If You Can't Breathe
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Episode Show Notes
Engineer and professor Dr. Dave Allen speaks about what motivated him to get into the work that he does. Dave is the director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Resources (CEER) and Professor of Chemical Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin. He talks about his research interests in air quality, the life of a professor, engineering education in high school, and the importance of trying many things.
Our opening music comes from "School Zone (radio edit)" by The Honorable Sleaze. Our interlude music is from "When You Go" by Steve Combs. Our closing music is from "Late for School" by Bleeptor. All are used under Creative Commons Attribution Licenses: creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0
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The K12 Engineering Education Podcast
If You Can’t Breathe
[Pius Wong] This is The K12 Engineering Education Podcast for October 17, 2016.
[Pius] What is the story behind why a young person would go into engineering? I’m Pius Wong. I like to hear why different engineers get into the profession, especially engineers who’ve committed decades of their lives to their field. Recently I visited the office of one such engineer who shared some of his story.
[Dave Allen] My name’s Dave Allen. I’m a professor of chemical engineering at The University of Texas at Austin. I also direct an organization called The Center for Energy and Environmental Resources here at the university.
[Pius] So in addition to teaching undergraduate and graduate engineers as a professor, Dr. Dave Allen runs a research center of about a hundred people, and he does his own research, too, on energy and the environment, especially on air quality.
[Dave] And so one of the hats that I’ve worn over the years is as the Chairman of the Science Advisory Board of the US Environmental Protection Agency, so providing scientific advice to the federal government, specifically to the Environmental Protection Agency about the activities that they have underway.
[Pius] That work with the EPA is one of several examples of how Dave provides to communities. As you heard, the work of an engineering professor then consists of research, teaching, and service.
[Dave] So I’ve been a university professor since 1983, so it’s now 33 years, and I started as a university professor when I was 25 at UCLA. I worked at UCLA for 12 years, and then I moved to The University of Texas in 1995. I’ve been here for more than 20 years.
[Dave] Like many people who wind up being engineers, I was first pulled towards engineering because my father was an engineer, and I didn’t know my father well because he died when I was young, but still, the memory of him as an engineer was there, so it was always somewhat compelling. What might an engineer do? That’s what my father did.
[Pius] What kind of engineer?
[Dave] He was an electrical engineer.
[Dave] So initially I applied to college, and started in college as an electrical engineering major, but I found, as a freshman in college, I really loved chemistry. And so I coupled that with my desire to work on problems that are really important in society, and as I was just entering college, we were going through as a nation some pretty tough energy crises, imposed by geopolitical conditions, but nevertheless energy crises. And so I found I really liked chemistry, I liked the idea of solving very important problems that the world faced, and I was drawn into chemical engineering.
[Pius] And while Dave progressed through his undergraduate degree, he worked different jobs that showed him what he might do when he finished school.
[Dave] I worked a whole bunch of jobs as I was getting to the point of entering graduate school. You know, I was a janitor and cleaned toilets. I really didn’t like that. And so I decided I’d better get an engineering degree. And then as an engineer I went and did internships when I was getting my degree, and one time I worked in a petroleum refinery. So you’re in a big coverall suit, fire-proof, with a wrench in your back pocket, keeping the refinery running. Another time I was down on the US-Mexican border on a geothermal operation making sure that the relatively polluted water that we had to deal with didn’t clog up the geothermal formations. And then I was doing desk work designing processes that were going to be built around the world.
[Pius] Based on all these jobs he had while getting his Bachelor’s, Dave thought, maybe he’d go into the energy industry when he got out of school. It’s a classic industry for chemical engineers. But ultimately he decided to go to graduate school, first, at the California Institute of Technology.
[Dave] I still remember my first day at Los Angeles. It was 1979. And CalTech is located up against the mountains. North-Central Los Angeles in a community called Pasadena in California. And at the time, that was where you had the worst photochemical smog episodes. And my first day in Los Angeles, turns out, was the last day that was a third-stage smog alert in LA. So it was 100 degrees. There was a fire raging up on the local mountains, so it was raining down ashes, and photochemical smog.
[Pius] Is it the smog that makes the sunsets look really bright?
[Dave] Well, one of the things that smog does is make very red sunsets, but that’s – the health effects of air pollution is quite the price to pay for a beautiful sunset.
[Dave] In any case, I’d been an athlete in college running track and cross-country, and I’d thought as a graduate student I might continue my running career. And so it turned out that the CalTech cross-country team was having a race that day, the first day that I was in Los Angeles. I thought, well, they’re having a race. I’ll just jump in. And I ran about a hundred yards and doubled over and couldn’t stop coughing. And coughed for several days. And what struck me about that experience was that, if you can’t breathe, nothing else is important.
[Pius] And with that, the environment popped into Dave’s career path, too. It made sense, because, energy, one of the biggest businesses in the world, is deeply related to the environment. He explained how sources of air pollution and greenhouse gases globally are almost all related to energy: how you use it, and how you get it. Besides teaching university students, Dave also now works in engineering education for high school, and he talked about why.
[Dave] As a university professor, you’re involved in education over time, but in general it’s university students that you’re educating. But what has changed since the time I was a high school student is that there are now more students graduating from high school every year with a year or more of formal engineering education than there are university graduates, per year, in engineering. So what’s happening more and more is that students are getting their first exposure to engineering in high school. I didn’t have that opportunity as a high school student, but I think that it’s wonderful that students do. So when I first learned that this was happening at such a large scale, roughly a decade ago, I decided that I wanted to make whatever contribution I could to that. So for the last roughly ten years, we’ve been developing high school engineering courses and curricula. We’ve been distributing those all over the country, trying to give as accurate a picture as possible about what engineering is to high school students who may be considering engineering as a potential career. And also to make it as exciting as possible and as interesting as possible.
[Pius] Finally I asked Dave, if he could do his professional career all over again, would he do anything differently?
[Dave] Well the wonderful thing about being a university professor, and one of the things that attracted me to this pathway in the first place, was that you can continually reinvent yourself. So one of the reasons I decided to go to graduate school and get an advanced degree in engineering was because at the time I was studying engineering and getting my BS, most engineers worked in really large companies, and in a really large company I discovered even as I was doing jobs as an undergraduate, as an engineer, that you often didn’t have control over the projects that you would get assigned to. And it wasn’t entirely up to you, whereas at the time a career as a university professor allowed you the opportunity to work on whatever you wanted. Your research could be about whatever you wanted, whatever you thought was important. And so as a consequence, I’ve reinvented myself multiple times over my career, so my first half-dozen years as a university professor, I was doing largely energy-related projects. Then I did twenty-plus years of almost exclusively air quality projects. Then I brought them back together again and looked at the combination of energy and air quality projects. Then I got interested in secondary engineering education, and I went off and have put a lot of effort into that. So in this particular career I could continually reinvent myself without having to leave my job. That was the wonderful thing about a university position. You just follow your interests, whatever your interests are. And you don’t necessarily have to change jobs to have to do that. So reflecting back on that, I really don’t have any regrets. I’ve pursued the things that I’ve thought were important, and I’ve had the good fortune to be able to do that within the context of a single type of job. But there are many engineers out there who go and reinvent themselves and start doing new things that they become interested in and have career path changes that go through multiple types of applications.
[Pius] Even that first year in electrical engineering, you wouldn’t skip that?
[Dave] No, because the university that I went to introduced you as, or admitted you as a general engineer, and you didn’t need to officially make your decision about what type of engineer you would be until your sophomore year. So I didn’t have to go back and retrace any steps. But that sort of self-discovery, trying things, and finding out what you like and what you don’t like – that’s all really important to do.
[Dave] Would I go back and do anything different? No, it gave me a lot of confidence. I know what I like. I know what I don’t like. And I’m able to use a career in engineering and engineering education to do things that I really enjoy doing.
[Pius] Thank you to Dr. Dave Allen, Professor of Chemical Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, for speaking with me.
[Pius] If you have any feedback on today’s show, please send me a message by email or Twitter. And remember: if you haven’t yet, please subscribe and review the podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud, Facebook, or your favorite podcast platform. If you’re on Reddit, you can start conversations in the new subreddit /EngineeringEducation.
[Pius] The views expressed in this podcast are our own, and they’re not necessarily the opinions of any schools, companies, or other groups with which we might be connected. Our opening music comes from “School Zone” by The Honorable Sleaze. Our interlude music is from “When You Go” by Steve Combs. Our closing music is from “Late for School” by Bleeptor. All are used under Creative Commons Attribution Licenses. Thanks for listening, and please listen again.