Forthcoming: Interview With a Mechanical Engineer at Yale

The next Forthcoming interview is with Kristen Henry.

Kristen Henry with 3D printed ukelele

Kristen is a senior at Yale majoring in Mechanical Engineering. She graduated from public high school in New York. Now she is involved with Club Volleyball, Yale Undergraduate Aerospace Association, Yale Launch, Yale Students for Christ, does research in a soft robotics lab, and works on her own startups.

Outside of her official commitments at school, Kristen is a 3D printing queen (which we’ll get into in the interview) and never ceases to amaze me with what she can build. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I wanna take you all the way back to when you were applying to Yale. Why did you apply? Did you apply a bunch of top tier schools? Is that normal for your high school context?

So my public high school in New York has been on a one-person-goes-to-an-Ivy-League-every-other-year-track for a while. I applied to quite a few of the Ivy Leagues, MIT, Johns Hopkins,

RPI, and some other technical schools as well. Originally, I was planning on coming in as biomedical engineering and pre-med. So I had a pretty good variety of places I applied to.

You applied as a prospective STEM major, and something I’ve always wondered is do you feel like your personal statements mattered a lot? I applied as a prospective English major, so to me, personal statements were essentially a writing sample. It matters a lot if you can string words together if you want to major in English, but I feel like it maybe matters less if you want to major in something STEM?

I think it still matters a lot just in terms of creativity. A personal statement is a chance to be creative with the way you portray yourself. In high school, I really loved every subject. I was really unsure what I even wanted to apply to. But I decided that engineering was the way to go because it kind of encapsulates a lot of different fields and subjects on one. So even though I love English, history, and a variety of other subjects, I really like engineering because it combines math and science and also allows me to use my English skills. But yeah, I think the personal statement is still a very good chance to creatively show what your interests are. Maybe the writing itself isn’t as vital as for an English major, but I think it’s still super important.

Do you remember what you wrote your common app about?

Yeah, so I actually wrote mine about sprinkles. I worked at an ice cream shop for six years. The main theme was failure because it was and still is my biggest fear. I wrote about a time when we were about to close and some customer came and asked for an extremely large and expensive ice cream. And I put the wrong flavor of sprinkles on it. I put rainbow sprinkles instead of chocolate, and they refused to take it. I wrote about that in the context of failure.

Is there anything that you did in high school that you feel like made a difference for you in college?

I’ve had a consistently busy schedule all throughout college, and I think I was the same in high school. I really love doing a variety of things—if I think it adds value to my life, I do it. But sometimes I sign up for too many things, and though I truly enjoy doing those things, it can be too much to handle.

In high school, I started gaining the ability to manage a bunch of different tasks, classes, extracurriculars, and friendships. I also learned how important it is to really care about everything you’re doing. It’s exponentially easier to be running back and forth from event to event if you’re enjoying yourself at all of them. If you have a packed day of things you don’t like, that’s super draining.

Do you have any tips on time management then?

I went through this kind of crazy phase in college where I picked up so many things that I was like ‘I’m going to Gcal every minute of my day to try to find optimal productivity. That didn’t work whatsoever. I was consistently off schedule. When you schedule things down to like 15 minutes of what you’re planning to do, it doesn’t work out. So I would not suggest that. 

Be good about knowing all your events, and scheduling all your events, but make sure you’re taking care of yourself. It’s very easy than to lose sleep if you’re doing so many events and not having a healthy schedule. Sleep and taking care of yourself is actually investing in your future productivity. The better you are about that, the more productive you can be later on.

So you mentioned that you came in as biomedical engineering and pre-med. What made you drop pre-med?

I was pre-med for my whole first year of college. There was a brief second where I thought I should be an environmental engineer and architect followed by me deciding to be a mechanical engineer. 

I switched to mechanical engineering not so much because I didn’t like what I was doing before. I realized I didn’t want to be in a lab the rest of my life. That’s what I was afraid I would get with a combination of biomedical engineering and pre-med. I really like hands-on work, working with people, and inventing things. Mechanical Engineering was a great opportunity to do that. 

I actually took a first year seminar called “See it, Change it, Make it” in which I was introduced to 3D printing. I absolutely fell in love with it, and I decided I wanted to 3D print and invent things.

Let’s talk about 3D printing. It’s so easy to take a class and not really use the things you learned afterward. How did you continue 3D printing after the class was over?

I’m just so excited about 3D printing. You create something in a software. It’s essentially dragging shapes and converting the shapes from two dimensions to three dimensions. Then you export that into a slicing software that basically tells the 3D printer where to go, what to do, and how much infill to include. You put it in a USB into the 3D printer, press a button, and then many hours later your thing is created.

I remember the first assignment we had in the class was to create a 3D model of old campus and print it. I looked at Google Maps aerial views and tried to get everything right, and I spent so long on the assignment cuz I thought it was so cool. The rest of my classmates were like ‘why is this girl spending so much time and effort on this?’ But I just thought it was amazing and super useful.

high rise glass building

Now in my home, if we need a doorstop, I’ll 3D print one. If we need a drainer for the sink, no problem, I’ll print that up real fast. It’s the world at your fingertips. I also 3D printed myself a ukulele over the summer because I want to learn ukulele and didn’t want to buy one. It’s so cool to be that like a piece of plastic, when printed in the right way can sound the same…well almost the same…as like a handmade beautiful wooden ukulele.

For my senior project. I’m actually working with my team to build a 3D printer to 3D print concrete for prototype houses. We’re working on diving into the additive manufacturing world of construction. 

Studying STEM at Yale feels like a different vibe and experience than the humanities. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that. There seem to be more required classes, do you think it takes away from the liberal arts experience?

I think it definitely does. I’m in a unique position, though of doing ABET Mechanical Engineering after a year of pre-med requirements. My schedule was even crazier than the typical amount of classes by far. For ABET Mechanical Engineering, there are 28 requirements.Most majors at Yale are 14 or less, 

SP: Yeah, mine is 12. 

So I walked into having to complete 28 core requirements, after already taking a year of

10 and a half credits of STEM things that didn’t even contribute towards my mechanical engineering degree. I haven’t really had time to take classes outside of distributional requirements or the major. 

A great way around that studying abroad last year, which was so much fun and so great.  It was both a humanities and social science credit, so that definitely helps towards the distribution requirements. 

This fall, my senior fall is the first semester I have taken less than five classes, and it’s wonderful. I really recommend four classes. One class I’m taking now is photography, which I don’t need for any requirement. I’m just taking for fun.

I’ve asked people how they pick classes, but since your requirements are so rigid, how do you get through a class you hate?

Such an excellent question. One class I took last year essentially required 20 to 30 hour lab reports every week outside of class and lab time. I really love doing hands-on work but this class is extremely theoretical. The 20 to 30 hours of work a week, mostly included calculations and theoretically reasoning through very difficult topics. It can be interesting, but it certainly was not my favorite thing to do, and took far too much time, given my other difficult theoretical classes during the week. 

The one thing that I really liked that came out of it was I got so much closer to my mechanical engineering peers. Many all-nighters were pulled in the CEID together. Though there wasn’t much we could do to improve the class, I really got close with my peers and learned a lot about persistence and working through things you don’t always like. 

I also tried to find aspects of the class that I did enjoy. I’m willing to put in as much work into anything that I need to as long as there’s a purpose. So I really tried to hone in on the topics and specific parts of labs that I thought were most interesting and tried to think how I could apply the material instead of just doing a class for the grade. Generally people think that if you work hard in a class to get a good grade, then you have certainly learned the material.

But I don’t think that’s always true- especially in engineering. Memorizing information for a test and then promptly forgetting it is not the same as internalizing the material for future use in applicable ways. Holding up a transcript with four A’s on it won’t build you an engine, but if you really try to figure out ways to apply tangible thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, strength and deformation, and machine elements knowledge, you can build actual things with that. 

In Education Studies, we talk a lot about the “hidden curriculum” which is the set of social expectations and practices that often go unsaid in higher education contexts. Some things, how to act in office hours, are universal regardless of major, but what do you think is the “hidden curriculum” in engineering?

I’d say coming into engineering, probably the biggest differentiator between people was math knowledge. I went to a high school where the furthest Advanced Math we had was AP Calc.  A lot of people in my classes had differential equations or multivariable calculus or linear algebra. I had no idea what those classes were about. I’d never seen any of that stuff. Coming into engineering, there’s a lot of math stuff that you need to know in order to be able to do problems. In some cases, if you don’t know, you won’t be able to do the problems at all. 

In some cases, they’re like, ‘Oh, you don’t need to know this.’ It’s fine if you don’t but you can do the problem much more efficiently with the math knowledge that some people just didn’t have.

How do you navigate your own lack of prior knowledge?

I just took it upon myself to learn as much math as I could. I feel like there is some sort of hidden High School disadvantage based on how STEM-y your high school was for really the first year of college. After you take some of the core math courses, it starts to even out, but I just had to put a little effort into learning things on my own. 

so In the core math courses they see.

Math is tough because I personally have never found a riveting math textbook to read. A lot of it is just doing practice problems over and over again. I look at how how other people did those problems and amend the way I do it. In most classes, reading textbooks is a good plan, but for math, it was just practice.

What advice do you wish someone else had given you before you started college?

I think a very important thing that people don’t often tell you is just to be kind to yourself. Burnout is so so real. If you never give yourself a break, there’s a good chance that you will break, which is very much not a good thing. College is a lot tougher than high school and imposter syndrome is definitely real and it affects a lot of people for the first time in college.

When you’re feeling like you’re not doing things as well as you want to or as well as some of your peers are, it’s so important to not beat yourself up about it, take care of yourself, sleep rather than pulling all nighters in an attempt to just work harder.

I have not been good about that through college. But this year, my sleep schedule is so much healthier, and I’m so much happier. Don’t ever feel guilty for spending time with friends and enjoying yourself because leaving time for that is super necessary. As I mentioned earlier, you’re a lot more productive when you’re happy and healthy. So think of fun breaks as investing in your future self and future productivity.

Key Takeaways:

It’s okay to drop pre-med!

Kind of related to Angela’s advice in the last interview, it’s okay to change your mind when you have more information. It’s not too late. 

If you find yourself in a required class you hate, focus on the useful/interesting topics throughout the semester and invest in friendships throughout the semester.

Unfortunately, you’ll probably have to take at least one required class you don’t like. I took a foundational linguistics class my sophomore year that I just didn’t understand and often disagreed with. But Shayley and I studied together a lot and figured it out together. Framing the topic in terms of how it would apply to my future research was helpful motivation to study. 

Sleep and give yourself grace

I love Kristen’s idea that breaks and self care are investing in your future self and your future productivity. It’s been my experience that powering through can only get you so far, and after the third consecutive hour of working on something for class, I’m actually better off taking a short break.

Kristen’s interview is part of a series called Forthcoming which features young people reflecting on their educational/extracurricular experiences.

If you’d like to be interviewed for Forthcoming, please fill out the form at the bottom of this post. If you have questions or suggestions for future interviews, please get in touch here!

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