Andrea Armani

Andrea Armani

Assoc Professor
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, CA, United States
Andrea Armani
Ask a Question:
Required field
Please note
The engineers who take the time to respond to student questions on this forum are often very busy and may not respond to some questions, particularly those that have been answered elsewhere. Please be sure to review previous questions and answers to see if your question may have already been addressed.
Enter the code shown: (only upper case)

Andrea Armani grew up in Memphis, TN. From there, she moved to Chicago, where she received her BA in physics from the University of Chicago (2001) and her PhD in applied physics with a minor in biology from the California Institute of Technology (2007). After spending a couple additional years at Caltech for her post-doc in biology and chemical engineering, she started her current position as the Fluor Early Career Chair of Engineering and an Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science and Electrical Engineering-Electrophysics in the Viterbi School of Engineering at the University of Southern California. Her research group, which includes undergraduate students, PhD students and post-docs, develops new types of optical devices (like lasers) and uses them to study how biological systems work. This research is very interdisciplinary and requires students to draw on all fields of science and engineering. Prof. Armani has received several awards and has been recognized by numerous agencies, including the ONR Young Investigator Award, Technology Review Top 35 Innovators under 35, USC Mellon Mentoring Award for Undergraduate Mentoring, NIH New Innovator Award, Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, Popular Science's Brilliant 10, World Economic Forum's Young Scientist Award, World Economic Forum's Young Global Leader, STS Forum Future Leader, and the Hanna Reisler Award for Mentoring. She spends her free time with her husband, her two dogs and her cat, and enjoys running in the Los Angeles area.
PhD in Applied Physics, California Institute of Technology; BA in Physics, University of Chicago
  • I am willing to be contacted by educators for possible speaking engagements in schools or in after school programs or summer camps.
  • I am willing to serve as science fair judge or other temporary volunteer at a local school.
  • I am willing to host a field trip to my place of employment.
  • I am willing to be interviewed by interested students via email.
Answers by Dr Andrea Armani

Thank you for asking an excellent question that I’m confident many other engineering students also struggle with.  It actually touches on a few different topics – many of which are the focus of a larger national debate about how undergraduates are trained to “be engineers”.

To start, it is really important to recognize that your undergraduate coursework is simply laying a foundation and giving you a basic skill set. What you do with that skill set is up to you.  For example, you mention programming. Many EE’s will have an entire career where all they do is program. Other EE’s will take a few classes in college, and (basically) never program again.  Essentially, not every course you take will be directly applicable to your final career. However, conversely, your career direction must be based on your academic background, at least initially. This brings up an obvious question: how do you know you’re in the right degree program, if you don’t like the classes?

Let’s start big picture: What do you want to do when you grow up?  I realize this is a very hard question.  So, perhaps think about the opposite – what don’t you want to do?  You’ve already identified that programming is out. What other topics do you truly dislike? Similarly what types of engineering activities do you really enjoy? For example, do you enjoy building or designing things? What part of the process – specifically – do you like? Are there jobs with descriptions similar to your interests? What degrees do these people have? Perhaps look at job listings or look on LinkedIn or other networking sites.

However, it is important to remember that even if you find your perfect degree program, there will always be that one course that you really dislike or that one semester when you really struggle.  During this time, you need a strong support system or network.  This can be comprised of friends, family, co-workers, and mentors. Really, anyone can be part of a support system because encouragement can take many different forms: ice cream after finals, career advice, study groups. But remember, the support system works best if the strength flows both ways.

Hi Dustin,

Fabulous question!  Unfortunately, yes, you will not be able to become an electrical engineer if the college/university does not offer that degree program.  However, that does not preclude you from taking classes at a local community college and then transferring later to a school that does offer such a degree.  Specifically, you would take classes at the community college and transfer the credits to the college/university.  This approach to obtaining a degree is becoming increasingly popular as the cost of higher education has increased.  Many community colleges even have programs which guarantee acceptance at colleges/universities, if the student maintains a minimum GPA and achieves a minimum SAT or ACT score.  If you decide to pursue this option, it is critical to consider the following: 1) the track record of the community college in placing students at universities, and 2) the courses which will be transferrable.  

Regarding career possibilities, there are so many that I can’t do all of them justice.  I’ll name a few to try to give you a sense of the diversity of your options.  Medical robotics is an emerging field.  This includes things like building robotic arms to enable less invasive surgery and faster healing times.  Other field, more related to military and security applications, is the development of automated bomb detection and destruction robots.  These can combine automated sensors for detection as well as robots for movement.  Finally, artificial prosthetics has made enormous advances over the past 5 years.  In just the past year, a robotic exoskeleton which enables people previously unable to walk was demonstrated.  This skeleton leverages robotics technology.   Therefore, EE, and robotics in particularly, truly has widespread impact.

Good luck!

This is a really good question, and it highlights a larger issue which needs to be discussed at a national level.  Namely - what role can online courses play in post-high school education, without decreasing the quality of the education.  For example, a freshman-level college math course could be taken online with minimal impact in educational benefit.  However, a senior-level engineering design course would be very different, simply because a design course involves lab work, which is not possible to replicate in a virtual environment. One of the main criteria that employers look for when hiring someone with a BS in engineering is hands-on or practical experience.  Therefore, someone whose degree was entirely online would be at a severe disadvantage after graduation.

This leads us back to your question: online vs. in class.  The answer - both.  It truly depends on the specific class.

I hope this helps and good luck!

Dear Amanda, This is a very good question, and depending on your year in school, a very timely one as well as applications to PhD programs are due relatively soon. Typically, in industry, the researchers who have PhDs are given the greatest amount of freedom, both in selecting and in managing their projects. Additionally, these researchers will also manage other researchers who will typically have bachelors or technical degrees. However, this freedom is not dependent on the field of engineering that you choose. In fact, to develop a truly innovative product, industry often brings together teams of engineers from different disciplines. For example, one of my colleagues who has a PhD and who works in the biotech industry manages a project which focuses on developing a new type of implantable device. These colleague and her co-workers have PhDs in bioengineering, electrical engineering, chemical engineering and mechanical engineering. I have other colleagues who work in the defense industry and who oversee the development of unmanned or robotic ground vehicles. These colleagues have PhDs in mechanical engineering, civil engineering, electrical engineering, and applied mathematics. If you think you might be interested in engineering, I would recommend participating in research in an engineering research lab at your school. Getting hands-on experience will help you decide if engineering is right for you and, if you decide to go to graduate school, it will strengthen your application. Best of luck! Andrea M Armani