As a Ph.D. student at the Beckman Institute Devorah Klein studied how people store meaning for language production. In her present-day job at a global firm known for innovations in everything from healthcare to furniture, she is a principal leader of a design team of up to 20 people. Despite the seeming differences, Klein says Beckman was the perfect training ground for her current position.
“I loved the Beckman. I really cannot say that enough. I thought it was such a great place to do research,” she said. “And for me one of the things that I have taken from that experience that I really highly value now is that basic concept of multidisciplinary collisions. So the more people you have who are different in their tools but similar in their curiosity in close proximity, the better.”
Safe to say there are plenty of colleagues with diverse skill sets nearby in Klein’s current work environment. She is a principal design team leader at Continuum, a “global innovation design company” that works with companies in fields such as healthcare and consumer products, creating everything from eco-friendly toothbrushes to home furnishings while offering an array of business services.
At Continuum Klein has worked on projects like the Insulet OmniPod diabetes pump, and the creation of mental models of people’s approaches to weight-loss. She is also involved in design solutions in the area of medication adherence.
“I guess I’m really interested in thinking about the intersection between mediation adherence, behavior change, and design,” she said. “I think there are a lot of people working exclusively on one side or the other: a lot of research academics doing research on behavior change, and lots of people with great technology trying to think about how they can design solutions.
“But there’s not a lot of people who are in that middle area, who are thinking about tools for design and not just coming at it with a technology solution already in place. I want to push that far because I think medication adherence and behavior change are huge challenges and I’d love to think that I can help.”
Klein’s Ph.D. at the University of Illinois was in Cognitive Psychology, and she worked at Beckman with former faculty member Greg Murphy, as well as with current faculty Kay Bock and Gary Dell. Her doctoral research was in the area of polysemy.
“It was really about how people store meaning and resolve ambiguity, so it was within the psycholinguistics of meaning,” Klein said. “There are a lot of people at the Beckman who research how you produce language, and a lot of people who research how you comprehend language. I was right in between the two, about how you store meaning.”
So if the interdisciplinary environment at Beckman prepared Klein for her current occupation, then does her work with polysemous words also apply at Continuum?
“I can answer that one of two ways,” Klein said, adding with a laugh, “One way is ‘no’ it really doesn’t apply at all and the other way is ‘absolutely, it applies.’
“For me, what design is, is trying to understand and resolve ambiguity and there are things that I learned that I still use, it’s just that I use them in a much more abstract way.”
While she doesn’t keep up on current research in her Ph.D. area, Klein is still devoted to her work at Illinois and Beckman.
“I am still really passionate about my research on language, and what I really loved about Illinois and the Beckman was that there were multiple faculty members doing research and it all seemed really interesting,” she said. “For me it was a rich community of research going on and not just one person.
“My mom is also a professor and she says the worst thing that you want is to go to a school and to go with one person and then God forbid they leave, or it doesn’t work out; you don’t want to get yourself stuck. That was something that was a big draw. I felt like there were a lot of people doing research that was intriguing.”
Klein, who grew up in a small town in Ohio and earned her undergraduate degree from Wellesley, has been a guest online lecturer for a psychology class in Minnesota taught by one of her classmates from Illinois.
“I think it’s helpful for them to have that perspective of what it is going to look like to graduate with a psychology background and not stay in academic psychology,” Klein said.
When asked to give advice to today’s students who are following a similar path to what she did, this former researcher and currently successful designer said to diversify.
“I think for me, I always felt like a little bit of a black sheep because I had multiple interests,” Klein said. “But I think if you do have multiple interests, make sure you explore lots of them because the more paths you have, the better.”
This article is part of the Fall 2011 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.