Julia Phillips

Julia Phillips

Director: Phys., Chem., and Nano Sciences Center
Sandia National Laboratories
Julia Phillips
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Answers by Dr. Julia Phillips

Cristina--  It’s great to hear about your broad interest in engineering!  I think it’s a great idea to branch out beyond your mechanical engineering major to explore other fields that interest you.  Jobs today, and forefront research, as well, are increasingly interdisciplinary, so one needs  some knowledge of multiple fields to tackle most of today’s most interesting and pressing problems.  If you like both mechanical and chemical engineering, you might also like bioengineering or biomedical engineering, so you might give some thought to taking a course to get some exposure in that general area, as well.  As for your specific question about starting a Chemical E. major: if you continue to enjoy the courses for this major as much as the Mechanical E. courses, by all means start that major.  Even you don’t finish the entire course, you will have demonstrated your interest and aptitude in a second field, which will be good both for your job search and for graduate school, should you choose to head in that direction.

             There are so many directions that could make use of both mechanical and chemical engineering.  One example is nanotechnology, which is where so many different science and engineering disciplines come together.  Medical devices is another idea.  Really, pretty much anything that has the potential to involve design of structures, flow of fluids or gases, and chemical reactions involves aspects of both fields.

             Another bit of advice:  If you have not already done so, it would be a great idea to do an internship in a company – really, any company that is interested in either of these majors – to get an idea of the sorts of jobs that people with your background do.  This would help you understand what you do and don’t like about work in a particular industry.  It could also help you understand what kind of job you might be able to get with an undergraduate degree.  Your supervisor and mentors could help you further refine your thoughts about specific courses and discuss different possible career paths with you.  And, very importantly, you may make some important connections that could help with your job search after you finish your education.

Hi Ella, Claire, Gracie and Alexandra,

Thanks for your question – it’s a good one! There are challenges in doing pretty much anything that is worthwhile, and engineering is no exception. I think that one of the most important things is to keep at it, even when it’s hard. Have you ever had a homework problem or a project that was SO hard that you didn’t think you could ever finish it? And then when you did, you felt SO good – like you were on top of the world. That’s sort of like what I’ve always found both fun and challenging about engineering – there are lots of hard problems, but with hard work, perseverance, and working with the right team, you can accomplish really big important goals. Some of the ingredients of success are to build a really good foundation of math and science skills, to practice never giving up, and to learn that you don’t have to solve problems all by yourself. Today, you can work with your classmates (two or more heads are better than one), and your teachers are there to help. In the future, you will have colleagues with whom you can work, share ideas, and solve important problems together.

Good luck!


Hi Dee! Thanks for your questions. Youve asked some good ones, and none of them has a single answer. That said, heres my perspective on each of them: 1. My thoughts about this question emphasize one of the things that I think is so great about engineering it is incredibly varied. My career has had many stages, and some of them have required more math than others. The last time I used a LOT of math was in graduate school, mostly in classes. Since then, my work has involved lots of work in the laboratory, lots of critical thinking and experimentation, and more recently, working with lots of people in large teams and organizations. My work has not required that I do a lot of math per se. There are engineers who do a LOT of math, either to model something such as a process or to understand a phenomenon in terms of fundamental principles. While I have not done a lot of math since graduate school, I wouldnt say that the bulk of my work has been thinking-of-ideas-related, either. Instead, my own work has been at the boundary between science and engineering, where I have spent a lot of time understanding a tiny aspect of how the world works (in my case, in materials science and engineering) so that I can then identify new materials and structures to meet a particular need. Clearly, I am thinking of ideas all the time, but then I need to evaluate those ideas to select which ones are the most interesting and most likely to pay off, and then I need to test those ideas by talking to people, doing experiments, developing models (which may involve math), etc. to see if they are valid. The fact that I dont use a lot of math every day does NOT mean that math is not valuable in my job it is. I need to be able to understand models and theories (developed by others) that affect my work, for example, by suggesting fruitful directions for my experiments. I need to be able to evaluate, at least to some degree, mathematical papers in my field so that I can determine whether or not they are relevant and, in some cases, even right. The ability to do math and think mathematically imposes discipline and logical thinking that is essential in all engineering, whether or not you are doing a lot of mathematics yourself. 2. As a general rule, it is extremely valuable to be able to express yourself clearly in both speaking and writing. It is also important to have good interpersonal skills so that you can work well in teams and, when appropriate, lead them. If you can do these things, then you will be able to clearly explain your ideas and your work, you will be a key contributor to group efforts, and people will be able to see how good your work is. You will also benefit from being able to speak up clearly so that your ideas and thoughts are heard and understood. Volunteering for tasks and assignments will give you an opportunity to show what you can do and will demonstrate your initiative, and going the extra mile to deliver outstandingly on your assignments will show that you are far from an ordinary employee. These are all things that will help you stand out from the crowd and get you recognized for what you can give to your employer. This is, in my opinion, not being a salesperson in the usual sense of the word. It is, however, the best way to sell yourself as a key, exceptional employee. I think it is what you would want to do to excel in any job, be it in engineering or in some other field. 3. There is really no one answer to this one, since not everybody finds the same things to be difficult. As you go beyond your first year of engineering, your classes will become more focused in particular areas, and you will start to have a bit more flexibility to choose the ones that are most interesting to you. They will get harder in the sense that you could not be able to do well in them without having taken the introductory classes that you are taking now. But if you are well prepared, they will likely be little, if any harder than what you are taking now. The most important points are to: (1) keep up in each of your classes, not waiting until the end to do all of the work; (2) get help from your teacher, TA, or other students early if you are having trouble in a class so that you dont get too far behind; (3) concentrate in an area of engineering that really interests you. I hope that you find these answers helpful.