Investing in the Future

Photo credit: GE Foundation

As Executive Director for Education for the GE Foundation, Kelli Wells influences the future of American engineering. She’s focused on managing partnerships to close the skills gap and ignite a spark of passion in students as they realize what being an engineer really means.

Q: Solving the capacity challenge, or the “skills gap,” is a priority of GE Foundation. How do these efforts specifically benefit engineers?

As the first digital industrial company, GE is acutely aware of the need to expand the number of students who ultimately pursue degrees and careers in engineering fields and to broaden the participation of underrepresented populations. Increasing engineering skills for all students is critical to achieving a scientifically and technologically literate society that will enhance our nation’s global competitiveness.

Through our commitment to engineering, we are investing in the next generation’s problem solvers to look at what will be needed in the economy and address it through world-class education pipelines. We are working across stakeholder lines to equip all students with the education, skills and training that they need for the demands of the workforce and the global labor economy. Through our initiatives, engineers cultivate both technical skills and essential skills necessary for career success.

Q: Tell us about the concept behind the GE Brilliant Career Labs. How are the lab’s physical and virtual learning experiences helping students explore career options and find future engineering jobs?

The GE Brilliant Career Lab is a first-of-its-kind mobile and digital technology lab experience designed to prepare students for the digital industrial jobs of the future. The mobile lab combines experiential learning with career-readiness planning in high-demand STEM fields, offering both technical skills development and essential skills training. Through the mobile lab, students become familiar with new technologies, such as 3-D printers, laser cutters, milling machines, and programming tools. They are able to work on projects to help them understand the uses and features of the equipment. The Brilliant Career Lab’s virtual experience website houses career assessments that identify potential STEM and computer science careers paths for each student, and interactive activities that teach students about specific opportunities based on their interests and skills.

Q: Do you have a story you can share of a student who benefitted from the GE Foundation and went on to pursue a career in engineering?

Three years ago, a Boston student, Rafaelo, and his mother moved from Puerto Rico to Boston with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Shortly after arriving in the U.S., despite his mother having secured a job at Walgreens, they became homeless and landed in various shelters. Finally, an aunt was able to take them in. The apartment complex they lived in had rampant drug use, gangs and violence. Each day was a struggle because he was focused on surviving, which meant, staying out of gangs, staying clear of drugs and staying out of fights.

Six months ago, Rafaelo was introduced to the Brilliant Career Lab and began exploring various STEM careers for the first time. Rafaelo’s world began to open with possibility; he took a career assessment and fell in love with the idea of becoming an engineer. This spark has grown into a passion, and Rafaelo said, for the first time, “I can see myself going to college. I learned that I could study computer science and become a video game designer.” Rafaelo is currently working on his application to several Boston area colleges with the goal of becoming an engineer.

Photo credit: GE Foundation

Q: The course of your career includes an impressive twenty years at GE. Before your current role in corporate citizenship, you worked in asset management, quality, and international marketing. What have you gained from trying out different roles in different areas of the business?

For me, cultivating different perspectives is critical. I am grateful for the various roles that I have held because they inform my thinking now. I am able to approach problems from different angles.

I also think it helps me to be empathetic. In my work, I engage with business leaders, educators, students and politicians. Because I have worked in various roles, I am able to see different perspectives. I am able to build connections, identify shared values, and build cohesion among stakeholders.

As I talk to students, I stress my diverse background and tell them that the skills that they develop are not necessarily about specific technical skills, but more broadly about becoming a problem solver, a critical thinker, a dreamer and a doer. These are skills that are fundamental to success no matter the job title.

…being an engineer is the privilege of being the most creative problem solver in the world – with the tools to actually solve the problem! It doesn’t get better than that!

Q: What do you enjoy most about helping the next generation of engineers and scientists?

It is so exciting to see the spark of intrigue in a student. And then it’s even more fulfilling to watch that spark turn into genuine interest, turn into a college experience, turn into a career. Passion starts somewhere, and I am in the great position of being able to watch that process happen with students every day.

On a personal level, I love our country and love that we are a nation of innovators. At the heart of being an engineer is creativity and ingenuity. When people tell me that being an engineer or a scientist is boring, I am aghast. I tell them that being an engineer is the privilege of being the most creative problem solver in the world – with the tools to actually solve the problem! It doesn’t get better than that!

But when I look around our country, we have a problem. We have an education system that is not linked to industry. We have companies that have jobs that can’t be filled because the employee pipeline doesn’t have the necessary skills. I love my job because I am sitting at the crossroads of this challenge, and helping to solve it. I am strengthening our future economy and the health of our country by investing in skills and opportunities of our students. It is humbling.

Q: What’s next for GE Foundation?

The GE Foundation remains committed to empowering all 14-24-year olds to become globally productive citizens by providing access to learning experiences necessary for the workforce of tomorrow. We will continue our initiative in Boston and as we continue to achieve successes in partnership with our best-in-class nonprofit partners, we will extend impact across Massachusetts and the nation by scaling Boston assets and best practices, sharing learnings, convening the best minds and showcasing what is possible. As we move forward, our lens will be toward scale in the areas of collaboration, empowerment and innovation in the areas of education and skills.

 

Forge your own path: a conversation with Joann Michalik

Q. Tell us about your role. What approach do you take to helping businesses deploy advanced technologies and process improvements?

As Smart Building Practice Co-Leader, I need to be on the forefront of the industry. The role is a combination of leading a team of industry leaders and practitioners while creating the next generation of offerings for clients. At Deloitte, we try to be at the forefront of an issue, so gathering insights from our team, and developing the solution that will bring value to our clients is key. But consulting is more than the next solution – it is about trust in your service provider. My approach is to build relationships and trust over time by bringing the best of the firm, delivering value, and truly partnering with clients.

Last year I had the honor of interviewing over 12 CTOs and visiting 10 Department of Energy National Labs for a survey about “Advanced Technologies in Manufacturing.” This study highlighted what was working and not working in U.S. Manufacturing. The thought leadership provides value to my clients, well beyond any assignment. Instead of coming to me with an assignment, my clients now came to me for insights which led to assignments they had not considered.

The insights developed through these research efforts help business leaders ascertain advanced technologies critical to future competitiveness, and demonstrate the benefits of deploying such technologies. The insights can be used for businesses to see where they are on the maturity curve relative to others and to consider adoption and implementation of enabling technologies that make the most sense for the organization.

 

Q. What advice do you have for engineers who want to grow into a leadership role in business?

Engineers are particularly good at learning something new or experimenting with a new idea. The skills they need are people skills. One of the best things my mother told me as I went off to engineering school was to find time for “fun.” She was telling me there was more to life than what is found in books.

Leadership is built with the help of others. Your network and your ability to learn will see you through as long as you are willing to push yourself forward. You make mistakes, but that is OK – just don’t make the same mistake twice.

The rate of change is rapidly increasing and jobs will be changing. Your path to leadership is not the path I took, but the one you craft. Build a team. Implement a project. Ride each wave; grab the next wave and ride that one. Just don’t give up learning and trying new things.

Q. Your first job out of college was at General Electric. Tell us about your eleven years there, and what it was like starting out your engineering career at a renowned American company.

When I joined GE, it was the time before Jack Welch (Reggie Jones was CEO). GE and manufacturing were very different. Manufacturing was still a hot spot to grow a career and GE, with a history back to [Thomas] Edison, was the place to be. I don’t remember the percentages of women in manufacturing, but let’s just say it was not common, but I loved it from the start.

I started in the Manufacturing Management Program (MMP) – which was a two-year program for engineers to learn all about manufacturing and be ready to lead. Every six months I got a new job – first production control, then shop supervisor, maintenance engineer, and a raw steel buyer. I worked in the semiconductors, steam turbine & generator, and aerospace instruments businesses. Once I graduated from the MMP Program, I held many more assignments, including working in sales, plant consolidation, and as beta site manager for flow manufacturing (Lean Six Sigma). This rapid succession of new assignments, training, and businesses, allowed me to try new things, take risks in a relatively protected environment and grow.

Q. It appears you’ve had an interest and aptitude for engineering from a young age. As a high school recipient of the Rensselaer Medal and later as a graduate of the U.S.’ oldest technological university, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, whom or what do you credit for prompting your interest in STEM?

I credit my family. We were always fixing things, because we had to. I became very hands-on. Math was just fun. I became so good at math, I would often get to an answer without really thinking about it – it just came to me. (I can’t do that now –too many calculators!) But the turning point was my high school physics teacher, Dr. Eaton. Dr. Eaton, had found teaching after a career in industry as a chemical engineer. He made physics fun, saying, “You have to live physics.” He took an interest in me and suggested I consider engineering. At the time, I did not know what engineering was, and my family had less of a clue, but after winning the Rensselaer Medal, I decided to take a look at engineering –and never looked back.

Q. Anything else you’d like us to know?

I highly recommend working with people you like to be around. I am proud of the workplace accomplishments of Deloitte – which are many – but the best part is to be happy working with this team of talented, hard-working, caring and inclusive folks. The days fly by with new challenges and fun problems to solve.

Steven Gacin & Bob Salemme

Steven Gacin

Q. Tell us about what led you to be an engineer. Was there a moment or a person who inspired you to pursue this career?

SG: There was no one moment, but it started at a very young age. Like every developing engineer, I was fascinated with how things worked and I tinkered, and broke, many household items in order to understand exactly how they ticked and why. To calm my idle hands and mind, my father, who was a carpenter, would frequently take me with him on build activities. This only fueled my passion for creating, shaping, forming with meticulous attention to detail and ultimately becoming a “maker.” The STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) programs and the rich and vibrant creative culture that I grew up with in Providence, Rhode Island nurtured my passion for art and design. Combining my love of tinkering, my fascination with creating, and my passion for the arts, science and technology, it’s no wonder that I ultimately became a design engineer!

BS: My high school counselor recommended I give engineering a shot because I did well in math and physics classes. During my first year of college, I was still undecided about what major I wanted to pursue. My academic advisor recommended that I take the Strong Interest Inventory. You answer 300 questions, and based on your likes and dislikes, the results tell you “here are the top ten careers you may enjoy the day-to-day grind of.” Mechanical engineer was third, after college professor and photographer, so I decided to go for it. It has been a tremendously satisfying journey so far.

Q. Your jobs are pretty cool. Which came first – a love of cars or a love of engineering?

SG: My love of engineering came first, and then came my love of cars. Vehicles are a great feat of engineering, the effort and complexity required to make a vehicle and to do it well takes a lot of time. The complexity of design and engineering is especially true for vehicles designed for the consumer market, where you are not just making a metal box with tires to get from point A to point B.

So much needs to be considered to make a vehicle catered to the customer’s needs and satisfaction, from the meticulous design of the transmission, suspension and programming systems for optimal performance on the road, to the extensive crash testing to provide the safest cabin space, and that small seemingly insignificant radius on the center console where your thumb may rest! To create a truly well-crafted vehicle, there is no one field of engineering to get you there. We need individuals from all backgrounds — mechanical, electrical, process, industrial and human factors engineers — to create something that consumers will love. It’s a great way to learn about methods and detail outside your field.

BS: My love for engineering came first, too. I always really enjoyed the lab portions of my engineering classes. There is something really fun about finding different ways to solve open-ended problems. When I started at Honda, my car knowledge was limited – I knew they had four wheels and an engine. As soon as I started the job, I bought myself a car with a manual transmission. I purposely bought a hoopty with the goal of learning how to fix it as it broke down. Honda also provided extensive training programs which enabled me to gain the necessary experience to confidently do the job of a crash test engineer.

Bob Salemme

 

Q. Steven, what is it about vehicle and occupant safety that you find most interesting? Most challenging?

SG: What I find most interesting about occupant safety is the challenge and complexity of it all. To develop a vehicle that will protect people in a worst-case scenario crash event is no easy feat, and there’s a lot to consider. Every aspect of every vehicle component, from its material selection, to its structure, shape, breaking strength and position, plays a role in a vehicle’s final crash performance. We can’t prevent all crashes from happening… yet. So, we’re tasked with trying to reduce the overall impact to the people in the vehicle, which can be generally done by slowing down the crash event.

How do we do this? First, we must understand that every crash event has three main phenomena:

  • The vehicle crashing into a moving or stationary object
  • The occupant crashing into the vehicle interior once the car’s motion has been affected
  • The occupant’s internal organs crashing into their own skeletal frame.

Injury generally increases as time to decelerate decreases. The faster a vehicle stops during a crash event, the higher the probability for injury. But, if you can increase the time or duration of each phenomenon, you can mitigate the severity of the impact. The longer it takes the vehicle to come to a full the stop, the more delay we see in the speed of impact of the person against the vehicle interior. That allows for the deployment and functionality of the airbag system. The airbag system then reduces the speed of impact of the person’s internal organs against their own skeletal frame, thus reducing injury. Each of these steps adds time to the event; you can think of it like the dream states in the movie Inception. In each of the three main crash phenomenon or “dream states,” there is a small compounding time difference (milliseconds or so) which ultimately accounts for a major difference in the crash that can positively or negatively impact the overall event, depending on how you design and control each part.

Every aspect of every vehicle component, from its material selection, to its structure, shape, breaking strength and position, plays a role in a vehicle’s final crash performance.

– Steven Gacin

Q. Bob, as a front crash engineer for many of Honda’s top-selling vehicles (Accord, Crosstour, Pilot, Odyssey), how do you collaborate with teams across the company to improve vehicle safety?

BS: With over 30,000 parts on the car, there are many different groups involved in bringing a final product to customers. Each group is focused on a different aspect– durability, dynamic performance, crash testing, and fuel economy just to name a few. Each group has priorities which have the potential to negatively impact other groups. For example, if the vehicle was built like a tank, passing safety targets may be easy, but the fuel economy folks may have trouble meeting their targets. The “trick” is finding a balanced system that satisfies all the various groups.

Steven Gacin

 

Q. Steven, what engineering principle(s) do you apply most to your work on steering wheel feasibility and restraint systems?

SG: The engineering principles I use most generally are manufacturing, testability, integrity, integration, ethics, and design/form.

Manufacturing: The steering wheel or restraint system should be easy and cost effective to create.

Replication: We need to be able to replicate the results and identify those items that can remain constant and isolate others – consistently.

Integrity: The steering wheel or restraint system should have structural integrity. Material selection and part structure are carefully considered.

Integration: The steering wheel or restraint system should have clear “one-way” integration into the system. It cannot be mis-installed, misaligned or misused.

Ethics: The parts should be developed with the best interest of the customer and the company in mind. NO SHORTCUTS.

Design/Form: The parts should be designed for a purpose and it’s GOTTA look good!

Q. Bob, a big part of engineering involves modeling & simulation (M&S) and test & evaluation (T&E). What M&S and T&E processes and technologies does Honda use in its vehicle safety programs?

BS: Prior to crashing any of the cars, there is extensive modeling done to simulate crash tests. We use various software packages to create, run, and post-process the models.

On the test side, during development, we run many component tests & front crash simulator tests (sled tests). Once we have demonstrated that the restraint system has prospect on the sled, we can then run the full-scale crash test. Once the full-scale crash test has been run, the simulation model can be validated. Did the simulation match the test? Why? Why not? How does the simulation need to be tweaked to closer match the physical test?

Once the simulation has been validated, we can confidently use the model to predict the effect of various changes.

Oftentimes, we get emails from people who have been in terrible car accidents. They will send us pictures and thank us for building a car that was safe enough for their family to walk away from after an accident. Moments like these really cement the realization that the work I am doing is helping to save lives.

– Bob Salemme

Q. How does a front crash simulator work? What capabilities does it have that would surprise or impress people?

BS: The front crash simulator uses a hydraulic piston to push a vehicle rearward on a track. As the vehicle moves rearward, the occupants engage the restraints (seatbelts & airbags). Here’s a good video link to demonstrate.

Front crash simulators are an important tool in a crash test engineer’s arsenal. They are a cost-effective way to try many different restraint tuning knobs before going to the full-scale crash test. A sled test may cost just a few thousand dollars whereas early prototype full-scale crashes can sometimes cost up to a million dollars.

Q. What’s it like to know that the work you do every day helps save lives?

BS: Oftentimes, we get emails from people who have been in terrible car accidents. They will send us pictures and thank us for building a car that was safe enough for their family to walk away from after an accident. Moments like these really cement the realization that the work I am doing is helping to save lives.

SG: It is one of the most rewarding experiences. When you work on a vehicle’s development for years, with the need to meet deadlines, cost and weight requirements, industry requirements, government requirements and consumer market trends, it’s easy to get enveloped in the process and lose sight of the underlying reason why you’re doing what you’re doing. But, when you receive that letter from a family you’ve never met, who has just been in an awful accident but walked away alive and with few or no injuries, it helps put things back in perspective and further justify what I do, and who I do it for.

Steven Gacin and Bob Salemme contributed to this Q&A in their personal capacity. The views and opinions expressed are their own, and do not necessarily represent the views of Honda R&D.

Readiness and resiliency: engineering that saves lives

In an image from the IMAX film, Dream Big, engineer Menzer Pehlivan and a group of children enjoy a ride on a roller coaster, a feat of engineering that brings fun and thrills to people everywhere. Photo credit: MacGillivray Freeman Films.

Q. What or who inspired you to become an engineer?

My interest in engineering started with the Kocaeli Earthquake and the devastation in Turkey, my home country, following that event. I was a 13-year-old living in the capital city of Ankara, located approximately in the center of Turkey, when the earthquake hit the northwest region of the country around 3:00 a.m. on August 17, 1999. Although the epicenter of the magnitude 7.4 earthquake was approximately 200 miles away from our hometown, my family and I awoke in fear due to the strong shaking in our apartment. There were more than 17,000 casualties, tens of thousands of injuries, and hundreds of thousands of people left homeless. Hearing that thousands of lives could have been saved if the structures had been designed to satisfy life safety criteria, inspired me to become a civil engineer and to focus on earthquake engineering. I have a strong desire to help reduce risk and increase resiliency —ahead of future natural disasters.

Q. As a geotechnical engineer, you specialize in engineering buildings that keep people safe. How do you learn which building designs and materials increase resiliency in natural disasters?

Geotechnical earthquake engineering is still a young and advancing field. The practice is steadily progressing with evolving technologies that make more advanced computations possible. However, we get the most valuable information through extreme events, which provide us with an opportunity to examine how hazard-resistant design practice performs because it is difficult to replicate the behavior of full-scale, naturally deposited soil over thousands of years in a laboratory. Understanding the performance when a disaster occurs and accurately documenting the post-disaster observations are crucial for advancing engineering practice to reduce risk and increase resiliency before the next natural disaster. Case histories from each event demonstrate the success of good hazard-resistant design practices as well as those that need improvement.
After the 2015 Gorkha Earthquake, I traveled to Nepal for post-earthquake reconnaissance with the Geotechnical Extreme Events Reconnaissance (GEER) team. I spent ten days in Nepal with the GEER team, and we collected valuable data on site response and topographic effects, liquefaction and other ground failure mechanisms, and damage to infrastructure including hydropower plants. During the mission, we had the opportunity to interact with local engineers and to discuss findings, remaining hazards in the region, and potential future actions needed to increase the resiliency, and reduce the earthquake-induced risk, especially for the developing hydropower infrastructure that is of prime importance for the country. We compiled the geotechnical field reconnaissance findings in a GEER Association Report (GEER-040). The report was made available shortly after the 2015 earthquake sequence for researchers and engineering professionals, who can help advance the local state-of-practice and reduce the risk associated with earthquake-induced hazards in the region.

“Every project has its unique challenges, and as engineers, our job is to find the most efficient solution to each problem.”

Dream Big delves into the inspirational story of civil engineer Menzer Pehlivan, who as a young girl experienced a devastating earthquake in Turkey. Here, Menzer uses everyday items to demonstrate to children how engineers design and build earthquake-proof structures. Photo credit: MacGillivray Freeman Films.

Q. Can you tell us about your job (interesting projects you are currently working on) and the skills you need to be successful?

After graduating with my doctorate from The University of Texas at Austin in 2013, I started working as a consulting engineer. I worked in New York City for couple years, and I am currently working as a geotechnical engineer with CH2M in Seattle. I specialize in the analysis of seismic site response, liquefaction and other natural hazards, soil-foundation-structure interaction, probabilistic seismic hazard analysis (PSHA), seismic design of foundation of structures, and performance based design in geotechnical earthquake engineering.

I worked on the geotechnical and seismic design of projects in the U.S., Mexico, Canada, and Costa Rica. Every project has its unique challenges, and as engineers, our job is to find the most efficient solution to each problem. Engineering requires teamwork, and I feel fortunate to work with talented professionals from different backgrounds throughout each project, which provides me with excellent learning opportunities every day.

Engineering is more than just math and science. It is more about imagination, creation, innovation, and teamwork. It is about being open to new ideas, new solutions, and new visions since the engineering profession is continually advancing.

“Engineering is more than just math and science. It is more about imagination, creation, innovation, and teamwork. It is about being open to new ideas, new solutions, and new visions since the engineering profession is continually advancing.”

Q. Do you have any recommendations for engineering grads starting their careers?

Throughout my career, I have benefitted from being involved with professional societies, and I strongly recommend industry participation for every young engineer. During my Ph.D., I took a leading role in the development of the National Student Leadership Council of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Geotechnical Engineering Institute (Geo-Institute), for which I served as vice-chair and chair. Recently, I played a leading role in the development of ASCE Geo-Institute’s Board Level Outreach and Engagement Committee, and I am currently serving as the chair.

Being active in professional organizations gave me the unique opportunity to interact with engineering professionals from different backgrounds, learn about the projects they are working on, and have a venue to showcase my work to other professionals. Through my involvement, I started building my network in the industry earlier in my career; now I have professional connections with different specializations across the world that I can collaborate with depending on the needs of a project.

Q. Anything else?

In 2016, I was one of the New Faces of Engineering selected by ASCE. Later on, that nomination led me to be a part of the Dream Big: Engineering Our World, an IMAX movie that aims to inspire next generation, especially girls, to follow STEM careers by changing the stereotypical image of engineers in society. Through Dream Big, we are hoping to reach to kids and show them engineering is fun. Through engineering, they can make an impact in the world and change the people’s lives for better. Moreover, the film shows that they can be successful in engineering regardless of their gender and their background. All they need is to believe in themselves and keep dreaming big. The movie premiered during Engineers Week in February 2017, and the feedback we have been receiving since then has been amazing. In one of the premieres I attended, a girl asked me the project I am most proud of is, and I replied saying “This is it!” It is very rewarding and satisfying when a little girl comes up to you and says “I did not think girls like you can be engineers and change the world! Now I want to be like you too.”

Powering the Heart of a Robot

A NEF conversation with WiBotic CEO Ben Waters

Incubator labs are popping up at research universities across the U.S., including the University of Washington where collaborative innovation hub and tech incubator CoMotion is the centerpiece of the university’s innovation district. A shining star in CoMotion’s startup universe is WiBotic, maker of wireless charging solutions for robots and robot fleets (and recent recipient of $2.5M in investor funding). Led by CEO and electrical engineer Ben Waters and co-founder Joshua Smith, WiBotic is pioneering autonomously charging capabilities for aerial, aquatic and mobile robots. Waters sat down with NEF to share WiBotic’s origin story, how the company’s innovation is giving wireless charging power to swarms of robots, and how he balances roles of engineer and CEO.

Q. Why a ‘wireless charging solution’?

As an electrical engineering undergraduate major at Columbia, I attended a talk given by a professor who was working on wireless power – few companies were working on it at the time, but I thought it was really exciting. That summer I had an internship with an engineering consulting company that does big commercial building projects and they live and die by the national electric code. Learning about that line of work got me thinking: “Wow, if wireless power becomes this popular area, it’s going to impact a lot more than just how we charge devices. Because you’ll no longer plug in, everyone will be on wireless, both for power and data.”

Then I had an internship at Intel and they were very interested in wireless for phones and the wireless charging pad concept. But as we learned more about the core technology, we realized there were a lot of great things you can do to make it very flexible for devices that really need wireless charging.

I was excited about identifying real-world applications that needed this flexibility. A great opportunity came up to make implanted medical devices, such as Ventricular Assist Device heart pumps, lighter, more flexible, portable and accessible from far away. While pursuing my PhD at the University of Washington (UW), my research colleagues and I thought about commercializing that technology in the medical device industry, but realized it was a challenging business model at the time, so we continued the work in the research lab.

Nonetheless, we continued scratching our heads for other commercial applications that needed flexible wireless charging. If medical devices weren’t quite right, what is? Shortly thereafter, robotic companies came into the lab and saw we had a flexible, high-power charging system and asked us, “Does it work with robots?”

As we started thinking about robotics as an industry that would be applicable, we began understanding requirements of fully autonomous robotic systems – think underwater systems for defense, industrial surveillance, manufacturing, drones…

We discovered one of the biggest challenges to achieving autonomy and highly reliable systems that don’t require downtime, is power. The heart of a robot is its battery.

We set out to solve that problem and grew the company.

We discovered one of the biggest challenges to achieving autonomy and highly reliable systems that don’t require downtime, is power. The heart of a robot is its battery.

Q. Are you surprised by where you ended up, considering your early focus on medical devices?

Yes and no. The main reason I was interested in medical devices was a clear need for flexible wireless charging. It solved a problem that inhibited patient quality of life. But with robotics we feel the same motivation – there’s a real opportunity to facilitate the entire robotics market and allow those systems to grow and allow companies building them to focus on the application or service and rely on existing infrastructure to grow quickly.

Q. A lot of people can succeed in engineering or business, but the idea of someone being able to translate an innovation into something commercially viable – that’s rare. How are you making that happen?

There were a lot of influences in my life that gave me a great appreciation for the importance of teamwork and enabling others. I played a lot of sports growing up and learned what it meant to be on a team… you can’t win a game on your own. My mom worked in corporate HR for a long time and oversaw writing “great place to work” applications for a lot of big companies down in Silicon Valley. I had some internships with some of those companies and was amazed with how important culture is to the executives.

So instead of being entirely heads-down focused on my own thing in graduate school, I spent time figuring out how to mentor others and figured if I could help someone else find a topic they were excited about and make it their own, then the success of all the projects in the lab would be amplified. When I saw that first-hand, I thought, “Okay, there is really something to this whole culture of leadership and balancing the work you have as an engineer with work you have as facilitating the output of others.”

I talked to as many people as I could to find what I didn’t know, being curious and always putting myself in a place to keep the learning curve steep, not allowing myself to get comfortable with the things I know how to do, but pushing myself and knowing what’s important for the company as a whole, and what’s important for me to be doing.

Q. How do you stay technically sharp while leading the company?

Our growth and R&D comes from our ability to innovate and engineer quickly and purposefully. At first it was very difficult to balance engineering and the business side. I felt like we didn’t have a big team so I felt like a lot of responsibility for both fell on me. It was tempting to think, “I have the knowledge, I have to do it.”

Then it got hard to manage.

In May 2015, all in the same month, WiBotic moved into an office space, I wrote my dissertation and I got married. Probably could have planned that a bit better, but I realized I had to stop spending all my time engineering and I started considering who I needed to hire, and that was scary because you see the impact to the budget.

But I pursued hiring technically creative leaders who were good at product development and turning it into something customers asked for and needed. I could contribute to technical directions but when it came to how we productized it, they were able to drive forward a lot of things. That really helped me understand where I can contribute to the engineering side.

And on the business side, while I stepped away from implementation, I focused on facilitating their output, helping them be on the right path. Ultimately my job as CEO is to help the team be inspired and excited about what they’re working on. I need no personal recognition – it’s my job to focus on the team, our customers and the company’s growth.

Q. What role does CoMotion have in WiBotic’s success?

Innovation and inspiring people to be a part of startups comes from having people rooted in the universities providing guidance.

I grew up next to Stanford and if you go there, regardless of your major, you meet people and you start a company and that’s just what you do. They put you in touch with investors, mentors and advisors.

That’s what I think has been a big contribution of CoMotion over the last several years. They have technology managers sending emails to engineers and offering advice and support, and as students start to talk more about that in the labs and professors establish companies and you see people turning a research project into a company… that culture catches on and inspires other people to do more of the same.

When they’re driven by recognizing a problem and creating a solution that is more cost effective or safer or enabling something to be more reliable – those are businesses that I believe can succeed.

Q. What makes you optimistic about being an American engineer?

I’ve been very inspired by the entire process, including the amount of work and thought that went into our strategy and financing and the diligence our investors did on our company. If WiBotic reflects other American companies in terms of the way they go about it, I believe there will be a lot of great companies that start-up. When they’re driven by recognizing a problem and creating a solution that is more cost effective, safer or enables something to be more reliable – those are businesses that I believe can succeed.

Q. What else do you want us to know?

It’s been quite a journey for me in discovering that what may have brought success for the first month of the company to the first year to second year and beyond isn’t the thing that continues to bring success. There’s always a sense of situational thinking and understanding where you are. And that’s been the most exciting piece of leading a small company and working with smart people.


For more information on WiBotic, visit www.wibotic.com and follow on Twitter @WiBotic

To learn more about UW CoMotion, visit comotion.uw.edu and follow on Twitter @UWCoMotion

Building Bridges, Making a Difference

Avery Bang, Chief Executive Officer of Bridges to Prosperity, talks about the human element of engineering and building a bridge to the future where all people have access to opportunity.

Q. What or who inspired you to become an engineer?

My dad is a civil engineer and worked on civil works projects throughout his career, including bridges. Our typical family vacations were not what you would call “typical.” We all piled into our car and visited public works projects. It was great because as a young kid I got to see the underbelly of engineering and grew up having a strong appreciation for it. I saw how important engineering is for everything.

Q. How can engineering structures, like the bridges built by Bridges to Prosperity, change people’s lives?

The built environment is the single most important part of our daily lives – the way we get to and from places, where we sleep, how we learn – and its engineers who create this environment. In the developed world, the everyday contributions of engineers go unnoticed because a working infrastructure is already in place, but in developing countries, that’s not the case.

Working in a place like Haiti, everything so bare – you don’t live in a house with insulation and bedrooms or have roads that resemble anything we would be familiar with in the U.S. When you work in an environment where there is not a lot already in place, to have something new is really obvious. Something so simple as a bridge in these developing landscapes can be the single most important part of the infrastructure and gives you an appreciation for the difference engineering can make in peoples’ lives. You can provide isolated communities with access essential healthcare, education and economic opportunities.

When you see engineering in a place where it is noticed and appreciated and people show up to volunteer because they know it is going to make a difference, it makes engineering very human.

Q. You have a double-major in art and engineering. What role does creativity play in engineering?

Creativity is vital. In engineering, you are doing two things – identifying problems and solving them. Creativity is at the crux of problem solving. Finding solutions is impossible to do without employing creativity because you are trying to come up with answers no one has thought of before.

It is important for society to see engineers as creative and the work of engineers as purposeful. As soon as we shift that perception, we will draw greater numbers of talented, young people. For me, engineering is creative, it’s human. It has hardly anything to do with a calculator.

Finding solutions is impossible to do without employing creativity because you are trying to come up with answers no one has thought of before.

Q. What have you learned from your mistakes in working in various communities around the globe?

I think failure is an important part of any career. As an entrepreneur, I believe in fail often and fail fast. At Bridges to Prosperity, we’re also good about naming our failures publicly and trying to learn from them. Along the way, we’ve learned different aspects of keeping people safe and now we have solid standards in place. We also know there is no one-size-fits-all solution and our bridge designs need to be locally relevant. We’ve had the humility to say we don’t know everything and it’s actually helped us grow and learn faster. We would not be where we are today without recognizing our failure along the way. That’s how engineering works – you fail, you learn and then you improve!

Q. What advice do you have for other young engineers on finding their passion and purpose?

Have a long attention span because finding something purposeful takes time and commitment. It’s a marathon so don’t be afraid to spend a decade working your way up in one place and be persistent when you find a purpose. Any truly meaningful work is going to be hard. We need engineers who are willing to put in the time and who will think and dream big.


All photos credit Bridges to Prosperity.

Keeping the Conversations Going

Sharing some top tweets from the incredible response to Vanessa Miranda Nadal’s NEF Conversation last week. We’re glad you enjoyed it as much as we did. Hungry for more? Scroll down to check out Q&As with other incredible American engineers and engineering enthusiasts.

 

ENGINEER++: VANESSA ADRIANA NADAL

Most of us remember the careful consideration we applied to the consequential decision of declaring a major and pursuing a degree. Medicine or teaching? Computer science or history? Engineering or law?

Few of us arrived at “Both.”

One fine exception is Vanessa Adriana Nadal, a 2004 graduate of MIT’s department of chemical engineering and 2010 J.D. graduate of Fordham University School of Law. The daughter of a trained civil engineer father and photographer and interior designer mother, Nadal muses, “perhaps that’s why I’m so split between STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) and HASS (Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences)!”.

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Engineer++ | Vanessa Adriana Nadal

Most of us remember the careful consideration we applied to the consequential decision of declaring a major and pursuing a degree. Medicine or teaching? Computer science or history? Engineering or law?

Few of us arrived at “Both.”

One fine exception is Vanessa Adriana Nadal, a 2004 graduate of MIT’s department of chemical engineering and 2010 J.D. graduate of Fordham University School of Law. The daughter of a trained civil engineer father and photographer and interior designer mother, Nadal muses, “perhaps that’s why I’m so split between STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) and HASS (Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences)!”

NEF spoke with Nadal from her family’s current home in London (where her husband, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is filming “Mary Poppins Returns”) about what engineers and attorneys can learn from each other, and the cyclical beauty of art inspiring STEM inspiring art.

Read on to learn Nadal’s stew & biscuits metaphor for chemical engineering, why she’s passionate about dispelling the “math is hard” myth, and how she’s the one to thank for her husband’s perfected rap articulation of DNA.

Nadal listens to oral arguments at US Supreme Court, April 2016. Photo courtesy of Vanessa Adriana Nadal.

Q: In our discussions with engineers around the country, we hear a recurring theme: engineers don’t do a good job of telling their own story. At MIT and later in R&D at Johnson & Johnson, how did you explain your role as an engineer?

Math and science are so ubiquitous that people take them for granted. They are everywhere. And they are beautiful.

I’m always disheartened when people say that those subjects have little application to the real world. It’s true that you aren’t going to use logarithmic equations on a daily basis, but neither do Socrates, the Iliad, or the works of Michelangelo come up in daily conversation. I think it’s both humbling and inspirational to be able to appreciate the manifestations of our math and science knowledge in our natural world.

Accordingly, one of the huge challenges—and responsibilities—of scientists and engineers is to make our work relevant to others. Of course, engineering students have heavily-loaded majors, so there is understandably little room to incorporate enough humanities classes to turn them into great storytellers. Such is our plight.

But more than just sharing the joys of math and science with the world, good communications skills are necessary to continue being effective scientists and engineers.

After school, STEM students are often surprised by how much communication—or rather, translation—is necessary in their work lives. In our sleep, STEM students know the conversions between Metric and Imperial systems. We know what PVnRT stands for, the numerical equivalent of the R constant, and how the equation applies to every-day life. But most people don’t immerse themselves in science for four years. So once a STEM grad is the real world, she must explain in layman’s terms what she is working on and why it’s relevant to the listener. In academia, he must write grants to get funding. At a company, she must make PowerPoint presentations to her colleagues. MIT requires students to take a lot of humanities classes, which is great. Still, just as humanities school could better explain to students why STEM is important to, say, a fiction writer, tech schools could better explain why students need HASS in their work life.

One of the huge challenges—and responsibilities—of scientists and engineers is to make their work relevant to others.

Q: For our readers unfamiliar with chemical engineering, how do you describe it?

I still explain chemical engineering the same way I did 15 years ago: it is like cooking.

Say you’re famous for your stew with biscuits. They are, your friends say, “everything.” The stew is spicy, sweet, salty, and fragrant, and the biscuits, light and buttery. Usually you make enough for four people. Once, you made it for a dinner party of 20, where you just multiplied everything by five, but it was all wrong. The stew was too spicy from too much chili, and the bottom of your pot burned before the ingredients were cooked through. Your biscuits tasted a bit chalky from too much baking soda, and half of them didn’t rise because you couldn’t fit all the batter in the oven at once.

Now, your best friend wants you to make it for his wedding—300 people. Theoretically, if you knew the reaction rates of all the ingredients and the heat-mass transfer of your now enormous pot(s), you could figure out the right scale-up recipe with just pen and paper. That’s probably too much work for food, because in cooking, a little too much of one ingredient is not so dangerous (unless you’re Tita in Like Water for Chocolate). But these computations are exceptionally important for the pharmaceutical and energy industries, where a miscalculation can result in ineffective or, worse, toxic drugs, and explosions.

Ultimately, engineers and lawyers are probably a lot more similar than they expect. Both require superior critical thinking skills, and both benefit from compassionate story-telling.

Q: As you’ve been both a researcher and a litigator, what can engineers and attorneys learn from one another?

When I went to law school, I started explaining my jump from engineering to law by saying that “Laws are like an equation you apply to a particular story.” I stand by that characterization. Although in law the rules can be bent, and should be. Judges are given the discretion to be more forgiving than mother nature, so there are tiers of consequences for, say, throwing eggs at your teacher every Monday (whereas the consequence for the egg is always the same). Ultimately, engineers and lawyers are probably a lot more similar than they expect. Both require superior critical thinking skills, and both benefit from compassionate story-telling.

Q: We see young people on social media seeking your advice as they consider a career in engineering and/or law. Where do YOU go for career advice?

Well, I talk to everyone. And I have been lucky to have great bosses and colleagues along the way.

I find that people want to help you learn from their mistakes—and successes—if you’re willing to listen. For example, when I had a baby, partners I’d never worked for offered to talk to me about navigating big law as a new mom. I took them all up on it, even though it felt awkward to go into someone’s office cold, and we always found things to talk about. Sometimes their advice was just normalizing what was to come, so that when I cried at my desk one day, overwhelmed by being a new mother and full-time employee, I already knew I was probably not crazy, stupid, terrible at my job, etc., and I felt comfortable enough to go back to those partners. I was this close to quitting because I was overwhelmed. But they helped me figure out how to prioritize my work. If not for those conversations and actions, I might have stopped being a lawyer altogether. That’s one small example of how the advice of others changed (or continued) the course of my career.

Of course, many of my friends and family are hugely inspirational to me. My husband, Lin-Manuel, is one of the best examples. Always knowing his passions allowed him to get those 10,000 hours in early. I envy that certainty, because I still don’t know what I want to be. But what’s most inspirational about Lin-Manuel is that he continues to clock those thousands of hours in new areas every chance he gets. He works so hard, all the time, constantly eating up and digesting music, TV, film, theater, books, comedy, magazine, news, etc. And, somehow, in his genius, he remembers it all.

Q: You are clearly passionate about the arts – from the paintings you share on Twitter, to your interest in fashion, to the role of the performing arts and music in your family. In that context, how do you feel about STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Math) over STEM?

We recently visited Barcelona and saw architect Antoni Gaudi’s biggest achievement, the Sagrada Familia. I went because his buildings are like nothing you’ve ever seen before – surreal and gorgeous. But I was struck by his innovation: Gaudi was an architectural—that is, mathematical—genius who was formidably inspired by nature. The columns within the Sagrada Familia represent trees, so when you walk in it feels like a Redwood forest. Then, in the museum beneath the cathedral, an exhibit shows he was inspired by an oleander branch, in which the hollow center is a triangle on one side and a hexagon on the other. Those tree-columns are the branch’s inverse: the circumference starts as a triangle and then turn into a square, octagon, and back; and somehow this increases stability.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain – designed by architect Antoni Gaudi.

My husband, a composer and actor, and I, a math-loving lawyer, left the cathedral just buzzing. What an incredible illustration of how art inspires and enhances STEM and vice versa. It’s important.

If you don’t promote the arts and humanities in elementary and high school, then how are students going to know? I feel lucky that I went to a high school that focuses heavily on the arts. I find that art feeds me in a way that science and math don’t, so I continue to try to incorporate them into my life. The world is made of both and you can’t have one without the other, as Gaudi shows us. High school is where we should introduce students to the breadth of the world before they have to focus on what they want to spend their life doing.

Vanessa, age 2, with her father, trained civil engineer Frank Nadal. Photo courtesy of Vanessa Adriana Nadal.

Q: What are you most passionate about in terms of inspiring the next generation of engineers?

Every time I talk to girls who feel like they can’t do something with computers or science, it depresses me because when I was a kid, it never occurred to me that I couldn’t do those things. My dad likes to tinker with computers and he never taught my brother about it over me, or vice versa. It also makes me sad when people are “scared” of math because what’s there to be scared of? It feels like a bit of a learned attitude that’s societally acceptable; that sucks. People get frightened by the label, meanwhile they’re calculating tips or trying to figure out how to cook a portion of a recipe faster than I can. People do math all the time when they don’t think of it as MATH.

But this is an attitude that I think is changing. Today there’s so much advancement in science, technology, engineering and math, and it’s happening so quickly and it’s so clear that these are fields we need to encourage. So that’s good.

Q: How are you currently applying what you learned in engineering to your legal practice?

The analytical and critical-thinking skills you develop as an engineer are extremely helpful in a legal practice. Being logical is perhaps where attorneys are considered pedantic, but you really have to scrutinize every word in the contract or the way you describe something – the way you write a brief or form questions when you’re interviewing a witness. You have to know what the word means, what it will convey, what its implications are and how it’ll be received by the listener, whether the interviewee or the judge. Being very exact is necessary in both professions.

I’m currently consulting for several American companies and trying to figure out how to incorporate my interest in science and engineering back into my profession. We’ll see where it takes me. I’ve found that I’m more suited to being a lawyer than an engineer. I really enjoy writing, reading, being persuasive and telling stories – while at the same time being extremely analytical and logical. And yet, I find when I pick up the newspaper I will read a story from the Science Times before I read about a legal case. It’s what I find most interesting and that hasn’t waned over time, so I feel like I should find a way to make that leisure activity work for me.

Q: Is there a story you’d like to share from your engineering days? Something that other chemical engineering majors or professionals would read and go “Oh yeah.”

Here’s one that only recently came full circle. Once I taught a promising rapper how to pronounce “deoxyribonucleic acid.” Thirteen years later, he put that lesson to use in the song “Intro ADN” on Residente’s new album.

Q: Where do you see your unique career path leading you in the future?

That’s probably for you to know and me to find out.


Follow Vanessa on Twitter @VAMNit

Q&A with Rube Goldberg Toy Designer Todd Anderson and Jennifer George

Mention Rube Goldberg to almost anyone and you’re likely to be met with a smile and probably a story about how they loved learning about the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist best known for his complicated, zany invention cartoons.

Now, Rube Goldberg, Inc. (RGI) is making STEM fun on an expanded scale. In a partnership with Spin Master Corp., RGI is offering toys in an exclusive deal with Target. We had to get the story, so we talked to Todd Anderson, toy designer and brand manager at Spin Master and Jennifer George, RGI legacy director and Rube Goldberg’s granddaughter.

How are Rube Goldberg activity sets unique?

Todd Anderson (TA): We approached this with the aspects of humor and motion in mind. There’s always a task to complete, always in a humorous and complex way. Our toys have real personality and humor as opposed to just the linear aspect of other building kits.

Jennifer George (JG): We also approached the design so that there would actually be trial and error figured into the build; otherwise there is no learning curve. In that sense, the experience is more like that of a real engineer.

TA: When I talked to NPD (National Panel Diary), they classify a STEM toy “as one that possesses a variable that when changed produces a different outcome.” In our kits, changing one variable can produce many different outcomes.

JG: This humorous and whimsical approach to understanding STEM makes the Rube Goldberg play sets unique. Our mission was to get children to tinker, experiment, test and to actively engage them to problem solve. Trial and error untimely gets you to your end goal and success.

Our kits are not the easiest to build and that’s a good thing. You learn more when you fail than when you succeed.

Images courtesy of Spin Master.

What motivated RGI to move into the toy industry?

JG: Actually, Rube Goldberg has been in the toy industry since the 1960s, just without his name attached. Mousetrap, which is based on my grandfather’s cartoons, has sold almost 70 million units since its arrival on the market. There were also hobby kits and puzzles when my grandfather was alive. But when Target approached us to create a STEM-friendly toy, we jumped at the chance.

Tell us about how you tested the toys with real kids before you began marketing them. What did you learn from that process?

TA: We had access to panels and focus groups of kids; some of these were tested with kids of employees of Spin Master as take-home prototypes. This was very intentional testing. We found that these builds were not as simple as a typical construction or science kit and really require active thinking to get the sets to work and we embraced the difference. Our kits are not the easiest to build and that’s a good thing. You learn more when you fail than when you succeed. Every step is a task to complete, and this remains true to the spirit of all Rube Goldberg inventions.

JG: And if you get stuck, we launched a series of “How-to” videos on YouTube to support the consumer and make the overall experience as positive as possible.

TA: In one of our focus groups, a parent was quoted as saying “To my surprise, my son became quickly determined to do the project himself. He worked through the challenging phase and could really celebrate in the success.” This was great to see active engagement like that in our toys.

Images courtesy of Spin Master.

Which set is your favorite, and why?

JG: The Acrobat Challenge! It was the first one designed and the first prototype that I could have in my hands and build myself. But I’m also a big fan of the Speeding Car Challenge because it’s very satisfying when the car moves – and the chicken makes me smile.

TA: I also love the Speeding Car because of the finale. When the car zooms off, it’s a great sense of accomplishment.

Andy Weir: Mission Control

Ever since Andy Weir’s “The Martian” captured our imaginations as a novel and major motion picture, we’ve been hoping for more. Now, venturing onto the small screen, Weir’s got a TV show in the works. He graciously agreed to let us grill him for details.

Q. We’re excited to hear you’re working on a new show for CBS called “Mission Control.” Obviously, many of the details of the pilot are under wraps. What can you tell us about the show?

It takes place at the Mission Control Center in Houston. The main characters are the flight controllers and astronauts running a new (fictional) space station that is the first step toward a manned mission to Mars.

Q. You’ve toured NASA’s mission control in Houston. What was the most surprising thing you learned there that you didn’t know before?

I was impressed [with] how many women work there. The concept of science being an “old-boy” network was really put to lie. They’re very good about being a meritocracy.

Weir soaks up the experience of the Neutral Buoyancy Lab. Image Credit: NASA/James Blair and Lauren Harnett

Q. You’ve said that while many kids dream of being astronauts, you always dreamed of being in mission control. What was it about that role that fascinated you?

I just like the data… the details. That sort of thing always excited me.

Q. Is NASA supporting the new series? How are you achieving the same technical accuracy as you were known for in The Martian?

They’re not supporting it in any official capacity. But they’re certainly helpful in answering questions. I’m going for full technical accuracy – even more so than The Martian because this takes place modern-day.

Q. How is the process of creating a series different from (or the same as) a movie? I know you’re a big fan of Game of Thrones’ George R. R. Martin. Did he give you any advice about writing for TV?

Yes, he did. I asked him for any advice he had. TV is a different universe, for sure. Mainly because everything is a much larger commitment. For instance: casting. You’re not just saying “Hey, come film for a few weeks,” you’re saying, “Hey, come work for us permanently.” That’s a big difference to an actor and it affects everything.

Weir amuses JSC team members with the story behind his story, “The Martian.” Image Credit: NASA/James Blair and Lauren Harnett

Q. What is your role in scriptwriting, producing, and casting?

I wrote the pilot screenplay, then rewrote it with a group of writers, then rewrote it again with another writer. That’s how it goes.

Q. When will the Mission Control pilot begin production? When can we see it on air?

Shooting starts in March. If CBS picks up the show, it’ll probably air in the Fall.

Q. What else are you working on? Another novel? Another movie?

I’m working on my next novel now. It takes place in a city on the Moon. The main character is a woman who is a small-time criminal who gets in way over her head.