After convincing a lot of people, including myself, that engineering was going to be the way I would go in my life, there was one person who stopped me in my tracks and got me off the rail.
Amazingly, it was my favorite professor, who taught me everything I used to know about Fluid Mechanics. I was so into those equations, and I’d memorized so many, that I passed with flying colors the first of two tests you need to take to become a professional engineer. It was called the EIT, or Engineer In Training test. I’ve always been a good test-taker, something I’m not so proud of, because everything I’ve learned about creative thinking says it’s about synthesis and ideation, not ingesting and spewing material back by rote. Yet the later classes in engineering school allow you to approach a problem from multiple angles, determine where to dive in, and that’s what I loved and why I stayed with them. I’m a linear nonlinear thinker, and I like dialogue at the start to set up a problem, too. All of this informs what I do today for, as the Irish say, “crust.”
My father, a mechanical engineer, told me it would be smart to go ahead and get that out of the way while it was still fresh. He was right. But my professor, who was my advisor on my senior project about geotechnical stuff, like how to tell if something’s “clay-ey-silty” or “sandy-silty,” got me thinking maybe this wasn’t the path I wanted to be on, after all.
Reality and truth
Dr. L. was the first person in four years of college who called me on my self-delusion.
I’d invited him to an art show I had on campus, more of a show of my photos from Japan that I managed to convince the Sixth Undergraduate Research Symposium organizers at N.C. State to include in their collection of who was doing what. “Japanese Lines” was the name of my “exhibit,” and it was the best of some 500 images I’d shot and printed over a year in Kyoto, from 1995-96, when I was studying Japanese there. I’d called it an “abstract,” but it was really just a description of my year of wandering. I’d cut photos from the trip into squares, 3”x3”, and suspended strings with uchiwa and postcards from my time in Kyoto. I made a small book of poems, and bound it at Kinko’s on Hillsborough Street. Dr. L., my geotech professor, came by and saw them. I was delighted to see him there.
“I’m so glad you came to my show!” I said, practically bounding over.
Of all the engineering professors at N.C. State, Dr. L was my favorite. He had a calm, steady way of talking and he made everything quite clear. Even Bernoulli. I liked the double integral equations of fluid dynamics. The lines were clean. Something that would influence the kind of art I make today.
When he asked, I described how I found the theme, “Japanese Lines.”
“They’re everywhere! Creases, skylines, folds in yukatas, the brushstroked letterforms you find on street corners and signs and in ads and on TV. The subway lines, the train routes!—”
“Lines,” he repeated. Dr. L. studied me, then my photographs. He even lifted his glasses and zoomed in on one. He took his time.
“Dipika,” he said. “I do some watercolors.”
“Really?” I did not know this about him. “What kind? Blooms? Washes?”
“Just some scenes.”
“Oh! Fantastic! I had no idea.”
“And I didn’t know you did… all this!”
“Oh, well. It’s nothing.”
But his gesture suggested he thought otherwise.
Then came the words that would alter my career path, and even my worldview on what it is that constitutes “success.”
“Dipika,” he said gravely, leaning in to whisper. “I don’t think you should become an engineer.”
Has anything like this happened to you? How did it feel? Did something change?