Alex Epstein'07 is the Olin alumnus who, during his time here, worked on putting the Olin-Wellesley shuttle system into place. Many years later, after getting a Ph.D. at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Alex has turned his self-study at Olin into a professional career as a general engineer at Volpe, The National Transportation System Center in Cambridge. After listening to Alex's alumni talk about grad school at Olin this fall, I had a chance to ask him some questions.
How has Olin's education helped your career as a grad school student and in industry?
I was a General Engineering major at Olin, with a Concentration in Materials Science. My current title at Volpe is General Engineer. Coincidence? I don't know. But I do think that the "general" spirit has stayed the same, and that I find it exciting to solve new types of problems rather than to very deeply specialize in one niche of a field. That is something that the Olin education fostered and encouraged, and I am grateful for that.
I always saw Olin as an engineering liberal arts school. I was able to take quite a few electives at Wellesley, Babson and Brandeis (Brandeis was a cross-registration option back then), none of which had Engineering as their subject. In fact, I believe I could have minored in Creative Writing at Wellesley if I were in fact enrolled there, but this was not a possibility for obvious reasons.
Developing written communication skill has been highly important for me - developing the right side of the brain. Even within the Olin bubble, the consistent emphasis on presentation quality, teamwork, and focusing on results and integrity rather than competing for grades, were very important for me in developing a successful professional mindset.
I still remember giving an Expo talk in which I presented on how I had set up the Olin Wellesley shuttle. After the talk, Mark Somerville pulled me aside and instilled that no matter how much of the work I had done, it is critical to acknowledge the team. This really planted the word "we" in my vocabulary to this day. And" we" is a big part of working professionally in almost any industry.
Any interesting stories/fun-facts about you?
I am the Chairman of the City of Somerville's Bicycle Advisory Committee, and my involvement in urban transportation advocacy is the hobby and procrastination activity during grad school that turned me on to my current professional career. And before that, the Olin Wellesley shuttle was my first inroad into the field. Goes to show that Olin self-studies and hobbies can always grow into something more!
What did you do for your Ph.D.?
I continued my material science trajectory from Olin and undertook a research theme of biologically inspired material design. I was the first student in a new lab at Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences that was just recruiting new students. In hindsight, my dissertation topic was a little unexpected to me. I entered grad school thinking I was a mechanical engineer, yet I ended up working with biologically inspired and biologically applied materials. Specifically, I designed surface technologies that prevented biological fouling by common types of bacteria. The applications I targeted included medical devices and pipelines, with a stretch goal of even applying these surfaces to the hulls of marine vessels.
Alex in PhD gown, with wife Christina, at Commencement, 2013
How has your Ph.D. helped you in your career in industry?
My Ph.D. complemented in at least two ways the education that I received at Olin. First there's the obvious credential, which lends me an uncommon "expert" credibility to meetings with clients or project teams, even if I am hardly an expert in the topic at hand.
But in terms of professional development and my own intellectual growth, the Ph.D. experience forced me into a new kind of deep end where I had to ask the right questions and develop structure out of a very large space of possibilities, and architect on my own, with relatively little advice or guidance from above, a multi-year research program. While it involved and required collaboration with others from start to finish, the highly independent Ph.D. experience was new to me after four years of robust feedback and focus on teamwork at Olin. Being solely responsible for my own progress, it was often tempting to start going in new directions instead of focusing. So the PhD developed in me an ability to very independently focus on what I believed to be the right questions, apply research skills, resources, and drive forward a multi-year program.
At Volpe, my Ph.D. background has translated into both more technical credibility when tackling new types of projects, and has given me the confidence to throw myself headlong into new disciplines that I may not necessarily be expert in. That may seem counterintuitive, since the Ph.D. is supposed to be a very deep and narrow learning experience, but as I mentioned, the topic I ended up studying and writing my dissertation on was something I knew almost nothing about when I arrived to grad school. And that sort of learning curve has been mirrored in many of my work projects since grad school. On a higher level, my ability to write a dissertation on something I initially knew little about gave me the confidence to first intern, then go in a new direction, entering the fields of transportation and technical consulting at Volpe.