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