Research Insights Series: An Interview with Michael J. Thate

Michael Thate Headshot
Michael J. Thate is a Research Scholar for Responsible Tech, Innovation, and Policy at Princeton University’s Faith & Work Initiative, and Lecturer at the Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education and the School of Engineering and Applied Science, with a background in law, design, ethical philosophy and religious studies, and GIS. Michael’s academic interests and focus are informed and complemented by his corporate experience where he advises across STEM industry sectors on matters of brand equity, communication strategy, institutional trust, ethics, and regulatory strategy.

I had come to grapple with the idea of ethics in the engineering world when I became fascinated with Department of Defense (DoD)-related technologies and applying my computer science background to space-related development. I was struggling with the ethics in relation to human ecology, especially in defense and technology militarization, and how to balance this struggle with my fascination for the technologies present in the industry. Michael and I first connected via email over aligned interests in professional codes of conduct in defense and security AI systems. 

As I began this research insights series, I sought to interview Michael in order to get a sense of what his research might look like from a highly interdisciplinary perspective, and how ethics, something that is prevalent in any academic area, is present as a core focus of research. In this article, I’m excited to present my interview with Michael, focusing on human interactions with the natural world, and how to quantify “life” and its “value” within a vast ecological space.

Please note that one response discusses animal injury and death.

Shannon Yeow (SY): What is your research about?

Michael Thate (MT): I come from an unusual background of law, design, and ethical philosophy. I teach Engineering and Ethics (EGR 501), a personal conduct, compliance course, with my colleague, David Miller. I’m very interested in the history of engineering, policy and implications. I also teach a course in the Keller Center on the History of Entrepreneurship (EGR 301); startups, innovations, technology, whatever that might look like. That’s generally what my research is about. The particular focus that I’m currently into is the scale problem of life. I’m really interested in this ecological question: you know we have these articulations from astrobiology to microbiology, where we’re not quite sure what life is. We’re able to do incredible experiments, alterations, science, and engineering with life, and augmentation and replication in some form. I’m really interested in the idea that if everything is alive in some kind of way, then what is the appropriate scale that we as humans should consider our societal impact? The classic example of this is whether you are going to eat meat or not. What’s the difference between eating a cow, or eating grass, or forgive the example, eating a child? All of us are against eating children, most of us aren’t opposed to eating cows, and no one has a problem with eating grass. But, all of them have biological impulses of protecting that experience of being alive. I’m interested in that question both biologically and philosophically, and something in the way that it manifests itself in the law. But the scale problem of life is really where my particular focus is these days. At the end of the day, the scale problem of life is a quality of data issue, and a computational and modeling challenge. It could come down to an equation at one’s preference: it could be mathematical, elegant, and precise, but it will be wrapped around one’s societal choice. 

SY:  Why did you choose to research this topic? How did you become interested in this topic?

MT: One of the things that I do for fun is I bring in farm animals that would otherwise be euthanized. I brought this one goat that we named Barbara. She had limb problems, and we splinted her with a hot pink cast. She had 3-4 years of wonderful quality life that shocked farmers, but the last few weeks of her life were pretty horrific due to the internal damage caused simply by the fact that I kept her alive. From the way her body was arranged and the splint, there was so much pressure on her internal organs, and she died a pretty horrendous death. I had no real answer on whether I did the right thing. That’s when I really started thinking about this problem of scale. It’s an ecological challenge. That’s when I began thinking about what it would look to model something like this. 

SY: How do you foresee your research developing in the future and what implications could it have?

MT: I want to say I don’t know. I do think there are a couple exciting invitations that come next academic year, where I’ll be given some papers on environmental challenges. This is a tricky one. Of course, I am deeply concerned about the environment; but at the same time, the 9 billion number isn’t getting smaller. We can’t punish developing countries by putting hefty burdens on them to act with “first world” taste according to energy consumption. I’m doing some interesting work with the Andlinger Center for Energy and Environment on the transition question, from fossil fuels to renewable energy, whatever that looks like. I’m very interested in exploring legal personhood, along these lines, not as a way to say that everything is equal, but everyone has equal access to protections. I think it’s interesting to think about widening the parameters of personhood under the law. That might give legal rights and personhood to a tree. There are also really interesting representational in governance implications, and economic distribution considerations.

SY: What does a research-focused daily life look like for you?

MT: So, a lot of staring at my whiteboard, a lot of staring out my window, a lot of tea making, a lot of taking walks. What I try to do is read as widely as I can and see how it processes. The exciting things happen at the intersection of domains of knowledge. Thinking as deeply as I can about a lot of different presenting domains of knowledge and trying to intuit that insight of where they meet. 

SY: If you had one thing you could share with the world, what would it be?

MT: No one knows enough to be certain, so just relax. Be a lifelong learner.

Interview responses have been edited for clarity and length.

I had a wonderful time interviewing Michael. Although not depicted in this article, I was able to discuss what an “ideal world” would look like and the ethics involved in our interactions with the natural world. When asked what the scale problem of life would quantifiably look like, or how to grapple with the ethics of what is “right” and “wrong,” I appreciated Michael’s response: “I don’t know.” I have found that the beauty in research lies in the very fact that we don’t know, and in an interdisciplinary space, there is an even greater opportunity to discover the unknown.

I hope this interview provided you with more direction or insight. I have previously written an article featuring Claire F. Gmachl, focusing on research with quantum-cascade lasers, and more broadly, semiconductors. I hope you are as excited for the next article in my Research Insights Series as I am! Wishing you the best! 

— Shannon Yeow, Engineering Correspondent