24 April 2011

You Wish You Could Be Wolowitz

Picture an engineer.

Let me guess. You’re thinking of someone like Howard Wolowitz (or any of the lead characters) from CBS’s Big Bang Theory – a rigid, awkward, neurotic dork.

Am I right?

* * *

The other day I was talking with a young engineering student at my office. We were discussing summer internship applications, cover letters, and the preconceptions people have about engineers. The conversation was, in a way, ridiculous because this student – except for being extremely bright and hard working – defies every single stereotype about engineers. She is funny, articulate, sociable, and creative. Plus (not that it should matter), she is an attractive and stylish she.

We talked about her various interests and some of the things she included in her applications. We discussed the logic test she took for one application and how difficult it can be to make yourself stand out with just a resume and cover letter. The conversation covered a wide variety of topics but I said her letters sounded great. I also mentioned I recently learned that, just like social science and humanities majors, engineers are among those who demonstrate strong improvements in writing during the first two years of college (particularly when compared with peers in, for example, business school). And I confessed, apropos of the rest of the conversation, that I was originally surprised by this finding.

Like most people, I imagined engineers excelling in math and technical diagrams rather than writing and communication. I did not think engineers were incapable of writing well. I just assumed it wasn’t the type of thing engineers and engineering departments were concerned with – too artsy and impractical.

Then I remembered something from my last year working at Berkeley.

When I was applying to grad school, I took advantage of my access to senior faculty members and asked them to look at my “statement of purpose.” I received a lot of helpful feedback from people in fields ranging from English to economics. But the most colorful and creative revisions came from a quirky, middle-aged engineering professor. His suggestions helped me turn a dry, academic thesis into a compelling intellectual manifesto. Then, when I told him I admired his writing talent, he told me about the novel he was writing and shared some of his really beautiful photography. I knew this man was an interesting guy but… I mean… an engineer/novelist/photographer? Oh yeah, he was also an avid cyclist. Who knew!?

This got me thinking. Somewhere between the rush to prove our usefulness and keep our academic credentials bright and shiny, folks in higher education tend to pigeonhole each other. Everyone wants to know about your major, your research, and what you plan to do with it. We pride ourselves on highly specialized expertise. This, of course, has some advantages. But it leads us to undervalue the genuine complexity of individuals as well as the variety of talents and interests that contribute to success. Unfortunately, folks in the STEM fields probably suffer the most from this sort of type casting.

But our stereotypes simply aren’t true. The famous/infamous experimental psychologist Harry Harlow was a prolific and clever poet. Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, was an artist and musician. Robert Oppenheimer, patriarch of the Manhattan Project, studied philosophy and literature. And there is a small army of highly skilled “Imagineers” who bring dreams and fantasy to life for the Walt Disney Corporation. The point is… there are a lot of folks out there who offer more than our disciplinary stereotypes suggest – including engineers and scientists. STEM students, researchers, and practitioners live and work in a world of dreams, ideas, and infinite possibilities. They took us to the Moon for cryin’ out loud! You can’t tell me that didn’t require some serious creativity and style.

Give the STEMers some credit. Without them, who would bring us face-to-face with the grace and beauty to be found in science? Who would inspire us with technology? Who would give us life-saving medical devices, the Hubble telescope, and programmable coffee makers?

Seriously, could you do that?

So, the next time you joke about the tool or appliance that was “over engineered,” ask yourself: Are you actually inconvenienced or are you jealous that an engineer thought up something bigger and better than you did?

I think you’re jealous.

Promotional Photos from CBS


  1. How very true. Who was the professor you referred to?


  2. I don't know, Ed. The last engineering major I had in class had never written a paper in their three years at Wisconsin...

  3. Thankfully, Cam, there was a thoughtful, experienced teacher there to help him/her through the process. ;)

  4. Preach on! Though I'm in the humanities (writing studies) instead of STEM, I can empathize with being "pidgeonholed." Friends and family quite often has very specific ideas about what my field is/what we do, as do other academics! The whole idea of professional identity as it is perceived by members and outsiders to a field is very intriguing to me. I enjoyed reading your perspectives! I occasionally blog about higher ed at http://claysad.tumblr.com. I also blog about other pursuits (running, yoga, sewing) as well, though, so be forewarned!