IdeaConnection Challenges Keep Me Sharp in Different Areas
Interview with IdeaConnection problem solver Regina Monaco.
By Paul Arnold
When she's not working as a theoretical neuroscientist at Mount Sinai Health System, Regina Monaco likes to use her chemistry know-how to make artisanal chocolates with her company, Bronx Grrl Chocolates.
And when she’s not doing that she gives her brain a workout on IdeaConnection R&D problem solving challenges.
In this article, Regina talks about her background and the fun she's having as a member of multidisciplinary teams working in a virtual environment.
My degree is in chemistry and I am a theoretical chemist, but on the side, I am a confectioner and a candy maker. I went to the University of Texas at Austin where their chemistry library has a whole section on food chemistry, so when I was studying as a graduate student I would take a break and read books on food chemistry. I loved it and was fascinated. Now, my first challenge was on transformational foods and I thought this is great: my career never really went into foods, because it went into DNA. But this challenge would give me the opportunity to use my food chemistry that I love, but don’t get to use.
Did working on this challenge live up to your expectations?
Yes, because it gave me a great opportunity to develop and explore ideas, and a reason to read a bunch of papers and literature in an area I wouldn't normally have time to look at. I also learned a lot of industrial applications. It was so much fun and fascinating.
How did you find the experience of working in a virtual environment?
I was working with people from all over the world in different time zones with different concerns. You see, the team also chit chats and you get to know a little about the people and I really loved that opportunity. I don’t think you can get that in a physical lab because people are all local. Of course, you can have international collaborations, but this was just an opportunity to do it in a unique way and I thought it was very productive.
Were there debates as you worked through solutions?
There were robust academic debates. We would question each other and then from the questions and defending the answers we would all learn. There were a couple of solutions that were weeded out at the beginning because of that robust intellectual academic debate. The conversations were very professional and very in depth so that we could shake out good ideas from the bad.
How many challenges have you worked on?
So far, I have completed three challenges. But then I got so excited that I took on another five. I just finished another one last night and it hasn't been submitted yet. So, I really have dived into this. It is a great thing to keep you sharp in all these different areas, and they're not all on food. In one challenge the seeker wanted a completely unique way to purify DNA. I thought it was a difficult and fascinating challenge and we received a partial award.
Are you open to all sorts of intellectual experiences with IdeaConnection?
I feel like I am open to 90 percent of them. My only concern when I read challenges is I want to make sure I can contribute to the team. So, I probably won’t take part if it’s not in an area of interest where I have already done some reading or is not related to expertise that I possess. I want to be a fair member of the team. But in general I am open to anything.
What areas have you covered so far?
I’ve done transformational foods, DNA, flower sorting to purify St. John’s Wort, and I am working on a packaging challenge to make sure that snacks are packed in the most efficient way possible. Another challenge is to help a solution seeker invent a chewing gum that is less sticky so it doesn’t stick to cement. There’s another challenge where we are looking at more efficient ways of breaking sucrose down to invert sugar. And with another team I am working on fleet acquired data monetization. We are figuring out how to monetize the data that’s gathered from fleets of trucks. How could these challenges be more different?
You like your brain being pushed and pulled in all these different directions?
I love it and I love meeting all the different people. I am working with engineers, chemists, physicists and mathematicians and they all come at these problems with different philosophies and with a different academic background. They are giving different slices of their own expertise. I think it is extremely synergistic and it keeps me on my toes. I have to be sharp so I can debate with different experts on an equal level.
How much of a motivator is the prospect of a financial reward?
It’s a pretty good motivator because these tasks are time intensive. You want to do your best and you want to give them your all, but you’ve also got to eat and pay bills and so on. The financial incentive is important and it also means something. If the seeker is going to pay us it’s an unspoken pat on the back that you’ve done good work – ‘it’s valuable enough to us and so we’re going to pay for it’. Both monetarily and psychologically that is important.