UC Berkeley alumnus Dan Odell, ’04, began a new position in April as staff researcher for Google X, a semi-secret campus of Google located in Mountain View, California. The projects at Google X are hush hush, but there is no secret why Odell fits in with a team best known for pushing the envelope at one of the world’s most successful global technology companies.
Asked what he likes most about his new job – Odell says his coworkers top the list. “So far it has been the people – a really great team of super smart, motivated, interesting people. I definitely get caught up in their energy in a positive way,” adds Odell. Some of the futuristic projects, or “Moonshots,” to come out of Google X include a self-driving car and Google Glass, the voice command, wearable technology that places data within eyesight.
Not many people have Odell’s background in product design and ergonomics, which are unique skillsets that he brings to the Google X team. Odell earned his PhD at UC Berkeley in Mechanical Engineering with a major in Design. It was in Professor Paul Wright’s mechanical engineering lab that Odell’s research began to turn toward new types of computer input devices. Odell says, “the work turned from a question of, how do you build this device, to the human element - how do you make it better for people?” During this time, Odell began engaging David Rempel to learn about ergonomics. Rempel sat on Odell’s thesis committee for his dissertation, “Bimanual Computer Input and Forearm Support Implemented and Evaluated in an Integrated System.”
After earning his doctorate, Odell went straight to Microsoft. “If you’re able to work an innovation into a product at Microsoft, you’re going to be able to help millions of people.” says Odell. “For instance I got to drive the ergonomic design of the first-ever Natural mouse. Up until that time, the focus had been on split keyboards and Natural keyboard design, but as computer interfaces changed from text-based to graphics-based, we found that the mouse was being used three times as much as a keyboard. That was a really gratifying project.”
The Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop was Odell’s last project at Microsoft and one of his career highlights. Collaborating with David Rempel and former ergonomic students Pete Johnson and Jack Dennerlein, Microsoft tested early prototypes of the keyboard in Rempel’s lab. Previously, Rempel and Odell were co-authors of several papers on the ergonomics of keyboard and tablet design.
In addition to Rempel, Odell says a number of mentors influenced his career, such as Paul Wright, his advisor, and Hugh McLoone, his predecessor at Microsoft. “He definitely helped me, especially as I was starting out as a young researcher straight out of school.”
Asked what advice he could offer to students beginning their professional career, Odell says, “It’s important to take the opportunity to form relationships with the people who are doing the kind of work that you want to do. Frankly, Professor Rempel was pretty intimidating to me early on because he’s well-published and respected in the field. But for the most part, these people are open and willing to have a conversation with you, to give you advice and feedback. Those types of relationships can be super-helpful in navigating your career."
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