Career Advice from the Top of the STEM Profession
Shawn Wasserman posted on April 30, 2014 |
Take home messages from the USA Science & Engineering Festival.

Last week, at the USA Science and Engineering Festival, I had the honour to introduce some amazing STEM professionals who had wonderful career advice. Here are their top messages:

Do What You Love

Theodore Gray

Although this sounds trite, the people at the top of the engineering food chain exemplify this ethos.  For example, take Theodore Gray, co-founder of Wolfram Research, an organization famous for Mathematica and Wolfram/Alpha. Gray is also the Founder/CCO of Touch Press and a former columnist for popular science magazine.

However, Mr. Gray is perhaps best known for winning his Ig Nobel Prize (an award for improbable research) for his Periodic table table of elements. That’s right, Mr. Gray spent a summer collecting elements and placing them in a physical table! This project brought him notoriety, including a quirky kind of fame, and eventually led to the creation of apps, his book The Elements and his upcoming follow-up book Molecules.

The real message here is that sometimes hobbies can turn into something more. Though Mr. Gray is still gaining income from the computer world, his love for chemistry has blossomed into something more than a job and more than a hobby. When your work is play, you are laughing with life.

Find What You Love

Glen Whitney

Next up was Glen Whitney, a former hedge fund manager that gave it all up to ensure that our next generation will find a love for mathematics. He created the nation’s first national museum of mathematics, MoMath.

In his talk, Whitney performed an exciting interactive experiment where he was able to predict the patterns of colored paper the audience would hold up based on a few rules he gave us. Then he was able to demonstrate how the method could be expanded to turn the whole room into a giant computer made out of humans!

Whitney expressed that this demonstration, and many more at MoMath, are designed to pique the interest of our youth. These exhibits at MoMath show that everyone can find something in the world of mathematics to tweak their interest or drive a passion.

Fail for What You Love

Astronauts John Grunsfeld (Left) and Tom Jones (right).

Astronauts John Grunsfeld and Tom Jones expressed, through different narratives, that failure is good.

John spent 58 days and 8 spacewalks in space including three missions to service the Hubble space telescope. In that environment, with its thick instruction manual and lengthy checklists, one wrong turn of a bolt on Hubble could cost billions of taxpayer dollars. To create such a checklist takes dedication and a lot failure. If something goes wrong: write it down, figure it out, put it in the checklist and try it again. Failure was the key to mission success.

Tom told us about his journey to NASA starting with receiving a book on space flight written before man was even on the moon. Tom applied to NASA more than once and was turned down. However, he followed his passion, improved his qualifications and eventually was accepted. In the end, failure led to reassessment which (eventually) led to success. Nothing comes easy.

Fight for What You Love

Barrington Irving.

Arguably the most inspirational of all the speeches was from aviator Barrington Irving. He got himself into the Guinness book of records in 2007 as the youngest person and the first African American to fly solo around the world! Most shockingly, he did it without de-icers or weather radar and with only $30 in his pocket.

He realized this dream through his never-say-die spirit. This kid from the ‘wrong end of town’ visited air shows in search of sponsorships for his dream flight, all while wearing a pair of business shoes complete with 3 holes in the sole.

Eventually Irving decided to build his plane and sponsorships in parts and started by visiting an engine factory unannounced. He posed as a businessman and talked his way into the CEO’s office, where he gave a 5-minute elevator pitch for a free engine. It paid off, and started the plane that started the journey.

Design What You Love

David Schenone.

David Schenone is the Innovation Director at Nike. As an artist who loved to run, he found a way to marry his passions through design. He also made a full commitment to his career, taking up Ironman competitions to be closer to the customers who demand the best of Nike products. 

David closed his talk with a fitting Nike ad. It depicted a distant figure running towards the camera. Once close enough, the figure most assumed to be an athlete is revealed to be an overweight child. The message that we are all great and must find and strive to our greatness was flashed before our eyes. We must make our own futures.

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