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Engineers make the World a Better Place

April 10, 2009

Northeastern University students laud the diversity of opportunities available to them when they graduate with engineering degrees.

An engineering career promises access to all manner of interesting fields from space exploration to advanced medical treatments, according to students immersed in Northeastern University's various engineering degree programs.

"Engineering is a really challenging curriculum, but it is rewarding because you're able to solve problems that could really impact the big picture," says Katie Passino, 22, from Albany, N.Y., who is graduating this year from Northeastern's chemical engineering program with a minor in business. "There are so many options for me. Even in this economy, I am getting a lot of calls and I can see myself doing so many things with this degree."

Passino, who is in the university's Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honor Society, participated in Northeastern's cooperative education program and already held intern positions at Proctor and Gamble and Gillette, where she helped develop new razor components. "I didn't realize until then -- and I don’t think most people do -- how much work and effort goes into something as seemingly simple as a razor," Passino says.

Passino's exuberance for engineering is not as uncommon as one might think, considering reports of a shortage of skilled high-tech workers in the U.S. and a waning interest in computer science and engineering studies across American universities.

Recent research shows that computer science is gaining popularity as a field of study and potential career path, and that math and science degrees aren't just for the geeks and nerds anymore. Rather, some view their science studies as a shield from the current economic crisis and a great foundation for a more entrepreneurial career.

"The economy doesn't scare me. I'm studying engineering with a background in business, because I know that engineers don't only work in R&D, they can become leaders of huge companies. I would definitely look into start-ups and brainstorming ideas," says Samir Mistry, 23, from Billerica, Mass., who will graduate this May with a degree in electrical engineering with a business minor. Currently employed part-time (following an internship) at iRobot, Mistry also plans to study electrical engineering in graduate school.

Passino's business minor reflects the same thinking. "I wanted something to make me stand out from other engineers, because I think traditionally engineers focus on innovation and not as much on business, but now engineers are more exposed to the business," she says.

Not just for the boys

For Megan Richardson, 21, from Leominster, Mass., who plans to graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering in 2010, engineering was a way to integrate her love of science into a fulfilling career. With internships at American Power Conversion and at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory -- where she worked on a robotic arm for the Mars rover -- she feels confident as a woman entering a male-dominated workforce even in a down economy.

"Engineering is a challenging subject, but it builds incredible problem-solving skills and in some areas, like consumer products, there are a lot of opportunities for women, especially for a product geared toward women. Companies would like to have the female perspective in the design phase," says Richardson, who is also the president of the Society of Women Engineers and a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers at Northeastern University.

Richardson and Passino agree that men are the majority in their classes, but consider their gender an advantage.

"Engineers have certain personality traits and female engineers also do. I think we are more detail-oriented and able to make things very polished and presentable," Passino says. "I also excel with organizations skills, and it has helped me in the past by impressing bosses by being able to find a critical detail at a moment's notice."

Richardson says an engineering education offers opportunities for women across diverse industries, including medical and defense -- even with a down economy. "The skills taught in engineering are looked upon highly and the types of jobs I see kids getting when they graduate are the types of jobs I could see myself doing," she explains.

No pain, no gain

Just because these students are currently benefitting from Northeastern's co-op program -- which can provide up to 18 months of professional experience with 600 engineering employers across 33 states and around the globe -- doesn’t mean they didn't work hard to get their jobs.

"People are scared of the curriculum and basically to be an engineer you study hard and you aren't the richest person in the room," Mistry says. "Maybe there is money to be made elsewhere, but a person that goes into an engineering field doesn't just like to learn new things, they need to be constantly expanding their knowledge and that can be intimidating."

Richardson and Passino concur, saying many might steer clear of engineering because of the difficulty factor involved.

"You're always doing homework and you are always putting in long hours, but it pays off," Passino says. With a co-op program such as Northeastern's, Richardson says the hard work will pay off. "I chose this school for the co-op. Northeastern starts us early in the workforce and I feel I already have a lot of connections," she says.

For Mistry, the hard work he is doing now will pay off for years to come.

"When I entered college I didn't know exactly the field I wanted to pursue, but I wanted to be a pilot so my best alternative is studying math and science," Mistry says. "Right now I'm going through 5 years of intense math and science classes but I know in the end, I will be doing very interesting work, not too many people get to say that. Joining a group of engineers is something to be very proud of -- engineers can change the world."