8 Rice undergrads reflect on why they chose engineering

National Engineers Week celebrates the contributions of engineers.

National Engineers Week

Sofia Escobar, a junior in computational and applied mathematics (CAAM) at Rice University, seems genetically fated to be an engineer.

Her father is an industrial engineer and her father’s father a chemical engineer. On her mother’s side, her grandfather is a civil engineer and her uncles are civil, electrical and systems engineers.

“I grew up surrounded by people passionate about numbers and science. Their enthusiasm rubbed off on me. My Dad taught me algebra on the weekends when I was still in elementary school and I spent summers in my grandfather’s lab washing beakers, organizing supply closets and preparing field samples for lab work,” Escobar said.

February 16-22 is National Engineers Week, an annual event started in 1951 by the National Society of Professional Engineers. Its goal is to celebrate the contributions of engineers and to attract young people like Escobar and other Rice undergraduates to the profession.

Escobar came to Rice expecting to major in chemical engineering but switched to CAAM. She works with Béatrice Rivière, the Noah G. Harding Chair and Professor of CAAM, developing a machine-learning algorithm to detect liver tumors from 3D CT scan images.

“That’s exactly the kind of meaningful, life-changing work I wanted to take part in. The bottom line is that an engineering degree will give you the background and tools necessary to change the world, and that’s something that we’re all called to do,” Escobar said.

Henry Cao will graduate in May with a B.S. in materials science and nanoengineering (MSNE). Born in Nanjing, China, he traces his interest in engineering to his mother’s kitchen.

“She taught me how to cook,” he said. “You follow the recipe and use certain ingredients in the right combinations at the right time, and the food comes out with the properties you want. Materials science is like that. There is an internal logic to both things. Why do you poach the chicken first, then fry it?”

Cao now works in the laboratory of Ming Tang, assistant professor of MSNE, using machine learning to facilitate the mesoscale modeling of 2D single and poly-crystal growth.

n ninth grade, Catherine Kiela, now a sophomore in mechanical engineering (MECH), joined the robotics team at her high school in Tucson, Ariz. “My first year,” she said, “I learned all the fabrication methods I could. I saw teamwork in action for the first time and figured out how to integrate myself into it. I helped assemble the whole robot, rebuilding gearboxes four times, sometimes reshaping hooks until they were the right shape.”

Kiela had already resolved to pursue engineering as a career. She honed her 3D computer-assisted modeling skills to build a bed frame and a four-tiered, cantilever sewing box.

“I knew I wanted to major in MECH after I designed my first mechanism for the robot from scratch,” she said. “Seeing my idea cut out, assembled and added to the robot was an incredible experience. I joined a community of engineers and makers where my passion for physics and math could flourish.”

Sanat Mehta expects to graduate in May with a B.A. in computer science (CS). His father is a professor of computer science at the Colorado School of Mines. “I grew up with it,” Sanat said. “I loved science of all kinds. I was in math competitions and took all the AP science classes I could.”

Mehta entered Rice thinking he might try chemical engineering, but by the end of his first semester he switched to CS. “I realized the problems in computer science were especially cool. I was always drawn to science, and engineering is a way to apply what you learn in science,” he said.

“When I was little, play time meant competing with my twin brother to see who could complete puzzles the fastest, build the most LEGO creations or make the tallest Lincoln Log tower. As I got older, I realized I had an aptitude for problem solving and critical thinking,” said Isabel Sjodin, a sophomore in chemical engineering.

“It wasn’t until my freshman year that the pieces started falling into place. I was interested in chemistry. A career adviser said what I originally saw as chemistry was in fact chemical engineering, and I shifted gears. Now I enjoy the practical application of our work and seeing the impact the field has on everyday life.”

Mark Cantu attended an engineering-centered magnet school in South Texas. Students were offered various introductory engineering classes, such as 3D modeling, basic circuit design, stress calculations and architectural design. In his senior year, Cantu took an independent design class where students worked all year in teams of three.

“I was already considering studying engineering in college. The senior design project really cemented it for me and led me to discover materials science,” he said.

Cantu’s group designed a light-weight, portable trench shield for construction digging crews. Most challenging was selecting materials that were light, affordable and sufficiently durable to prevent construction trench collapses.

“I was the one who began to look into materials databases and research what kind of forces the material would be up against. That moved me to investigate advancements in materials. I stumbled on nanoscale design and technology and learned about MSNE at Rice,” said Cantu, a junior who has worked for two years in the research group of Zachary Cordero, assistant professor of MSNE.

Like many budding engineers, Lauren Chiang, a junior in chemical and biomolecular engineering, has always enjoyed solving problems.

“The classes I take in chemical engineering often explain how and why things we see in everyday life occur. It’s the combination of problem-solving skills and understanding the underlying causes of natural phenomena that helps us come up with solutions to the world’s problems,” Chiang said.

Similarly, Eunice Aissi, a sophomore in MECH, is on a quest for solutions. She noted that in 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report outlining the impact a global warming of 2°C and challenging the world to become carbon neutral by 2050.

“Despite that,” she said, “the technology needed to reach those goals is not yet developed. My generation is tasked with developing the technology and policies that will help us avoid the crisis caused by climate change. That’s why I’m dedicated to learning as much as I can to make the world more sustainable so a crisis like climate change won’t happen again.”