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A Soul-Searching Superhero

Finding the connection between work and passion can be an engineer's greatest challenge. Or it can be as easy as sitting in a tree.

Nina Simon '02 graduated in December with a degree in electrical engineering and a minor in mathematical sciences. She spent February performing her poetry on an East Coast tour and is now breaking into the world of interactive museums--legally. She is working at several eastern Massachusetts institutions, including the Museum of Science in Boston.

By Carol Cambo

For Halloween, I was a sorry superhero. My best friend and I made capes, briefs and wristbands, but I just wasn't feeling the power. I'd spent A-term in Maryland doing my major project at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and returned to school unsettled. Superheroes don't get confused. Superheroes are supposed to be busy saving the world, not karate-chopping inner conflict. I dragged myself to class, half-heartedly fluttering my cape when things looked grim.

I've spent the past four years believing in the potential of socially responsible, creative engineering. In many ways NASA is the ideal: teams of researchers proving that the sky has no limits. My major project was challenging. It dealt with improving remote soil moisture mapping. Soil mapping benefits environmentalists working to regulate and sustain ecosystems. My passion for the superhero-world-saving big picture shrank into lines of MATLAB code. In my work, soil moisture was extraneous. Syntax ruled my brain. While I mapped and coded, I had this vague feeling that Science (capital "S" world-improving Science) was happening around me, but I didn't feel connected to the experience. I had forgotten the cardinal rule of superheroes--whenever one's in trouble, there's always reinforcement.

The Power of One, a new WPI student group, swept onto campus this year with energy for activism unprecedented in my experience in Worcester. They must have sensed my superpowers were waning, because on Halloween they brought in one of the nation's top superheroes.

Julia Butterfly Hill had spent two years of her life atop Luna, a one-thousand-year-old redwood tree in Northern California. While in Luna, Hill lobbied for the protection of redwood forests from logging. After two years, she succeeded and ensured Luna's freedom to keep growing.

Hill's speech knocked me out of my malaise. She explained that she is just a normal person who was confused and had the time to sit in a tree. She believes there is nothing special about activism, that it is merely a form of intentional living.

The next week I talked with my advisor, Dave Cyganski, about Hill's speech. I told him that I enjoy engineering, but I need to find a way to apply it meaningfully, in a way that advances values that are important to me. He said, "Look, if you want to help the environment, and the only skill you have is the ability to sit in a tree, you should do that. But if you have the ability to develop a new kind of paper that doesn't come from trees, so no one has to chop down trees, so no one has to sit in trees, then DO THAT."

Even as I graduate, I wrestle with the biggest question facing engineering students today--finding ways to apply our abilities to our passions. There's no guidebook for graduates that says this technology will feed bombs and that one will save lives. Often enough, a single technology does both. Do equations clean up the air? Can petri dishes empty our prisons? In fact, they do.

The challenges Julia Butterfly Hill met while tree-sitting are analogous to those in the engineering world. My mentors at NASA are confident that their work affects the environment, but sometimes they must feel like human calculators toiling in their labs, disconnected from the results of their work. I'm sure Hill had days when she felt useless and ridiculous up in her tree, when her conviction faltered. But she stayed in its branches and made a difference, just as my mentors keep experimenting. They all have found a way to embrace the importance of their own contributions, regardless of scope.

I still feel confused sometimes, like there's a seesaw in my head, and I'm rocking back and forth between meaning and work. The fulcrum rests on my values, and my passion to make a difference. I am looking for the balance between foam-padded labs and redwood trees. If all else fails, I know I'll always have my cape.

—Nina Simon '02

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Last modified: Sep 02, 2004, 12:07 EDT
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