While you may be familiar with the terms STEM and STEAM, New Bedford Research & Robotics has trademarked the concept of STEA3M — Science, Technology, Arts, Accessibility, Applied, Mathematics.
New Bedford Research & Robotics (NBRR) is a nonprofit research-based organization that serves the intersection of STEM, corporate research and development, university research, community programs, and entrepreneurial start-ups. NBRR does research in marine tech, robotics, artificial intelligence/machine learning, data science/visualization, clean energy, and VR/XR gaming with a goal to fuel the research world, not compete in it.
NBRR Founder Mark Parsons obtained his degree in fine arts and sculpture at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth before moving to New York City to develop his career in architecture. After completing graduate school, Parsons landed a job running the wood shop in the architecture department at the Pratt Institute in New York City. He was later appointed director of the architecture department. During his time as architecture director, Parsons founded Consortium for Research & Robotics, the predecessor to NBRR.
Parsons grew up in the Mattapoisett and Marion area, moving to New Bedford to attend college. When looking for a location for the new and improved non-profit version of his previous company, Parsons was drawn back to the place where his career as a carpenter began, New Bedford. Parsons said he believes that New Bedford has the potential to drag research outside of the big cities and into the greater world through its robust community.
During his senior year at UMD, Parsons and a group of friends discovered a 40-foot sailboat washed up on a beach after a particularly destructive storm the night prior. He and his friend spent the rest of their senior year repairing the ship and after graduation spent time sailing around the world before settling into graduate school.
Parsons was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 1999 when he suddenly went blind in his right eye over the course of 24 hours. While his sight eventually returned, he went 100% deaf in his left ear two years later. Parsons has struggled with “invisible symptoms” since his diagnosis, stating that “I looked normal. I never wanted any perceived ‘disability’ to define who I was, and though a multitude of symptoms persisted, I hid it effectively for a long time.” It was around 2013 when Parsons started to develop a noticeable limp.
“MS is a gift that has given me an early perspective I would not have had otherwise,” said Parsons. He strove for independence, but his disability forced him to change his perspective, as it is difficult to be independent when you have to rely on others so often.
“Today, my skills are still growing, and I’m getting better at what I do. I love to make spaces where others can pursue ideas and be empowered in that journey.”
New Bedford Light: What does New Bedford Research & Robotics do?
Mark Parsons: Our mission at NBRR is to be an inclusive innovation, education, and entrepreneurship space that bridges different sectors of community, society, and economic capacity through the use of creative technologies. What we are doing here is bringing people and organizations together through creativity and technology.
I am big on this notion of an ecosystem. We have a five-program, or channel, ecosystem that includes things like STEM, community engagement, and university or in-house research. We also have small business incubation, where we identify start-ups that can benefit from the NBRR community, grow, and develop a minimum viable product to go to market with. Lastly, we work with corporations. Corporations are curious about the disruptive nature of technology, advantaging their work, or avoiding pitfalls through experimenting with technology.
What makes it an ecosystem is that those different areas overlap, and there is benefit in that interstitial space between all those different programmatic areas. That’s the kind of magic of it — the space between.
NBL: What inspired you to found NBRR?
MP: NBRR is a non-profit, and that is crucial. Consortium for Research & Robotics (CRR), NBRR’s predecessor, was an offspring of what I did as a director in an architecture school. When I founded CRR, it was about taking all the innovation we were doing in the academic context, turning it outward, and serving the community. That is where the ecosystem I referred to was first discovered, organically developed out of that space, and balanced. Learning the balance of that ecosystem is crucial for a place like NBRR to be successful and, thus, the non-profit nature of this space.
If this were a for-profit space, it would be very easy for it to go in the wrong direction regarding serving and engaging community in a participatory manner because profit is the main driver. Whereas non-profit organizations sustain themselves rather than focusing on maximizing dollars. It would destroy the ethos of the space to think like a for-profit.
NBRR can be successful in engaging corporations interested in those dollars. We can have for-profits in here that are gunning like that. We want that! We want flow through! Start-ups coming in here, testing, growing, and then getting out of here after receiving investments. Boom! That’s a success story. Or having students or interns coming in here to learn and apply those skills through those start-ups and corporations … That’s a success story! We want people and entities with success agendas to come through this space so NBRR can support them!
NBL: How did you go from carpenter to company founder?
MP: Indirect. I had no intention of being in business at all. The reason I studied art at UMass Dartmouth was because I loved making things and thinking about the implications of made objects. That started with carpentry, which I did in New Bedford and the South Coast area with a Portuguese carpenter who was incredibly wise about people and the world.
Working as a carpenter in renovation, taking things apart and putting them back together, I could not help but be aware of the history of our buildings. Finding things like personal artifacts that should be in museums trapped behind the walls of a home built in the 1800s. And walls filled with newspapers from the day it was built, time capsules of history. And here I was 200 years later, uncovering that moment. So, I can’t not think about architectural and living spaces as places that house something much more than just “this is where these pieces of furniture go.” That history connects me to New Bedford and the South Coast. These are the kind of things that drove me as a young artist.
NBL: When were you diagnosed with MS, and how did that affect your journey?
MP: I was diagnosed with MS in 1999 when I suddenly went blind in my right eye over the course of 24 hours. The vision slowly returned, but two years later, I went 100% deaf in my left ear. I had other nagging symptoms like tingling fingers and numbness in my feet — but they were all invisible symptoms to the outside world. I looked normal. I never wanted any perceived “disability” to define who I was, and though a multitude of symptoms persisted, I hid it effectively for a long time. I stopped running in about 2008 and started noticeably limping around 2013 or ’14.
MS is a gift that has given me an early perspective I would not have had otherwise. Early in life, I thought my identity rested in my independence, my talents as a maker, and the fact that I felt like I could do pretty much anything I set my mind to doing. I’m not diminishing those sentiments or skills, but they sort of kept the focus internal rather than external. MS helped me recognize the shortsightedness of that mindset.
I was still in my sculpture studio, but now bringing the work into the world, bringing skill teams together, doing projects, and ultimately building spaces for innovation and creative expression of others.
MS? Twenty-nine-year-old Mark would be devastated, but today, I am not. Today my skills are still growing, and I’m getting better at what I do. I love to make spaces where others can pursue ideas and be empowered in that journey.
NBL: Why choose the Glaser Glass Building for NBRR’s location?
MP: The real question is why I chose New Bedford for its location after being in New York for 25 years. In 2016, I was asked to speak at a TEDx event in New Bedford, and CRR, NBRR’s predecessor, was pretty much in full swing at that point. I have always loved New Bedford, and after coming back here and speaking about what I was doing in New York made me think, “maybe New Bedford is a place where we can do this,” and that is when I started looking at it. It took years for the timing to be right, for me to be ready, and to find the right place.
This building was around the 100th building I looked at through the years, and some were downtown, some were in the North End, some were small, and some were large, but they all needed a lot of work. This building ultimately represents a great location, a location that has a legacy from my generation of New Bedford. It is a big site with four buildings on it, and it has a large spectrum of uses that positively reflects the ecosystem we want to set up.
This is a long, low building with glass in the front, and those two things together contribute to the accessibility of the work happening there. We are declaring a more public face and that we are part of the city and community.
The genetics of the site is what clinched our decision. The size of the site can be intimidating, but we are doing this. We are going for it. It is a major undertaking, like jumping in with both feet.
NBL: Will you be allowing tours of your new facility to the public?
MP: Yes, we will be doing tours. Our doors are open right now. People can just wander in.
When you are a young organization, you don’t want to spend all your days giving tours, but that accessibility is an important element of community, who we are, and what we do. Tours will be in place, whether it be through AHA! Night or once we are moved in, through public lectures, exhibitions, or weekend tours.
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NBL: What project are you currently working on?
MP: Activating the ecosystem is incredibly important to our mission, and we are successfully doing that right now, from research, to STEM programs, to corporate engagement. I am incredibly proud of the STEM work we have been doing.
On the other end of the spectrum, we are doing a corporate project for Ford in Detroit right now, on Ford’s E-Mobility Innovation Campus, looking at the future of electric drives, mobile devices, and everything that goes with them. We are designing four different robotics cells, all of which are exciting and one of which is unbelievable. It is an AI robotics cell that is going to have human interaction. A responsive robot. It is a closed loop of information where every one thing responds to everything else. It is non-linear, and it is super exciting.
NBL: Why is incorporating art into science so important?
MP: We have to do speculative work in order to do practical work. The great thing about the arts is the willingness of people to take risks in creating an artifact. The riskiness and social criticism that come through that process are incredibly healthy things to imbue upon a laboratory setting with a spectrum of users that go from STEM to corporations. It opens up the window to take risks — some call it failure. But really, it is understanding a cause and effect of an expected outcome vs. an unexpected outcome. Artists think like scientists in that regard. “How do I control or replicate that to happen again?”
Having different problem-solving techniques and goals in the space helps to influence a healthy environment and encourages others to ask questions.
NBL: How do you plan to incorporate the New Bedford community into NBRR?
MP: We already are and will continue to do what we are doing now. We are working with New Bedford High School. We are working with Our Sister School. We are working with other schools. And we have been asked to work with many more public schools and community organizations.
The great thing about working with young folks — middle and high schoolers — is that they have siblings, parents, caretakers; communities to integrate. We want to imbue these young people with the idea that they belong in our space. Not just being capable but having a sense of ownership. “I belong there.” Having students believe in themselves is how we get systemic impact. Strengthen the narrative of “we can do this.”
Email reporter Roxanne Hepburn at email@example.com.
Editor’s note: This story was modified on Thursday, June 15, 2023, to correct information on the number of countries and clients NBPR works in and with.
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