Be an Engineer. Or Just Think Like One.

Emily Mamula '15

Dallas, Texas

 

Emily Mamula.jpgser·en·dip·i·tous

adjective 

1.                   come upon or found by accident; fortuitous

2.                   good; beneficial; favorable

 

Two years ago, I was a different person.

 

This in no way means that I was a bad person, or that my life was all that far from where it is now. But one singular, all-important aspect has changed. And even though two years ago I'd already been introduced to it, I didn't really see my future.

Now I see nothing but.

 

'Cause, you see, on an idyllic visit to Princeton my mother and I struck up a conversation with another father and daughter. The questions were nothing groundbreaking - Where are you from? Where do you go to school? Where else are you applying? - but one piece of information piqued my interest. It pertained to a school that offered automatic half-tuition scholarships to all accepted students. Olin.

Needless to say, I got home and hit the internet. Olin seemed like a great place, and I added it to my ever-expanding application list.

Time passed. Olin remained on my list, but the research mostly stopped. I figured it was probably a long shot getting in, considering how few people do, but applied regardless and waited with low expectations.

And then I got an email informing me that decisions for the Candidates' Weekends were up online.

I think the rest is pretty clear. After a few solid minutes of stunned silence interspersed with frantic squeals, I was getting ready to book the tickets. A few short weeks later, I was on the plane.

I remember what I felt standing outside the airport waiting for a cab. I'd never been anywhere near Boston, but I breathed it in as the wind whipped around me... I was home.

In that next 36 hours, I fell in love. And it's been that way ever since.

But I still had all of these doubts. I'd never had the technical training that so many of my peers had and I just didn't feel like I was well-qualified. I felt that way well after I arrived on campus and started classes. Sometimes I still feel it now.

 

First semester was a fantastically awful blur. Wonderful, because I truly loved this place and these people, and no matter whether I thought I fit or not, I never wanted to leave. Horrible, because I spent so much of it doubting whether I could make it.

And there were times I really thought I could. I would never want someone to think that I was unhappy my first semester, because that's just not strictly true. But I wasn't totally happy, either.

I just hadn't found my footing.

This is how I entered my second semester. There was terror over classes without the cushion of Pass/No Record and excitement because I had missed everyone and everything here on campus while we'd all been gone.

It would be a bold-faced lie to say it was easy. It wasn't; there was no magic wand to wave. But I focused on plowing through and made it to the halfway point of the semester, at which one of my classes, Real World Measurements, transitioned from weekly labs to a group project.

 

In order to pick what we would be working on for the remainder of the semester, our instructors had us fill out surveys. During the previous year, some groups tackled the weather balloon project, and I, along with my eventual teammates Kate Maschan and Kyle MConnaughay, felt that it was the project with the greatest tangible result. Nothing could beat pictures from space!

We then spent weeks figuring out and ordering what we would need, trying to coordinate with the three other teams  launching weather balloons, and building a final product. Our plan was to measure temperature and pressure in and out of the box as it ascended and hack a camera to continuously take pictures. Since we were by no means guaranteed to be able to retrieve our box after we'd launched, we had a tethered launch a few days before our actual launch.

This basically consisted of all four groups carting an enormous canister of helium down to the soccer field and filling a balloon (somewhat successfully; there were definitely some bumps!) which we then attached to each of the boxes, with a long cord that we kept tied to the goal post so our payloads wouldn't go up, up and away.

For my team, this was the beginning of a long string of really bad luck. We were the last group to raise our balloon, and just as we did the wind picked up and it started to rain. This resulted in our box being blown around chaotically, repeatedly slammed into the ground, and swung around so the cord almost took out innocent bystanders. To top it all off, our sensors and camera, which had been functioning perfectly, ended up collecting nothing for reasons we still can't explain.

So we were left in a panic, trying to make sure that on launch day everything would work. Before we knew it, the day arrived that we would leave for launch. Our party consisted of three cars containing members from all four groups, camping equipment, warm clothing, food, and two canisters of helium. Our plan was to drive to Great Barrington, MA (aka the middle of nowhere), and camp out on the hill of one of the groups' member's friends. After 134 miles of driving, two tents, and one allergy attack, all four groups had most of their members on the hill. I'm still not sure how cold it got that night, but I do know that there was frost on my sleeping bag when I woke up. Morale was not at its highest as everyone tugged on layers and many started to lose feeling in their toes.

 

We soldiered on to begin the launch, carefully filling each balloon before attaching our boxes and watching them fly away. This was when the latest disaster struck for my team: the data libraries needed to run the software for the sensors had never been transferred from Kyle's computer to mine.

And that's the story of how I ended up on a hill in the middle of nowhere at 5:30AM, hyperventilating through the phone to the sick teammate I had to call and wake up, miraculously piggybacking on someone's Wi-Fi.

It was not my proudest moment. But after a lot of deep breathing and some frantic downloading, it was done. We started the camera, stuffed foot warmers in the box to keep it warm, sealed it up, and set her free.

Four hours later, our box landed in the ocean off the coast of Nantucket. It was a huge disappointment, but we always knew this was a risk. At that point, we started working on the final write-up, thinking our journey was over. Then, on Mother's Day, we got a call from a science teacher in Martha's Vineyard saying he'd fond our box mostly intact, if a little water-logged. He was able to retrieve some photos from the SD card, and offered to mail our box back to us. He only asked that he be able to open the box and show his students.

When the box finally came back to us, we managed to recover most of the photos (check them out on Olin's Flickr account) and, with help from our professor, the temperature and pressure data. With this data, we were able to determine that our balloon made it to an altitude of 101,000 feet, considerably higher than any of the other groups, this year or last.

 

The project was a whirlwind. Through all the struggle, worry, and even panic, we gained real-world experience that is and will continue to be invaluable to me. For the first time I felt that I'd accomplished something to a degree that made me worthy of this place. I don't feel it every day, but if I did then I know I can again.

A year ago as I sat nervously anticipating starting my first year, the school asked all incoming first years to write a Statement of Interests describing what we wanted to do in our time here. There were no parameters, no grades. Just an opportunity for us to explore what we wanted, and to let our advisers see as well. This was mine:

Statement of Interests to be pursued at Olin

There are two things I'm absolutely sure I want to achieve in my time at Olin:

The first: I want to learn. I want to do my utmost to excel in all of my classes, learn all that I can about BioE and its applications, and find the specialty that makes my fingers twitch and my mind whirl. That one area of study that never can be exhausted in my eyes; the something I want to spend my life exploring. I don't know exactly what it will be yet, but I want it to hit me like a freighter and steal my passion and drive away. I've watched people close to me do things they hate and those they love, and I know exactly where I want to fall. But, I also want to learn about life and the person I'll be. I'm still shifting and changing, but I'm learning about myself and how to embrace it. And all of this knowledge, from the concrete to the existential, will come from me, my peers, and my professors. They say it takes a village to raise a child. I don't know if this is true, but it just may take one to make an adult.

The second: I need to rediscover my voice. Writing used to be my bread and butter; I thought in flow and prose and loved it. For whatever reason, I've slipped. It still appears on occasion, but it's been so long since I wrote something for me, just because it would kill me not to. I don't know how I'll do it or how long it will take, but I'll find my way back somehow. I'm more myself on paper than any other time, and I miss it.

 

I'm still not there yet. I still don't know if I want to be an engineer when all is said and done.

 

 

But I'm ready to find out.

Posted in: Life @ Olin