Engineering Identity- Part 1 of Julia’s Engineering Journey

By Julia Thompson, Ph.D.

Excelling at math and sciences was embedded into my identity at a young age. On long car trips, my father would have me calculate the gas mileage and I would sit there plugging away until I figured it out.

Many people in our society believe that if you are good at math and science you are “left brained” and poor in reading, writing, and everything creative. In my life, this became a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. I struggled with spelling and reading and, instead of getting a tutor, it was seen as part of my identity. My parents and teachers seemed to accept it and shrug it off. Inside, I felt incompetent in these areas.

Early in college, my abilities in math were challenged when I failed my first calculus test. As shown in self-efficacy research, being identified as good at math and getting that poor grade pushed me to study harder. I got a B in that course, and then pretty much got all A’s in community college from then on. Once I completed my pre-reqs, I transferred to UC Berkeley for chemical engineering. I knew I liked chemistry, and I was thinking I could do something with renewable energy. Like many young women and men, I had a desire to make the world a better place through science and engineering.

Being a good engineering student was my identity, and I did well with it. The first semester there, I got on the honor roll. Yet, slowly I found myself assimilating to the chemical engineering culture. My initial desire for renewable energy was not initially re-enforced within my department, and within a few months I found myself applying for internships in energy companies, specifically oil refineries. This was something that went against many of my values.

Luckily, I didn’t find an internship that summer, and decided to travel Europe instead. During that trip, I met many interesting people along the way. I started to reflect on who I was and how I expressed my life. Being an engineering student was so central to my identity, I barely had anything else. I was not exploring my other interests and I was using my engineering studies as an excuse.

Once I returned to the US, I decided to change that. I started taking judo, signed up for ceramics and I joined a research group focused on bio-fuels. My grades dropped, but it was worth it. I was still an engineer, but I was so much more. From that point on, my life started to unfold in new ways I could not fathom previously. In the following posts I will attempt to re-capture some of the stories and my discoveries. I hope you stay tuned!

Personal Reflections on this Post

I was discussing with my partner some of my concerns of this post, and she suggested that I include this thought process here- so here you go.

For my first posts to this blog, I decided to write my journey and how my worldview in engineering transformed in undergraduate. This first post in particular I feel nervous for putting out there. I my inner critic is having a field day, – “I am too caught up with something that happened 10 years ago,” “it sounds too much like a personal statement,” “the link to spirituality is not clear,” and “you really shouldn’t be sharing this.”

However, this topic is too important to me not to. There is another part of me that believes that my story will resonate with others, create a bit of comfort in other’s journey, provide me a sense of healing, and start a wider conversation about engineering identity (and not just within academic circles).

I have wanted to share this story publicly for some time, and I recognize that some people will pick it apart while others will connect to it. I am dedicated to the conversation, and so I put one foot in front of another and post.

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3 thoughts on “Engineering Identity- Part 1 of Julia’s Engineering Journey

  1. Thanks for the post Julia! I can relate to much of what you experienced, including your hesitation to work in some of the areas that Chemical Engineering naturally leads to. I remember that the 2 classes I had in college which discussed ethics in science and engineering were 2 of my favorites (we had one of them together), but I heard so many others talk about what a waste of time those classes were. Advances in science and Engineering can change the world, but I worry that there aren’t enough people thinking about the consequences of what we create. So thank you for being one of those people!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comment Samantha! I am glad you like it and are following along. I remember that you always had an appreciation for the non-engineering. As I remember, you even worked at an after school program. Not too many engineers did that.

      Like

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