Glass-Making, Haikus and Tackling the Unknown: Chatting with Elliott Donlon ‘14

Rebecca Patterson '18

Elliott Donlon has been quite busy since leaving Olin.  We recently checked in with him to see what all he’s been up to, and learned that although he works for the Manipulations and Mechanisms Lab at MIT, he has also been traveling and having unique experiences outside of his job.  His adventures have given him valuable insight on how to approach opportunities that others may view as risks, and he wants to share some thoughts about this with Olin students.


Elliott in front of a wall of giant glass sculptures after ICRA in Seattle


Tell us more about the work you do at MIT.

I help the team with design, manufacturing and de-bugging hardware issues. One of my main tasks in the lab so far has been in preparation for the Amazon Picking Challenge at ICRA (International Conference on Robotics and Automation) in Seattle where our entry got second place (we beat a lab from TU Berlin)! More details on the challenge here.

Orion ‘14 and Elliott rigging up the systems on the lab’s robot for the Amazon Picking Challenge after unpacking

What is a typical day like at the Lab?

I try to keep to a normal work schedule, but the hours are incredibly flexible. I come in sometime in the morning, tend to the 3-D printer, fabricate parts, mount things, route cables, design parts, talk with the team about overall strategy - things like that. Sometimes we have meals as a team, then I either come back and work more or go home. While the day-to-day work is a lot of mechanical design, fabrication and academic work, on the whole, it’s kind of like being a grad student without taking classes.


Do you work with other Olin alumni? What's it like working with Oliners in the real world?

Yes, my classmate Orion is a grad student in the lab. We work together very closely and it often feels a lot like working on the projects we did at Olin. I don't feel like it's a fair assessment to call working in the lab the “real world” but I kind of view it as doing an Olin project with more time and more budget.

Professor Orion Taylor ‘14 dual-wielding the end-effectors we made to put on the robot arm for the Amazon Picking Challenge


Looking back, how did Olin help you get to where you are today?

Olin taught me engineering as a mindset - more of an organized way to break down and solve problems. Most importantly, learning to learn and assuaging the fear to tackle the unknown have provided me with the opportunity to venture out to places where I have met people with the wisdom of a life-time.


What do you feel you are doing that's innovative?

That’s a complicated question that really depends on how the reader views innovation. I personally feel that in mechanical engineering / product design,  “innovation” is often viewed as making a brilliant new invention to solve a problem. I like making things as much as the next guy, but I also believe that the real innovations come from re-framing problems so we can get at the root (one practice that I learned well at Olin) instead of making a product to patch an issue. While I’ve been making little innovations inside and outside the lab, the real innovation has yet to come.


Let me write you a haiku:


To make a real change

Do things that don't exist yet



How have you made a difference in the world since leaving Olin?

Since Olin, I have been exploring, learning and making meaningful connections with people everywhere I go. Through my travels I have come to believe even more that one person, no matter how great, cannot hope to accomplish what a great team can accomplish together. I travelled to four countries and spent four months living in Mexico where I built things to improve the lives of people in San Pancho, Nayarit. My main contributions there were making a kiln, safety systems and improving workflow in their glass workshop - all with junkyard materials. I also spent time in California learning about energy-saving glass equipment design, and met a lot of great glass-makers from all walks of life.


The sign at Entre Amigos in San Pancho, Nayarit



Hugh Jenkins (master glass-blower and equipment-maker) and the first fire-up of his new energy-efficient furnace




The glass kiln in the workshop at Entre Amigos - complete with detergent bottle control box, rain gutter door-housing and much more!

What else do you do outside of work?

Nowadays, only a fraction of what I do has to do with my job. I am working on getting back into glass-blowing and have been exploring areas of opportunity for using my engineering skills to improve artistic glass-blowing (and also make it more accessible). I’ve also been trying to get back into the hardware startup scene here, but it’s been difficult with all the travel. At least I’ve settled here in Boston for now. Oh and I also live with five other Oliners now, so that’s a hoot too.

Do you have time for fun? What do you like to do?

It's all fun. I like the work, playing MTG with Orion, blowing glass, hiking, going on rock-hunting trips, having soup and hanging out with friends, stuff like that. Each day is something different. I can't possibly list it all.


Standing on top of a giant stump out in the woods east of Seattle

Advice for current students?

After Olin, there are more than two options. I feel that I have learned just as much, if not more than, I could have learned in one year of grad school or industry. If you don't see yourself in grad school, then don't go. If you feel that there's more meaningful work for you in some space that doesn't seem well-endorsed by society, then go for it.

My mom always says, you either have the time or the money to do what you want, but not both. Right after Olin, you’ve got time; use it and I’m sure you Olin students are clever enough to make the money bit work.



Posted in: A Broader World View, Alumni Speak, A Different Path, Because I Wanted To