How did I get here?

On Friday a couple of my lab students asked if I ever actually used the stuff that they learn in class.  This was kind of a tricky question, since I really do think most of what they learn is quite useful, but I don’t actually use all of it myself.  In part, this is due to the fact that I have only been a mechanical engineering student for a grand total of ~2 years out of my entire 5 1/2 years of undergrad + grad school.  I never took machine design or did a senior project (won’t lie – I wish I had those skills, but I also saw the workload that those classes put on my ME friends…eek.)  In order to give an honest, but tactful, response I explained to the questioning students that I had actually done my undergrad in exercise science, and thus hadn’t had the opportunity to use all of the methods taught in the intro to design course.

The fact that I had switched from exercise science undergrad to mechanical engineering as a grad student absolutely blew their minds.  I threw in the caveat that I had taken most of the mechanical engineering courses, and had worked in a combined ex sic/ME research lab for four years.  This idea that you can switch fields, and that people actually use very similar skills across disciplines, was totally shocking to them.

Sometimes my decision to switch from purely biomechanics focused research to what I do now (solid mechanics with a side of biomechanics application) baffles my mind as well.  I went from something I was actually *good* at to something that is totally kicking my butt.  I am good at memorization – give me some anatomy charts and I can memorize all those tubercles, fossas, and muscle attachments like a pro.  Physiology is just memorizing the basics and then applying this to a particular problem.  I was raised by a physical therapist – those latin roots and dissected limbs don’t scare me.

I also miss the atmosphere – human subjects research attracts people who tend, for the most part, to be fairly collegial.  I spend most of my current research time alone in a cubicle.  My samples and models don’t talk, don’t make funny faces, or ask interesting questions.  Way less fun than human research participants!  On the other hand, they don’t complain, ask if they are going to be compensated with iPads, or forget to show up :/

I do enjoy what I’m doing, and I worry that some of the nostalgia is based on the fact that undergrad research is so totally different from grad research.  As an undergrad, there’s a lot of hand-holding.  When you fail there’s someone there to help you out and solve your problem.  Everyone knows way more than you, so there’s always a safety net.  My undergrad lab had an amazing lab manager to fix any problems and he was brilliant at explaining everything from how to run the equipment to how to create a good CAD drawing to bring to the machine shop.  When any of us did something idiotic, he was always quick to point out some similar mistake he’d made and then show us how to fix the screw-up.  Our lab was a no-judement zone, and yet we somehow still got stuff done and did some pretty good science with the undergrad group (thanks to some very clever higher-ups).  My fellow undergrad (and grad) research assistants/researchers were amazing to work with, and our PI’s were all both brilliant and approachable.  I’m having to work really hard to separate the research area from the atmosphere and figure out how each of these is going to influence my choices during my oh-lordy-let’s-find-me-a-job phase, which is approaching with terrifying rapidity.

Am I still an exercise scientist at heart, or do I have what it takes to be a successful engineer?  Was it crazy to make this leap into a fairly intensive ME graduate program, or will I be able to catch up to my peers and get back to feeling like I belong and can start climbing back to the level of success that I was accustomed to as an undergrad?  Would that even be a good thing, or would it just mean I’m not searching out enough challenges?

For now, all I know is that 1) I have made enough progress in the ME side of things to successfully and competently teach an introductory lab course 2)  I am interested in my research topic – and I do love the fact that I can see myself daily gaining the skills that I so admired in my undergrad lab’s lab manager and grad students.  Doing independent research has led to huge leaps in confidence and competency! 3)  I have, at the very least, opened up my students’ eyes to the completely new idea that skills can in fact be transferable across disciplines.  Hurrah for some possible future interdisciplinary collaborators ha ha 😉

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