Alum Michael Aronson Expands His Horizons

Michael Aronson

Students always feel like they're running out of time: They have to make the most of their four years before they enter the professional world. However, alum Michael Aronson feels that students should prioritize rest and pursue ventures outside their immediate area of study. 

He credits the CEE program for instilling in him the value of interdisciplinary understanding that has been essential to his work as a project engineer at Thornton Tomasetti. 


1) You graduated with both a B.S. and M.S.: Why did you choose Northwestern to pursue your degrees?   

When it came time to apply to college, I knew that I wanted to study the design of the built environment in some capacity. However, this encompasses a ton of different fields: architecture, construction, many different types of engineering, and so on. At that point in my life, I had no way of knowing which of these fields specifically would be the best fit for me. Moreover, I held (and still hold) a lot of interests that didn’t really coalesce into a single traditional academic discipline. I have two engineering degrees, so STEM-related studies have clearly always appealed to me, but I also derive a lot of enjoyment from other subjects as far-flung as language study and fine arts.

This is all to say that I was looking for universities with programs that emphasized the seemingly opposite values of preprofessional training and academic breadth, and Northwestern’s engineering school offered one of the very few programs that fit the bill. NU’s unique approach to engineering education acknowledges that the most successful engineers are not siloed technicians but interdisciplinary collaborators. I was able to take classes in not only adjacent engineering fields but also subjects that are not traditionally considered a part of engineering education at all—including architecture design studios and classes in linguistics and art history.

I stuck around after receiving my BS to complete a master’s degree largely for practical reasons. In structural engineering specifically, a master’s degree is part of the path of least resistance for getting a job with many firms and staying at Northwestern made it easy to get it done quickly and cheaply by allowing me to start the required coursework during my undergrad.

2) Can you recall a moment from your time at Northwestern that impacted or inspired you?   

Northwestern’s idea that involvement with disciplines outside one’s own major is academically and personally valuable was a philosophy that extended outside the classroom; I felt encouraged to participate in a number of student organizations that had nothing to do with engineering.

One such organization was a quarterly late-night-style variety show that put students and faculty in front of a live audience for interviews, sketches, and talent demonstrations. I was brought on as the show’s sole graphic designer and was responsible for the production of marketing materials and in-show graphics. I was one of the organization’s original members and—partially out of necessity, partially out of trust—was granted the freedom to perform my duties with minimal oversight. 

Being a part of the creation of this show from scratch and seeing live the audience’s reactions to my work gave me immense confidence in my abilities as a graphic designer and artist more broadly. I’ve continued building out these skills since graduation and have been fortunate to win a few design competitions and get work exhibited in galleries; it’s unlikely I would have had these opportunities without this experience at NU.

3) What advice would you give to prospective students?   

Be intentional with how you spend your time. Especially at a place like Northwestern, it’s easy to feel like you always need to be “in motion”—but motion does not necessarily mean progress. Whenever you set goals for yourself, try and understand what it’s actually going to take to achieve those goals rather than defaulting to the same path it seems like everyone else is taking.

For example, it may not be necessary to have an internship every summer in order to land your dream position after graduation—a research opportunity or pursuit of a personal project may be more valuable to what you want to accomplish in the near future. I spent one summer doing geotechnical research; though pretty unrelated to the work I do now, that opportunity taught me the basics of research and how to write academically. I used those skills to get a structural engineering research fellowship the following year that was sponsored by Thornton Tomasetti, the company I ended up working for after graduation.

As another example, working the job fair circuit to the bone might not be as good a use of your time as attending one or two department-specific ones and spending some time networking and cold-calling. I got one of my summer positions by sending a thank-you letter at the end of the quarter to an adjunct professor who worked at a company I was interested in.

This is also not to say that all of your time needs to or should be spent actively working towards a goal. Our brains need time away from work to rest, of course, but also to digest thoughts and work through things in the background—rest is essential for any creative or intellectual process. In fact, I think there is value in maximizing time away from work, which makes it all the more important that the time spent working is spent intentionally.

4) What is your current position? Please describe the role that you play at your company:   

I am a project engineer at Thornton Tomasetti in the structural engineering practice. The projects I have worked on span many sectors but are mostly within aviation and commercial. The majority of my work utilizes steel as the main structural material, but I also have experience in other materials including concrete and load-bearing masonry. My daily responsibilities include the design of buildings’ overall structural systems; coordination between structure, architecture, and other building systems; review of contractors’ work and questions for projects under construction; and oversight of entry-level and early-career engineers performing technical work.

I have had the opportunity to work on some groundbreaking projects in my almost six years at the company. This includes a twenty-story building’s foundation containing the largest continuous concrete pour in New York City and a concept for a stadium roof that, if built, would have constituted the biggest dome in the world.

5) How do you feel that the CEE program prepared you for the professional world?   

Northwestern provided me with a uniquely well-rounded education for a STEM degree. Rather than solely providing expertise within my own immediate structural engineering domain, the CEE program instilled in me the interdisciplinary understanding that is so immensely important in the design of the built environment in the professional world. I feel I can metabolize and synthesize objectives from designers outside of my field in my work, enabling me to be a powerful team player, avert design issues before they occur, and generally practice more holistically.

6) What would you say is the biggest challenge you faced after graduating, and how did you overcome it?   

There is a tendency for recent graduates—myself included—to approach work in the professional world in the same way that they approach work in college. In school, especially in technically focused classes, the objective is to learn the material as thoroughly as possible. This means working through topics mostly by oneself (only asking for help when necessary), solving individual problems with a high degree of precision, and doing most work by hand. However, in industry, the objective is to get work done quickly and efficiently. This entails getting answers from your colleagues, simplifying and rationalizing problems, and heavy (yet responsible) reliance on technology to do certain day-to-day tasks.

I personally had—and still have—a lot of trouble controlling the “school mindset.” Ultimately, learning to tame this method of thinking requires trusting the expertise and objectives of my coworkers and broader design teams, which is itself an effort that requires active attention and learning.

7) What is one thing you are passionate about?

I remain extremely interested in the integration between engineering and architecture and believe that the idea of multi-disciplinary design is one of the crucial pieces of a more sustainable future for the built environment. Such an approach to design can lead to things that lower both the embodied and operational carbon of buildings—like lightweight structures and thermodynamically optimized forms that integrate with the architecture.

Though the disciplines of engineering and architecture are thoroughly intertwined, their commonalities are not always recognized in the process of building design. Though there have been a few architectural movements throughout history that have actively acknowledged this intersection—high-tech architecture being the most recent embodiment of prominence—it is not treated as orthodoxy in the way that the doctrines of some other architectural movements are.

The interdisciplinary training that Northwestern provided me has been invaluable even on projects where holistic design is not an explicit priority—evidence to me that honing in on this concept produces superior results. One of my goals in my career is to bring this principle to the forefront of the architectural conversation and get it acknowledged as a universal prerequisite for good design.

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