize robots are used for rehabilitation. Learning to start at a high level is also useful for communicating with the graduate and undergraduate students in my lab,” said O’Malley. “So consider the audience’s level of experience, their background, and the lens through which they will perceive your words or illustrations.

“Is the poster next to you similar to your field or completely different? Calibrate the audience to your topic from the start, then stay on track. What is the question you wanted to answer and how did you solve it? Introduce a few of the ah-hah moments and how they led to your final solution. But don’t try to walk anyone through a step-by-step chronological timeline; that is a sure way to lose their interest.”

To introduce Rice students to current research and industry innovations, O’Malley invites mechanical engineers to speak at Rice in a series of seminars. If she knows the speaker well enough, she may ask them to share a behind-the-scenes conversation with members of her lab. In that kind of discussion —where engineers share similar research interests— the speaker can provide more details about their work.

She said, “That is the appropriate time to answer questions about what really happened in different iterations. Talking with like-minded engineers working in similar niches is where you can say, ‘Oh, experiment two was actually in response to a reviewer, and experiment three came about because…’

“Not diving into those details with a general audience doesn’t mean you are being facetious or that you are trying to hide part of your work. It just means you’ve recognized that chronologically-ordered facts from your lab notebook may not be the best way to tell the story.”

When working with Tracy Volz in Rice’s engineering capstone course, O’Malley helps seniors learn to turn details from their lab documentation into stories for their final presentations. The students have spent an entire year designing a solution for a specific problem and they want to share every discovery and setback with the audience.

“Just show me the ending up front,” said O’Malley. “Tell me, ‘This was the problem we tried to solve, and this is what we did.’ Now that I have your solution in mind, I can follow along with a condensed version of how you got there. It is not necessary for the audience to experience each of your highs and lows over the whole process.

“Graduate students struggle with the same issue. Focus on the story that presents your hypothesis, methods, and results, not the biography of your time in grad school.”

While O’Malley coaches students to improve their engineering communication skills, she never loses sight of the fact that she is also still learning. Although she is now a prolific writer and gives many presentations in her roles as an entrepreneur, the director of the Mechatronics and Haptic Interfaces (MAHI) Lab, and the Associate Dean for Research and Innovation in Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering, O’Malley said she still finds it easier to edit than to write.

“At any given moment, I probably have three to five papers in various stages. I tend to procrastinate because I feel my writing is still a work in progress, and I know I need to continue developing my communication skills. But recently, I’ve been reminded of the importance of positive feedback.

“After submitting a piece for a journal retrospective, the organizer for that series said to me, ‘Marcie, you are a really good writer.’ It was surprising to me how impactful it was to hear that positive comment. So I’m reminding myself to tell people when they’ve done a good job at clearly communicating their message. Take the time to congratulate students or colleagues when they have done a good job of conveying a story.”