Like most engineering students, I have spent almost two years at Princeton learning the fundamental theory of my field. While the material is interesting, it can be difficult to imagine how the concepts can lead to practical applications in engineering, and some of the basics can begin to seem useless in the real world.
Thermodynamics is one of the fundamental Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) courses. It explores heat transfer and the relationship between heat and other types of energy. When I took the course last semester, I spent a large amount of time learning about heat pumps—cycles that move heat against its gradient (the way it “wants” to flow) from an area of low temperature to an area of high temperature. This process explains how comfortable temperatures are maintained in most living spaces. While the general application of the theory was clear to me, it seemed as if it would never be relevant to me. Fairly efficient air conditioners and heaters already exist and are unlikely to undergo a major overhaul in the near future, so why spend so much time learning the minutiae of how they work?
Throughout my academic life, I have always struggled to find a topic for open-ended assignments. Of course, the further along in my academic trajectory I get, the less strict the guidelines for each assignment become—and the more I struggle to find myself a topic. Coming up with research topics is, of course, critical to any researcher or student’s success—particularly when the culmination of our work as Princeton students is a nearly completely open-ended assignment: the thesis or independent project that each of us completes to graduate. So, I have learned to embrace my discomfort and use each new prompt as a way to hone my skills at successfully choosing topics.
In a continuation of last year’s seasonal series, this winter, each PCUR will interview a Princeton alumnus from their home department about his/her experience writing a senior thesis. In Looking Back on Undergraduate Research: Alumni Perspectives, the alumni reveal how conducting independent research at Princeton influenced them academically, professionally, and personally. Here, Alexandra shares her interview.
As part of our Seasonal Series, I had the opportunity to interview Masi Yamada ’94, a Mechanical and Aerospace Engineer (MAE). He is currently working as a Managing Director at J.P. Morgan Chase and offered insight about studying MAE and transferring that into the world of finance.
AK: Why did you choose to major in MAE?
MY: A lot of it was the generation I grew up in—as kids, we grew up seeing Star Wars and all those sorts of things; the space shuttle had been developed and there were a lot of engineering and economic resources being put towards defense and aerospace. The Cold War was still going on, so there was an ongoing buildup of arms and technology against the Russians. Back then, aerospace was viewed much like the startup and technology field is viewed now—that was where all the interesting tech jobs were.
I grew up thinking that I wanted to work at NASA—it was always my intention to go into the aerospace industry—but then reality set in. The Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989 and by the time we had graduated in ‘94, the aerospace and defense industry had been downsized and NASA’s budget was being cut. A few of us went on to graduate school, but the majority of us followed the classic Princeton path, going into finance and consulting because those were the companies that were recruiting very heavily at the time.