A nanotechnologist and a social scientist walk into MIT MechE….

A nanotechnologist and a social scientist walk into MIT MechE….

A nanotechnologist and a social scientist walk into MIT MechE….

Finding my place in the MechE department without a technical background

June 6, 2024 | Madison R.

Mechanical Engineering

“What’s your name?” “Where are you from?” “What’s your research area?” These are, without fail, the first three questions exchanged between MIT Mechanical Engineering grad students who are meeting for the first time. I quickly learned this convention after spending just a few minutes at department orientation events when I first got to campus in the fall of 2021. The third question, “What’s your research area?”, made me immediately feel uneasy. My classmates’ answers ranged from nanomanufacturing to underwater robots, cell-cell interface mechanics, and microfluidic diagnostics. One of my now friends in the department works on “levitated magnetic reaction spheres for spacecraft orientation control.” I only had a vague idea of what these topics entailed, much less understood the cutting-edge research that my classmates were performing. 

Before graduate school, I received my undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering, with a focus in design. I worked for three years in a human-computer interaction lab in the Information Sciences and Technology Department at Penn State University, my undergraduate institution. At the human-computer interaction lab, my projects focused on hardware design and development, but I was not the person working directly with the breadboard (aka the computer hardware). Instead, I was the person conducting and analyzing interviews, trying to figure out what to build, what kinds of concepts could effectively meet people’s needs, rather than how to build the hardware. My contributions were more descriptive and anthropological than technical. I loved getting inside people’s minds to inform the later engineering steps, and I focused on this kind of qualitative study of people, their behaviors, and their latent needs over my thermodynamics and fluid mechanics coursework. Even though my work was much more qualitative, I considered myself a designer, and as such, aspired to go to the best graduate school for design in the world—MIT. 

When I arrived at MIT, I developed a project examining the sociocultural, economic, and medical ecosystems of developing countries to identify opportunities to improve diabetes care. As one could predict, this was not a particularly mechanical pursuit. I unsurprisingly felt out of place among my cohort where many were studying nanomanufacturing and building robots for the ocean. In one lab, I even watched an undergraduate masterfully operate an injection molding machine, a piece of manufacturing equipment I had never seen before and couldn’t even identify. I soon signed up for 2.670: Mechanical Engineering Tools, an undergraduate class, to learn to use lathes and milling machines, which provided a modest confidence boost. Still, I questioned whether I belonged in the department, whether I would be able to pass the Mechanical Engineering PhD qualifying exams, and whether I would be as successful in graduate school and in my career as my peers. 

As the semester went on, I learned more about other students’ projects, especially those of my lab mates, who gave me updates on their work at our weekly lab meetings. One of my lab mates, who is imaging and identifying microorganisms in sea water to protect seaweed farms from destructive species, has developed an amazing underwater microscope. However, when I asked her about whether she had been working with the farmers she sought to help to determine how they might use such a tool and how it could effectively convey to them the important information the device was capturing, considerations critical to the successful deployment of the device, she admitted that she had been focused on the technology. 

I started to notice this theme in many of the labs around the department—brilliant scientists and engineers inventing groundbreaking technologies but lacking many plans about how to get them into the hands of users and to create their intended impact. I saw the need for the humanistic side of design, the anthropology and behavioral economics, in numerous projects across all research areas in the department, and I realized that my unique skillset does belong here. In fact, it is needed here, as this side of engineering is often forgotten. 

While I am actively working to improve my technical skills and expand my horizons, I now feel at home in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, even without the technical background and focus that almost all of my cohort has. I am also embracing the interdisciplinarity that MIT offers, taking classes outside of the department and writing a paper with two economics students for a global health journal. (Here, it helps to have a supportive and open-minded advisor.) It was certainly intimidating to start at MIT with less technical experience and interests, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from talking to students in my own and more senior cohorts, it’s that everyone is intimidated by something at MIT. And even though I, a social scientist, don’t understand all the nuances of nanotechnology, most nanotechnologists don’t fully understand what I do, either. All of us and none of us are imposters, and we are all here at MIT because each of us occupies an important niche, even if that niche feels untraditional.

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