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MIT student blogger Allan K. '17

“I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer…” by Allan K. '17

wherein Neil Armstrong's legacy kicks off a year of Unified Engineering, and I reflect on why I am where I am

The quote, in full:

“I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer — born under the second law of thermodynamics, steeped in steam tables, in love with free-body diagrams, transformed by Laplace, and propelled by compressible flow.”

— Neil Armstrong, February 2000

The place: Stata Center, 32-141. The time: a dusky 9:00 AM on the first day of class. Sixty-odd students fidget nervous-excitedly in a semicircular lecture hall as Professor David Darmofal, soon-to-be fluid/aerodynamics lecturer, welcomes us all to a year of Unified Engineering, a year-long, four-course series covering all the bases in thermodynamics, signals, control systems, structures, and everything else that makes an airplane fly or a rocket orbit.

Maybe we’re not all white socks/pocket protector (about a third of us are female, incidentally, and through some quirk of the fashion industry have no pockets), but “nerdy engineers” is completely accurate. As we introduced ourselves, most everyone said they joined AeroAstro because they loved rockets or loved airplanes or loved “furthering the fight against gravity.” Many of my classmates said they dreamed of being astronauts, or of building the first rocket to take astronauts to Mars. Some of my classmates were pilots themselves.

One of my classmates related anecdotally how he gets distracted by airplanes flying overhead, and gave Professor Darmofal an opening to introduce the Jim Mar Test. Used by Mar to evaluate potential AeroAstro faculty members during interviews, the test goes like this:

1. Take the candidate outside.
2. Wait for the familiar rumble of passing jet airliners to fill the air.
3. If the candidate automatically looks up at the airplane, the candidate passes and gets the job.

Having spent my summer in Seattle watching jet planes take off from Boeing Field, I felt somewhat reassured once more that I was in the right department.

My reasons for choosing aerospace engineering (Course 16), however, don’t exactly fit the mold. Many students, as described by Professor Darmofal, knew “soon after they were born” that they wanted to be aerospace engineers. Whether this love was inspired by watching Cape Canaveral shuttle launches from backyards or by Carl Sagan reruns on PBS, these are people that have had a die-hard adoration for spaceflight or aircraft since before they could read. These are people that can identify airplanes on sight and have been able to rattle off a list of their five favorite airplanes or spacecraft for at least a decade. As Lulu L. ’09 describes:

“You see, to be quite honest, Course 16 is not designed like many other majors necessarily with exploration in mind. As one of my hallmates wisely pointed out to me, while many students develop a tangible interest in math or chemistry through positive experiences with intro classes in high school or early college, far fewer students decide to ‘take a shot’ at Aerospace because they’d done well in their 10th grade Jet Propulsion class and found the material interesting. Instead, course 16 students are propelled by a sort of fanaticism much in the way that marathon runners are motivated by the finish line. It’s about making it through, and meanwhile having each other to lean on.”

And also:

“You can’t take any other classes in the Aero/Astro department until you’ve completed both semesters of Unified Engineering- a series designed to encompass all the fundamentals of engineering while exploring questions such as ‘Just how excited are you, really, about airplanes??’ and ‘Are you sure?’ “

That sort of fanaticism (for airplanes, or for anything else, really), was something I didn’t have the privilege to grow up with. There’s a notion of “passion” that’s widely perpetuated, particularly by science media and even college application essay prompts, that seems to imply that everyone grows up with something they care deeply about, and have cared deeply about for their entire lives. The romantic narrative of childhood inspiration culminating in success is familiar and widespread, used to describe teenage science fair winners and astronauts alike.

As a child of immigrant parents raised in the Silicon Valley, I do need to admit that my educational trajectory to the MIT AeroAstro department was propelled less by a love for propellers and more by an inbred desire to “succeed,” in the vaguest possible sense of the word. By some standards, succeed I did–I made good grades all through middle school and high school, explored extracurriculars, and now attend MIT. I have a hunch that the smattering of MIT students from my eighty-percent-Asian high school would express a similar sentiment. I know that I have close friends at other schools who are still searching for that “passion.” “We don’t know what to do with our lives” is a common mantra among my high school class.

Why, then, did I choose to become an aerospace engineer?

Here’s what I knew, graduating from high school:

1. I wanted to build things, and enjoyed building things.
2. I was not very good at building things (remember, this is a kid who didn’t know what an Allen key was or how to solder exactly one year ago).
3. I had a budding four-year-old fascination with astrophysics, astronomy, and stargazing, starting from freshman year, because I was also a flourishing high-school poet (with all the associated stereotypes) who found space poetic and romantic. (Semirelated: those interested in theology might ask me about how astronomy influenced and affirmed my understanding of God.)
4. AP English Literature was my favorite class senior year. Journalism III was a very close second.
5. I was not an ambitious person. The only thing I ever really wanted from my life was a family, kids, and maybe a dog ironically named Kitty.
6. If I wanted to, I was in a good position to pursue pretty much any engineering career I wanted.
7. I liked challenges.

So when my turn came to introduce myself and share my reasons for choosing Course 16, I gave everyone the short version: “I thought I was going to be an astrophysicist until I realized I liked building things a lot more than I liked physics.”

(This post you’re reading is the long version.)

I entered freshman year with these seven givens in mind, and set out to fulfill what I could. I found a UROP in the Space Systems Lab and joined Design/Build/Fly, learning how to solder, fabricate airplanes, and read assembly code. I got better at building things. I learned how to work in teams, and what qualities to look for in good teammates. I started singing even more than before, joined the MIT/Wellesley Toons, and therein found a close circle of friends and a tightly-woven support system that kept me alive and sane again and again. And vowing to keep my interest in the humanities alive, I enrolled in humanities classes that seemed interesting to me: 21W.747 (Rhetoric), 21W.762 (Poetry Workshop), and CMS.100 (Introduction to Media Studies). I modified and retuned my understanding of the world. I prayed a lot.

I learned that I have a fear of getting bored, and can’t see myself working with one project (or even one company) for my entire life. I discovered a fear of getting boxed in, a fear of specializing to the extent that I would only be able to do one thing for the rest of my life. I discovered a similar fear of becoming average, of becoming one more Asian male coder/techie/software geek making absurd amounts of money in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street and perpetuating a new, sneaky inegalitarianism spreading slowly in this Millenial generation. I realized the very high value I place on personal, close friendships and relationships.

I had a conception that I would only be able to work for major aerospace corporations or organizations like NASA, Boeing, or SpaceX, and that I’d be left stranded if I ever wanted to leave the aerospace field. This conception was thoroughly dispelled when I (1) met an alum who now works for Google on Project Ara (a modular cell phone), (2) met our Design/Build/Fly pilot and ex-captain, who got hired by Google and moved to California, (3) met an ex-AeroAstro who had switched majors to Urban Planning, and (4) was offered an incredible and very fulfilling internship at a company I never expected to work for: Amazon, in Seattle.

The alum from (1) expressed a view of MIT AeroAstro that has stuck with me for the past year: that is, that becoming an aerospace engineer at MIT doesn’t just necessarily prepare you for becoming an aerospace engineer–it teaches you how to understand, work with, develop, and synthesize incredibly complex systems with too many subsystems to count, it teaches you how to communicate excellently, and it teaches you how to work in large teams to make these systems reality. These are notions and skills that apply not just to rockets and airplanes but also to essentially everything else, whether that’s authoring a book or human rights advocacy or modular cell phone development or city planning.

I decided to stick with AeroAstro. I figured I was fascinated enough by planes and rockets to get through college, grad school, and a few years in industry without getting bored, and if I did get bored, I’d have space and skills enough to find something else interesting to work on. And I figured I could continue taking creative writing and media studies classes concurrently with Unified Engineering.

So here I am, learning about the Breguet Equation for aircraft range estimation and entering the second quarter of my time at MIT. I’m grateful for the blessing of attending an engineering school whose humanities departments are as excellent as they are expansive, a school where it’s totally plausible to be a EECS/Theater double-major, and a school whose comparative media studies (CMS) department sits at the forefront of the field as one of the only “applied humanities” programs in the world. And to those of you who can relate to the kind of uncertainty, soul-searching, and desire for a “passion” that I’ve shared: I’d like to reassure you that the “path of passion,” so to speak, isn’t necessarily accurate for everyone, and it’s okay if it’s not accurate for you. Some people are powered more by simple drive and far-reaching curiosity than they are by a deeply entrenched, childhood-born dedication. It doesn’t mean you’ll end up less educated or less prepared for a career or less successful (whatever “successful” even means). It simply means you’re still finding your way through a brave new world–and after all, who isn’t?