Analysis & Opinions - Technology+Policy | Innovation@Work

What Does It Mean to Be an Engineer?

| June 9, 2014

Congratulations, engineering graduates! By completing this degree, you are becoming part of a very special group: you are becoming engineers. I want to share my own path to engineering; discuss what makes engineering a unique and noble profession; explain your roles and responsibilities as an engineer in our society; and give you some advice for success based on my own experiences.

I grew up as one of four children in a family of engineers and mathematicians. My parents would leave science and math and engineering textbooks around the house; they figured that if they exposed each of us to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics enough times, eventually something would take hold. My father inspired by example; I often saw him sitting at the kitchen table, late at night, working on engineering problems. I didn't completely understand what he was doing, but I figured that it must be something fascinating and important to keep him up that late. It also made an impression on me because he seemed so happy and peaceful when he was doing his engineering work. So I figured that if I worked hard, maybe I could find that kind of happiness one day too. My mother, as a teacher, was more direct and explicit in her methods for inspiring others. When I was applying to college, she said, “You can be anything you want to be. You can be any kind of ENGINEER you want to be.”

Engineering as a profession is open to anyone and everyone, regardless of gender, race, family background, or social status, which is part of what makes it special. You don't have to look a certain way to be an engineer. In fact, engineering benefits from having a diverse group of innovators, because only by bringing diverse perspectives can we invent and innovate for a diverse society. But engineering is also meaningful for deeper reasons. Engineers carry a sense of wonder for the world around them. We as engineers look out into the world, and we can see that everything has an underlying mathematical and mechanistic basis. We recognize that we can understand and model our world, using the tools of quantitative analysis. We see the connections and the exchanges between science and engineering, how advances in science lead to advances in engineering, and vice versa.

Most importantly, we as engineers realize that we have the ability to solve pressing world problems in energy, sustainability, transportation, education, healthcare, food, and the environment. While other disciplines in basic science aim to understand reality, engineers ultimately seek to build a new reality, a better place for everyone. When I pursued my education in biomedical engineering, and worked in the hospitals and clinics, I saw engineering everywhere. Engineering was needed for manufacturing the pharmaceuticals, designing the intravenous infusion pumps, programming the electronic medical records. I found that biomedical engineers were as much a part of patient care as nurses and physicians. Similarly, mechanical engineers and civil engineers contribute to transportation; environmental engineers contribute to sustainability and energy; and electrical engineers contribute to communications.

As engineers, we all want to help people. In fact, it is our duty to serve the public and address global grand challenges; to respect one another and work collaboratively; and to do our best to help others using our skills. Engineers can participate not only in making life better and more comfortable for everyone, but also in saving lives. My advice to you, as young and emerging engineers, is to always remember why you entered this profession in the first place. Always remember that your goal is to use your skills for the betterment of society. Importantly, always remember the sense of wonder and creativity that drives your interest in engineering.

I also advise you to be courageous and resilient, because engineers are needed now more than ever to solve difficult problems in the world. This field is for the brave, not for the faint of heart. This field is for those who are willing to stand up for what is right, not for those who just crave comfort and security. This field is also for the kind and caring souls, not for those who are cold or unfeeling, because engineering is at its core about humanity. I wish I could make sure that you always have a cheering section. But I cannot. What I can tell you is this: if you pursue your career as an engineer with dedication, with honesty, with commitment, with conscientiousness, and with love, then you can always be proud of yourself. You can look in the mirror and be your own cheering section. This is the definition of resilience. This is courageousness. This is character. This is what it means to be an ENGINEER.

There is one other ingredient though, and I want to end on this note. Engineering means being collegial. I saw a great movie recently called "My Own Private Idaho." One of the characters in the movie has narcolepsy, which means he falls asleep throughout the day, and he can't control it. In the final scene of the movie, we see this character passed out by the side of the road. A car pulls up, two men get out, and they steal the young man's shoes and his money, and leave him on the side of the road. A minute later, another car pulls up, a man gets out, and he lifts up the young man and helps him into his car. And life is sort of like that. When you're by the side of the road, some people are going to steal your shoes and steal your money and leave you there… and other people will lift you up and give you a ride. So when you think about yourself, and how you want to function in the world as an engineer, my advice is that you want to be the person that lifts other people up. It is your duty as an engineer, it will make you feel better about yourself, and it's just plain the right thing to do.

Congratulations to all of you, engineering graduates. Never forget why you entered this profession, and never forget who you are. I stand in awe of you and your accomplishments, and I look forward to your future contributions to engineering.

Sujata K. Bhatia, MD, PhD, PE is a physician, bioengineer, and professionally licensed chemical engineer who serves on the teaching faculty of biomedical engineering at Harvard University.  She is the Assistant Director for Undergraduate Studies in Biomedical Engineering at Harvard, and an Associate of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government for the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project.

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For Academic Citation: Bhatia, Sujata K..“What Does It Mean to Be an Engineer?.” Technology+Policy | Innovation@Work, June 9, 2014.

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