From the Dean: From Here to Mars

Spring 2019

Laura Ray, Interim Dean

Back in December, I had the opportunity to travel to Silicon Valley and San Francisco for Thayer’s Engineering Career Trek, an annual trip that connects our current students to alumni for a first-hand look into the work at leading engineering and technology companies. Amid lab and office tours, students also had the chance to engage with Thayer alumni about how they had arrived at their career fields, which ranged from aerospace to automotive technology, from electrical to data systems and platforms. Given these diverse paths, the question most on our students’ minds was: How did you get there from here?

For some, their path has always been clear. One of our alumni, Max Fagin Th’11, is a self-professed “kid” who never grew out of the astronaut phase. While at Thayer, Max and his team developed a component for the life support system in spacesuits that helps dehumidify the air that astronauts breathe in space. Through this project, Max had the opportunity to experience weightlessness for the first time, when he and his team brought the prototype to NASA for testing. Now as aerospace engineer at Made for Space, Max designs hardware and components for the International Space Station and other clients. His life’s goal is to someday live on Mars.

For others like Eric Trautmann ’07 Th’08 Th’09, his engineering degree was a stop on his way to his current work as a neuroscientist. As an undergraduate, Eric had helped design and build the autonomous Yeti robot that surveys Antarctic ice sheets, but this very training in electrical engineering, mechatronics, and machine learning now informs his research at Stanford, where he is developing tools that can record the simultaneous activity of thousands of neurons and vastly improve the performance of neural prosthetic devices for people with paralysis.

Another alumna, Natalie Afonina Th’16 Th’17, began her career as a chemist and found her passion for materials science while developing fuel cells for unmanned undersea vehicles for the Navy. At Thayer, she researched the microstructure of superalloys, helping develop high-temperature austenitic alloys for energy conversion applications. She now applies her engineering skills as a product manager for the Advanced Technologies Group at Uber on the team responsible for developing self-driving technologies, mapping, and vehicle safety – ultimately helping reduce accidents and congestion on the road.

From Earth to Mars, from ice sheets to brain science, from superalloys to self-driving vehicles, the message to our students was that there isn’t just one path. While Thayer engineers like Max followed his passion for aerospace engineering, others like Eric and Natalie had the ability and opportunity to switch gears when they discovered a related, but different passion. 

As engineers, we are trained to identify a problem, understand its root cause, and create the tools to tackle these problems head on. We are taught to value precision and details, while at the same time, understand how systems work together and what happens when parts of that system fail. 

Our students are used to living at this intersection of engineering and liberal arts. Embedded in our curriculum and culture is the importance of a human-centered approach to engineering and design and the belief that our work should have an impact on the world we live in – for the better. 

This is even more true when it comes to leadership. A session at a recent ASEE Conference and Exposition focused specifically on how best to teach leadership to engineering students. While leadership presents itself in many ways, for engineers who want to lead, it’s not enough to simply be an expert in a field of research. True leadership also requires the ability to influence others, the ability to collaborate with people and across academic disciplines, and the initiative to “get things done.”

These values, so essential to leadership, are the values Thayer students live out each day. For our engineering alumni, they embody these values as they apply their training to help solve real-world problems.

For many of our students who took part in Engineering Career Trek this past December, their next steps from Thayer to their next job, eventually to a place like Mars, may not be immediately clear. What is clear is that a Thayer engineer has the expertise and problem-solving skills, along with the drive and compassion for humanity to help solve some of the world’s greatest challenges. These are exactly the kind of skills and leadership our world will always need.