Embracing uncertainty

By PrincetonTigerChallenge

By: Ariella Cohen '19
Team: Pulse-Ox

As students, we are accustomed to answers. To certainty. To a right way and a wrong way to solve a problem. We study for hours so our test responses replicate those of an answer key. We labor over problem sets so the answers match the professor’s. Tiger Challenge was completely different. It was like taking a test with no answer key.

At the beginning of the summer, we received a general outline of Design Thinking and a number of helpful tools for each phase of the process. After the first week, we were on our own to schedule meetings, interviews, and time for research. We were never given a set of guidelines delineating the number of research papers we should read to learn about pulse oximetry, the number of hospitals we should visit, or how many parents, nurses, or doctors we should interview. At times, it was difficult to fully commit myself to the process without knowing if we were doing everything right.

It turns out that no one knows what is “right” in this context. Our inquiries to Rafe were often answered with “Good question,” or “I don’t know.” While this response (or lack thereof) could be frustrating, I learned throughout the summer that a lack of strict guidelines is exactly what we needed. The team was able to work at its own pace, and the only incentive to act was driven by our internal motivation to learn more about and improve infant pulse oximetry.

The open-endedness of the instruction also encouraged us to think more critically about our research and concept development strategies. Instead of completing exercises or interviews for the sake of crossing them off a list, we thought about and thoroughly considered our methods. We periodically revisited notes from interviews to rewrite the questions we asked. As new topics arose during interviews or on visits to hospitals, we researched them online to learn more. A strict outline for the summer would have inhibited this flexibility and discouraged adaptation.

At the end of the summer, the team had to select three ideas (out of several hundred!) to pursue during the academic year. To aid our idea selection, we presented twelve partially developed concepts to our mentors. I can’t speak for the other members of the team, but I had hoped that our mentors would hear our pitches and tell us which three concepts to pursue. This was not the case. The mentors did not deem any idea to be completely not worth pursuing, nor did they unanimously agree on one as the strongest. While it was reassuring that every idea had at least some merit, we were again in a situation for which there was no right answer.

After much deliberation, we selected a set of concepts. To be honest, I cannot remember the exact metrics we used to decide. Regardless, I know that each of our ideas had value, and that pursuing any one of them would be both challenging and fulfilling. I don’t know whether there was a “right” decision of which three ideas to select, but I am confident that there was no wrong one.

I am thrilled to continue working with the Pulse-Ox Team as we further develop the three concepts that we selected as a group. I am eager to face the challenges and successes of this process. And I am embracing the uncertainty that comes with it.