Transdisciplinary collaborations are at the heart of a university’s creative genius. But how do they begin? And what makes them successful? For a new series, we ask collaborators to share how their work together works.

You can make a building smart, but can you make it emotionally intelligent? Yes, if a recent collaboration between Ali Mehrizi-Sani, an associate professor in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Kereshmeh (Keresh) Afsari, assistant professor in the Myers-Lawson School of Construction, has anything to do with it. 

With a $50,000 grant from the Intelligent Infrastructure for Human-Centered Communities (IIHCC) Destination Area, the two are working to create post-disaster emergency housing that responds to its occupants’ biosignals — by opening a skylight when heart rates show distress, for instance. The project’s goal: To help disaster victims recover from trauma faster.

Here, Mehrizi-Sani and Afsari talk collaborations, inclusivity, and what a good weekend looks like. [This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.]

What drew you to this idea of designing responsive buildings for victims of natural disasters?

Keresh: At age 22, I became part of a team that was responsible for the reconstruction of a historic city in Iran called Bam, after a huge earthquake in 2003 killed 34,000 people there. I was a very young engineer helping to build the city from scratch — libraries, hospitals, housing, offices, prisons. We would go to the sites to check the construction progress, and one day there were kids playing next door. One of them asked, “Are you making a Ferris wheel here? That would be awesome.” At that point I thought, Maybe these people just need something to be fun, to help them recover from such pain. They lost their families, they lost their houses. Since then I’ve pursued learning about how technology can help make buildings smarter, more fun for people, and also more mindful of the occupant. 

Ali: Who knows, maybe tomorrow we’ll be the victim of one of these disasters? We want to make sure the spaces we live in can really contribute to us getting back to normal lives after the impact of PTSD. And we need those structures to be self-sustaining, because energy infrastructure is not necessarily going to be in place.

How did the two of you first connect for this project?

Ali: At an Engineering Faculty Organization meeting in September 2019. The intent was for the engineering faculty to meet each other, especially the new faculty. 

Keresh: It was a great opportunity for us to present in one poster what our research area is and then find collaborators across different disciplines. The poster that I presented was about smart building. When Ali brought up this idea of the CYBORGS [Compassionate deploYable spaces using Biosignals of Occupants for disaster Relief and Grid Service] project, I was really interested in that. Eventually we started working together and submitted a proposal to IIHCC.

What makes for a good collaboration?

Ali: When your collaborators keep the work in check. If I am working on something and the results don’t make sense, I have other sets of eyes who are looking over the project. That means the collaborators really need to be engaged, more than just attending the meetings. 

Keresh: Because I am a member of minority groups, it's also important for me that the team is very inclusive. As a woman, I lead a lot of collaborative projects. And at times, it's challenging. It's not easy for a woman to lead a team of male engineers. For the team to be inclusive beyond those traditional lines of sex, race, or those kinds of things, and to be willing to work towards diversity, that is extremely important.

What does an inclusive collaboration look like?

Keresh: Respect is really important. It doesn't matter who is leading or if this person does have an accent or doesn't have an accent. It's just the work that needs to be done. 

Ali: The best collaborations that I’ve had were the ones where everybody felt equally responsible for the project. Not “OK, this person is leading the project, I can just slack behind.” In our project, that was actually one of the very, very good things. On paper, I was the principal investigator, because for the IIHCC grant the PI had to be a cluster hire. But I never felt that I was the PI. Keresh was at times probably more excited than I was about the project.

How do you stay organized as you collaborate?

Keresh: I think planning, planning, planning is the most important thing. When the project gets really big, it’s hard to find the data you really need. So have a structure for how you're going to approach the project from the very beginning. And that could be simply with a shared folder so that people know how to find things. I also like deadlines. I was listening to a podcast and the guy was saying, “An activity is not a goal until you put it into your calendar. Until you give it a deadline, it's just a dream. And a dream might not come true.” So you always need to give it a date and say, “I'm going to finish this by this date.” 

Ali: I’ve learned not to trust my memory. In a year, when you come back [to the data], you really won’t know what parameter in that particular experiment you changed. So document and write down everything. 

Who inspires you?

Keresh: I want to say Taylor Swift. [Laughs.] That's a joke. I really like her; I actually taught my robot to dance to Taylor Swift. But my Ph.D. advisor, Professor Chuck Eastman, passed away sadly last year, and I learned a lot from him. I moved to the United States just because I wanted to learn from him as a thought leader in construction technology. He was very soft spoken and very calm, and I'm always like, “Aaaah!” I’m trying to learn how to be like him.

Ali: My Ph.D. advisor, Professor Reza Iravani. I have a lot of respect for him. One thing he told me a few times was, “It's never going to get better.” Now, this may sound like a negative, but it’s actually quite positive. It really means, “Enjoy the moment and be happy! Now is actually the best you have.” That's really what I’ve been trying to do.

Keresh: My Ph.D. advisor would always say, “This is great. But . . . what's next?” Usually during the weekend, I like looking to see what's next in other fields, like biomedical or sociology. I like watching a lot of TED Talks. It seems a little geeky, but construction is always behind in terms of technology, and it's a good thing to look at manufacturing or other domains to see what's happening there, and just to be after what's next.

How do you like to spend your weekends? 

Keresh: Being tenure-track faculty we don't really have a weekend. [Laughs.] I like cleaning a lot. I’m a clean freak.

Ali: My favorite activity after I'm done with a big deadline for a proposal is to start cleaning the house.

Keresh: When things are not messy, you're not stressed. And I like cooking, mostly pasta or chicken. If I get a chance, I cook Persian food, but usually that’s very time consuming. My department was asking for a recipe for our Christmas party and I suggested chicken kebabs because it's common in a lot of Middle Eastern countries.

Ali: I should come to your department party. [Laughs.] Cooking Persian is something that I do as a reward to myself. And I post pictures on my Instagram. My favorite dish to make is a kind of beef stew called gheimeh. 

What is one thing that makes you happy in your daily life?

Ali: Chocolate. 

Keresh: Yeah. And my cats. 

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