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Mechanical Engineering Overview - PowerPoint - Podcast

Adrienne Lavine

Professor, Mechanical
University of California
at Los Angeles
Los Angeles, CA

PhD, Mechanical Engineering, University of California/Berkeley
MS, Mechanical Engineering, University of California/Berkeley
BS, Engineering, Brown University
Professor of Mechanical Engineering, involved in both teaching and research.
After two years with a manufacturer of Fiberglas products, Adrienne decided to continue her studies. Her work toward Master's degree encouraged her to continue on to the PhD. As a researcher she works on heat transfer and fluid flow problems that come directly from industry. She emphasizes the variety of career options for the person educated as a mechanical engineer.
"You have to want to be a graduate student. I mean, you have to want to study all the time and think about your research."

Lavine: "I'm a member of ASME and I go to their conferences about twice a year. This is the forum where academics present their research to one another and to industry. ASME has many other, other functions but that's the one that I am most involved in. And it's very valuable to me to go there and meet other people working on similar problems to mine and exchange ideas. And you know, after a while these get to be your friends and it's just a fun time, too. But networking, of course it's important in any work in any line of work to know who the other people are in your field and communicate with them."

Lavine: "First of all, a degree in engineering is very valuable because it does not restrict you to being an engineer, to working in the engineering field.  And lots of lawyers who first had engineering degrees, doctors who have engineering degrees, it's a good background.  It teaches you to think in a logical way and is very rigorous. So it can lead to many different things.  Certainly business as well, you can get a business degree after an engineering degree or just go into some business venture after an engineering degree." 

Q: When you decide that you really liked engineering?
I haven't decided yet. No, there are parts of it that I love. It's always the mathematics. It's been an evolution but let me tell you what I love about the study of engineering. I love that you can write a simple equation on a piece of paper that seems very innocent and the one that is dearest to me that I'm thinking of is called the Navier Stokes equation and describes fluid mechanics. It describes almost every kind of fluid flow you could think of from the water flowing through your pipes at home to the atmosphere to the blood flowing in our veins and many other exotic flows. Just this little equation. We don't know how to solve it in any kind of general way. It's been solved for many specific cases. And the thing that is amazing to me, we understand the principles that govern fluid flows and that's why we can write the equation down. But that equation predicts flows that are much more complicated than we could have ever imagined when we wrote the equation down. So it's as if we just had this much understanding and the equation takes on a life of its own and tells us much more.

Q: Talk about what graduate student life is like.
OK. You have to want to be a graduate student. I mean, you have to want to study all the time and think about your research. Well, of course, there's classes. You take classes for two, two and a half years, something like that. And then the rest is your research. I'm really talking more about a Ph.D. than a Master's degree. With a Master's degree, some universities have you do a thesis and some don't. And some give you the option. But for a Ph.D. there's always a thesis and that's where you really learn how to approach a problem and conduct research and contribute to the state of knowledge in your field. And that's a sort of a heady undertaking, to think that you can contribute something that no one else knows at the moment. But I said you really have to want to do it because you're going to be working all the time, you know. That your life is studying and taking exams and doing your research, running your code or running your experiment or whatever it is late at night and on weekends. And I had a lot of fun, too. But you know, it never got in the way -- it was always secondary to the work. And so if you're willing to be dedicated in that way, it's extraordinarily rewarding. One contrast between being a student and being a professor is, that as a student you're really responsible mainly to yourself to making sure that you understand what you're supposed to understand and that you produce the research that is your thesis. You have to make your advisor happy, but essentially your goals are the same as your advisors. So you're responsible to yourself, you don't worry about other people, you get your work done. It's very focused and satisfying.

Q: Is it actually possible to teach somebody something?
Well, you certainly can't teach someone something if they're unwilling to learn. And you know, I was talking with someone recently about evaluation of teaching, which is something we're always doing at the university. And she made the point, the very valid point, that really what you should be doing is evaluating whether the students have learned, not whether the professor has taught well. Because it doesn't matter how well you teach if the students don't learn. So it's a consensual relationship between the teacher and the student.

Q: Do you think at all about whether this is going to be your lifetime career or whether this is what you're doing now? How about the options, that sort of thing, things that you weigh?
Well, in my life I've always made my decisions at the last minute. I haven't really planned ahead. I chose engineering kind of on a whim and stuck with it. After I worked for a couple of years, I decided to go back to graduate school but I didn't know if I just wanted a Master's degree or a Ph.D. And up until the last minute when I had to decide, I hadn't decided. And then I said, "OK, I'll stay on for the Ph.D." And then when it came time to graduate and I needed to start interviewing for jobs, my advisor said, "You should really consider teaching." And it really wasn't until then that I decided that that's what I would do. So I don't plan that far in advance. So now you ask me, "Am I going to be in this job forever or not?" I don't know. For right now, it's an excellent job. As I said before, there are aspects of it that are frustrating to me but when I compare it to anything else, I think it's really a very rewarding and wonderful job. And maybe something else will come along and I'll change, but no, at this point I think I'm here.

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