As I've mentioned before, the past couple years have found me rather directionless. I've carried with me a vague idea of the sort of work I'd like to do, but I've been unable to come up with a specific project that applied both my skills and my ideals.
My skillset is a little difficult to define, since I keep discovering new and exciting things that I'm really bad at. Grad school basically consisted of me trying various areas of EE and hating each one, and thus was useful primarily as a process of elimination. But it still appears that I have an aptitude for designing electronic gadgetry, and that happens to be something I love doing. If that doesn't fall under any official research area, then so be it.
My idealset is more easily defined. I have to help people. I have to use technology to make the world better. Not through entertainment, not with CD players or camcorders or cell phones. But by directly saving lives, or solving problems that cripple society or the environment.
Reconciling the two has been frustrating. The medical field is the obvious possibility, but it doesn't lend itself to independent research, and there are other problems I have with it. I would love to work in energy research, but power electronics is one of the areas that I'm no good at. Transportation and traffic research is tempting (I think that the idea of millions of manually-piloted gasoline-burning cars crawling down asphalt freeways every morning is ridiculously archaic), but I'm daunted by the scope of the work and the enormous time between design and implementation.
I've had a number of ideas in a number of fields, but I've rejected them all as either out of my league or lacking a significant enough impact to make them worthwhile. But now, I may have found something.
Like the rest of this country, I spent Tuesday in front of the TV, watching and rewatching a plane fly into a building. And watching rescue workers run into burning buildings and dig through rubble in search of people in need of rescuing. And listening to our political leaders exhorting the populace to pray for said people. Unlike the rest of this country, I was thinking to myself, "Fuck prayers. They don't need prayers. They need robots."
I am amazed that technology is still at the point where rescue work in dangerous situations is done by humans, wearing nothing but fire-resistant clothing and a face mask. I am amazed that collapsed chunks of building have to be lifted with a human's strength, and trapped victims have to be located with a human's unaided five senses. I am amazed that rescue workers aren't remote-controlled robots. (Then again, I'm also amazed that it is still considered acceptable to solve political and territorial disputes by having people kill each other. So maybe I'm just easily amazed.)
Now, I don't think I can make rescue robots. I think that's out of my league. But as long as rescue workers are going to be humans, running around in burning buildings looking for people... well, I might be able to make something to help them out.
That's all I'm going to say. I have some ideas, but I need to do my background research, find out what technology is available to rescue workers, find out what they need. Nothing will happen right away. This is a long-term goal. In the short term, it may only serve to affect my choice of grad school. Who knows. But it's a direction. It's something I'll be thinking about. It's something I think I can do.