August 24, 2019

Statement of Research and Teaching

Eric (Rick) M. Mills, DVM, PhD, MSW

All technologies, problems, and solutions . . . involve people.

Entering the business world with inadequate people skills is like sending a Humvee into battle with inner tubes for tires. Unfortunately, that was my experience upon graduation from veterinary school in 1979. Since then, I have seen most new graduates struggle more with people-related issues than with the technical demands of their discipline. This has motivated me to help clients develop a deeper understanding of themselves and others, and with that insight help them build more effective relationships in the workplace. When I left private practice in 1993 for a career at Virginia Tech, I had two goals. The first was to earn a PhD in veterinary informatics with an emphasis on case simulation, and the second was to teach business and relationship skills to students.

My case simulation plans were put on hold to focus on a more pressing problem, which was to evaluate the terminology coverage for veterinary medicine of the Systematized Nomenclature of Medicine, and the National Library of Medicine’s Unified Medical Language System. The former is now incorporated into the latter. I also studied sources of error in patient data acquisition. In short, when a decision-maker needs additional information to make a decision, an action is either requested or performed personally that will provide that information. Potential failure points in this cycle include miscommunication of the request, improper choice or performance of the action, inaccurate production or acquisition of the resulting data, and absent or ambiguous presentation of information to the decision maker. I completed my PhD in 1998.

I resumed my interest in developing software for case simulations when I became a founding member of the Biomedical Informatics Research Group at Virginia Tech. We created the Diagnostic Pathfinder, a software application that helps students learn and practice their own diagnostic reasoning skills for analyzing laboratory data rather than relying on an expert system. The Pathfinder presents a case in which relevant findings must be identified and organized into an outline that includes a student’s assertions as to the physiologic causes of each finding. The outline, a diagnostic path, represents a student’s understanding of course material related to the case. Once the student’s path is submitted for course credit, the expert’s path is revealed to provide immediate feedback. The Pathfinder is used for homework and class discussion. A video demonstration is found at .

In 2001 our group received a sizable grant from the Department of Education, Learning Anywhere, Anytime Partnership (LAAP) Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education and was recruited to the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine. My contribution was to explore ways the Pathfinder could be used with varying pedagogies in other domains, and methods for automated assessment. Unfortunately, the design could not scale to other domains. Our funds were exhausted in 2007 and my position was not renewed. I saw an opportunity to pursue my interest in working with people, and enrolled in the Masters program at The University of Iowa School of Social Work, where I graduated in 2009 with an emphasis in psychotherapy.

I have taught business and relationship skills effectively for 14 years, nine at Virginia Tech and five at Iowa State University. However, it was not until my social work training that I began to understand the underlying causes of conflict among people in their personal lives, and how these causes are similarly expressed in the workplace. People often bring the same character traits, anxieties, defenses, and coping strategies to work that they use at home.

For example, in social work one learns about a narcissistic parent who suffers from a severely deflated self-esteem. He often defends against feeling that emptiness by using his family and others to create and maintain his illusion of perfection. He has no tolerance for criticism or shame, which he defends against by blaming others for his shortcomings. People who work for a person like this often doubt their own value as they try to develop an identity and sense of belonging in the organization. While it is never pleasant to work for, with, or to supervise someone like this, knowing their defensive patterns and understanding one’s reactions is helpful in finding ways to communicate and work together more effectively.

Another concept from social work that translates directly to the workplace is that of building a successful therapeutic alliance with a client. A therapist should listen without judging, ask meaningful questions and wait for answers, and control his or her own anxieties. When misunderstandings rupture the relationship it is the therapist who initiates the repair. New graduates who practice this in business and in their personal relationships are likely to do well.

I believe that student learning is enhanced by visual cues and personal involvement, so I try to introduce concepts accordingly. For example, when I teach about codependency, I walk into class with ropes tied to my arms and legs, and then ask students to pull me in different directions. I then ask if anyone has ever felt this way when trying to please everyone in a work setting. I also combine lectures with stories and guided discussions that focus on personal application. Since students are often passionate about these issues, I insist on a safe and respectful environment. When students are tired or preoccupied I will ask, “Has anything like this ever happened to you or a friend?” Someone always responds. I also teach material from others such as “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High” by Kerry Patterson et al., and “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” by David Allen.

While I am an advocate of competency-based assessment until mastery for performance skills such as diagnostic reasoning, I prefer pass/fail assessment when teaching business and relationship skills. This approach reduces anxiety during class because students are not concerned about tests or quizzes and can engage more fully in discussions. It also increases enrollment by creating less demand on student time outside of class. Another benefit is that I seem to receive less resistance from others who question including this material in an already busy curriculum.

I, however, am more rigorously assessed using three sources of feedback. The first is my “Big deal so what!” rule in which any student can say, “Big deal so what!” and if I do not have a good reason for what we are talking about we move on. The second is an exit ticket (a sheet of paper) turned in by each student at the end of every class with answers to three questions: 1) What was the most profound thing said? 2) What was the stupidest thing said? and 3) What do you want to know more about? I address these answers/questions at the beginning of the next class period. My third source of feedback is the standard student assessments of teaching on which I regularly score high.

While at Virginia Tech I also helped develop and coordinate a novel interdisciplinary course called the Distributed Information Systems Corporation (DISC). DISC was a student-directed faculty-supervised virtual corporation of sophomore, junior, and senior students who worked in teams to develop software as part of an interdisciplinary learning experience. The main premise of DISC was that students could make good decisions, and self-correct when they did not. Students developed their own corporate structure, assessments, deliverables, and timelines. They learned to communicate and work with their peers and faculty from various majors such as Computer Science, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Management Information Systems, Marketing, Finance, and Accounting. My first answer to every question was the question, “What do you think?” The only exception was the day after the first organizational meeting when a distraught student came into my office saying, “Someone needs to take charge to prevent a disaster!” I said, “I agree completely. You are the first President of DISC.” After assuring me how unqualified he was, he left in shock and served well as DISC’s founding President. I chose him because he had the vision to see the problem and came seeking a solution; not a position. I believe that people who have a vision will eventually find a way.

In closing
I have consistently been involved with people and technology and will continue to do so; whether working as a member of a team that is addressing a problem that impacts the wellbeing of others, or as a consultant to a team who is doing the same. I believe that it is possible for people to solve problems, serve others, and grow personally in a way that not only advances the needs of the organization, but also results in an improved quality of life. Our long-term sustainability as people, families, communities, and organizations requires nothing less.