Talking Work and Philosophy with Kevin Simon '12 ~ by Ariana Chae '15

Kevin Simon ('12) deferred for a year from grad school to work at Otherlab, a small research and development lab in San Francisco. I had the chance to talk to him about the projects he is working on, as well as some of his thoughts on a pitfall Olin students need to watch out for when searching for jobs.

 

Projects at Otherlab include inflatable robotics, concentrated solar thermal power, low cost cardboard CNC machines for high school education, digital manufacturing technologies and more. Otherlab is a research and development incubator; they receive government grants to work on cool projects with the goal of commercializing their products after they are successful.

Kevin is working mostly on the concentrated solar projects. The idea is that you can use low cost inflatable actuators to control mirrors and move them around, which would allow you to afford multiple smaller mirrors. This would be more cost-efficient than the current method of using extremely expensive motors to control the mirrors, which makes people use one large expensive mirror to avoid having to buy more than one motor.

Actuator.jpg3d printed prototype of a compliant actuator for controlling mirrors in CSP arrays

Kevin is also working on a project concerning natural gas storage. While it is possible to power cars with natural gas, people don't do it because it is difficult to fit an appropriately sized natural gas tank inside a car; it is too big, it needs to be a cylinder, etc. Research is being conducted to make a whole bunch of small tubes, and using mathematical algorithms, to come up with bending patterns to bend these tubes into any desired shape.

Monkey.jpgA space filling curve in the shape of a monkey (for the natural gas project)

 

"One thing I've learned working here is the importance of trying something. If you have an idea, sit down and do the first order math to make sure it's a good idea, and then just do it and see what happens. The stuff that we're working on here is ridiculous. There are millions of ways of doing things and most of the reason why we do things the way we do them is not because it's necessarily the best way, but because it was easiest to figure out how to do it that way first. There are lots of opportunities for figuring out what else you can do, you just need to have a little more imagination."

Aside from his work at Otherlab, Kevin spoke about a trap that some Olin students fall into. It's easy for Olin students to think they're worth more than they actually are. At the end of the day, we are still undergraduates, and a lot of Olin students think that the do-learn model entitles them to really prestigious internships or more respect and money at their jobs. This sense of entitlement can really come around and bite us, and it reflects poorly on Olin as well.

Kevin shared his personal experience.

 "I once was like that. I had this internship, I did a great job, and the company was impressed. I went to a meeting and was talking to one of the guys who worked there.But this guy kind of cut me down in size. He was like, "Look, sure you're smart, probably, and the people you worked with think great things about you, but the kinds of projects you're interested in working on and the people you're interested in working with are some of our top priority projects and some of the smartest people at our company. They are in a league of their own, and I'd be surprised if you were in their league at all."

Olin had pumped me up. Yes, I'm an Olin student, I'm empowered to do whatever I want to do. And that's a powerful thing. Engineering students that feel empowered go out and do great things. By all means, people should feel empowered, and that's one of the greatest things about the Olin education, how it braces people to tackle things and not be afraid.

But that comment really checked my humility when it came to working for companies and the way I think about myself and my talent.  To some extent, the Olin pedigree does mean we are capable students, but no matter what it is, it's still an undergraduate experience. We've got so much more to do outside of our undergraduate degree; there's the world to learn. I've been guilty of this, and I learned my lesson the hard way, and I know I've seen it happen to other people as well. It is critical in our culture to preserve a strong sense of humble modesty, or a confident modesty."

Posted in: Alumni Speak, Learning about Design