ENGINEERING NEWS

McCormick Seniors Graduate Amid Convocations and Speeches

More than 360 undergraduate students graduated from the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science on June 18 in a flurry of celebrations and speeches from a comedian and a president of a space exploration company.

The 2011 graduation ceremonies began Friday morning, when a record number of attendees participated in Northwestern’s 153rd commencement, which was highlighted by a speech by TV host and comedian Stephen Colbert.

Festivities continued for McCormick School of Engineering undergraduates on Saturday at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Julio Ottino, dean of McCormick, thanked the class of 2011 for the legacy it leaves behind, including many new student groups started over the past four years.

“The Class of 2011 helped transform the school and how it projects outward to the University community and the world,” Ottino says. “Their work has had impact both globally and locally. With a McCormick education that has prepared them with superior technical and analytical skills, as well as a basis in design, entrepreneurship, and leadership, it will be exciting to see where they go from here.”

At the ceremony, three teams of students were awarded the McCormick Prize, which is modeled after the Margaret and Muir Frey Memorial Prize for Innovation and Creativity, established by the late Donald Frey in 2002.  The McCormick Prize competition recognizes the senior who submits the best insightful, innovative, and/or creative project. 

Winners of the prize include:

First prize: Novel Materials for Sustainability & Energy-Based Applications Enabled by Solid-State Shear Pulverization

Student: Alexander Millard-Swan

Faculty adviser: John Torkelson


Second prize: Surgical Suction AID (Adjustable Intermediary Device)

Students: Ellen Abrams, Eric West, Kathryn Wittman

Faculty adviser: Wei Chen

Third prize: SIMenta: A placenta simulator for improving reproductive health
Students: Caroline Lourgos, Kevin Li, John Lin, Tina Chaudhry
Faculty advisers: Dave Kelso, Guillermo Ameer

The keynote speaker at the ceremony was Gwynne Shotwell, who has a BS in mechanical engineering and an MS in applied mathematics from McCormick and is now the president of SpaceX, a leading space transport company. In her speech, Shotwell recounted two events that changed her life: her mother dragging her to a Society of Women Engineers event at age 16, and going out to lunch with a colleague nine years ago.

The first event was a panel of female engineers, which Shotwell was prepared to dislike. Instead, she watched as a panelist who came in late dashed up to the stage.

“Not only was she so bold as to be late, but her suit was fabulous,” she said. “She had my attention.  So I listened and I was interested and I started understanding what engineers did… As of that afternoon, I knew I would be a mechanical engineer.”

The second event was when Gwynne went out to lunch with a former coworker who left their company to work for SpaceX. When she went to pick him up she was introduced to SpaceX founder Elon Musk.

“I stunningly and randomly but pleasantly blurted out, ‘You really need a good business developer,’” she said. She interviewed for the vice president of business development position that afternoon, and a few years later was named president.

“Life is random and you can miss out on the richness that it can offer by fighting the randomness,” she said. “Dealing with random is hard for engineers. We want to find answers and create certainty, and if we cannot have certainty we want to understand the risks to better understand the uncertainty, to try yet one more time to gain certainty... Don’t be afraid to make decisions based on imperfect data and unknown outcomes. Accommodate random.”


Read the full text of Shotwell’s commencement address below:


Good morning to each of you: distinguished faculty, families and friends of the graduates, and, most importantly, to you, class of 2011 the reason for our celebrating today.

Thank you Dean Ottino and President Schapiro for inviting me to speak at this commencement—this turns out to be a pretty special time for me as I was sitting where you are exactly 25 years ago. 

Commencement ceremonies always feel like celebrations of finishing.  I recall celebrating an end to the joys of undergraduate life such as homework, finals and all-nighters. But we are supposed to be celebrating your beginning.

I am obviously honored to celebrate this beginning with you but in all candor, I had no idea what to say.  In the infamous words of Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale, “Who am I? Why am I here?” These words of uncertainty helped him and Ross Perot lose the 1992 presidential election, but happily I am not running for public office. 

So back to not knowing what to say:  what does one do when one is faced with uncertainty—one Googles.  So I literally Googled “what one should say in a commencement speech”.  And the Google boys told me that I am supposed to usher you into the “real world” with a combination of wit, substance, and self-love.
I will skip any self-love but highlight:
•    Love for my country—it is the greatest one—and it is now your responsibility to keep it so;
•    Love for my family
•    and love for what I do and the company that I do it for—namely SpaceX. You need to strive hard to find a company where this can be true for you.  (note the shameless marketing)

That aside, I will attempt to remain faithful to wisdom of Google in giving a commencement speech with my low form of wit and hopefully a little bit of substance.  So here I begin the ushering. 

I would like to share two life stories that when looking back have been pivotal.  They seem random, but there are great similarities to them and certainly one conclusion that I have drawn from them and want to share with you.
I will title and introduce them here so you can decide which, if either, you want to listen to.

Story number one: How I decided to become an engineer (otherwise known as what I did 31 summers ago)

Story number two: How I became President of SpaceX (also known as the infamous lunch with Dr. Hans Koenigsmann)

So let’s begin Story number 1— How I decided to become an engineer.

One day during my sophomore year at Libertyville High school—I was thinking that I was headed to cheerleading practice on a Saturday morning.  My mother informed me that instead, she was driving me to the Illinois Institute of Technology.   Now this really sounded appealing to me, a 16 year old football cheerleader.  Better yet, she told me I would be listening to a group of Women speak about being an engineer (this was a Society of Women Engineers event).  Keep in mind—though I was a good student—I was completely unclear about what an engineer did (other than drive trains of course) In an understatement, I was irritated. I realized that had little choice, so I sat sullenly all through the drive to IIT and also through the beginning of the festivities. I was not enthusiastic. However, at the very last second before the speakers were about to begin in earnest, an energetic woman ran up to the dais and took her seat.  Not only was she so bold as to be late, but her suit was fabulous. She had my attention. So I listened and I was interested and I started understanding what engineers did. That afternoon, I understood that engineers create things; they analyze things and they try to get to the heart of the how and why of things.

After the discussion I ran up to her and introduced myself. She was a mechanical engineer and owned her own company—more of a materials research company (that leveraged engineering and analytical techniques to develop green building materials). She was focused on thermal properties of materials and also developing solar/thermal applications for the home. As of that afternoon, I knew I would be a mechanical engineer. I never deviated from that, I applied to only one engineering school (Northwestern) focused on heat transfer (later became a thermal weenie as it is known in the space biz) and I wouldn’t change this decision for anything in the world.

Before I begin story number 2, I want to take an aside here and highlight very briefly one critical benefit of the whole brain approach to engineering that Dean Ottino developed and fosters.  What comes as a shock to many is to find that physics is negotiable in the workplace.  And if you cannot communicate your methods and innovations, then you will find that you and your ideas get left behind.  

Story number 2— How I became president of a company called SpaceX

One of my closest friends and a colleague had recently left the company that we worked at to go work for a startup rocket company called SpaceX   

Back to the story. We had arranged to go to lunch to catch up after his leaving. I went to pick him up and as we were leaving his office, I was introduced to Elon Musk. Understanding this was the founder of Paypal, and one of the greatest technical and business minds of our time in addition to his being the CEO and founder of said startup rocket company—I shook his hand to introduce myself. I stunningly and randomly but pleasantly blurted out, "You really need a good business developer.” Well, after lunch when I was back at the office, my phone rang and it was Elon’s assistant, Mary Beth, asking if I would be interested in interviewing for the brand new Vice President of Business Development position.

I was to be travelling the next few days so I was trying to arrange something for the following week.  She insisted that sooner was better than later and that I come over that afternoon. Well I interviewed and it went well.  And though I initially fought the idea of joining this endeavor (I was at the time a “part time” single mother and was behaving like a traditional engineer, overanalyzing, slaving over the decision and generally behaving in an annoying fashion)—I came to my senses and leaped at the opportunity.  After a few years in that position, I was named president. And it has been an extraordinary adventure ever since. 

So what am I trying to convey here with these two silly stories?
•    That IIT on a Saturday afternoon is an inspiring place to be?
•    That taking someone out to lunch will help launch your career?

Actually I was thinking more that the conclusion to be drawn here is that life is random and you can miss out on the richness that it can offer by fighting the randomness. After all—I was fighting my mother that Saturday afternoon listening to those women who were so generous with their time speaking to me and a group of high school girls. They helped to convince at least me that engineering is both acceptable and a fascinating career path.  I also fought (and this really amazes me when looking back) taking the risk and joining the extraordinary company where I currently work—a company that is literally changing the world.

Dealing with random is hard for engineers. We want to find answers and create certainty and if we cannot have certainty we want to understand the risks to better understand the uncertainty—to try yet one more time to gain certainty.  So I guess I am saying here is be a great engineer, but just don’t act like one .

I will now leave you with two simple pieces of advice:

#1: Leap at seemingly crazy opportunities; don’t be afraid to make decisions based on imperfect data and unknown outcomes. Accommodate random.

And #2: (And this is completely random)  Be generous. Life is not about you as an individual. It is about the greatness that you as an individual leave in your wake.

So congratulations and go start making your wake.