Karen Law, ASME's 2012 New Face of Engineering, is a senior manager at TIAX LLC's office in Cupertino, CA. The company, which is headquartered in Massachusetts, works with government and private clients to assess the benefits and tradeoffs of cleaner vehicles, fuels, and infrastructure. As senior manager of TIAX's Northern California operations, Law performs engineering work that directly supports clean technology analyses and develops broader strategies, policies, and partnerships to deploy these technologies.
What's inside your engineer's notebook?
I'd describe my notebook as an organized record of meeting notes, brainstorms, random ideas, and to-do lists. I have a systematic way of marking things I need to do, and many of them are notes-to-self to look up or check certain information. In the course of the analysis work I do and the discussions I participate in, I often come across snippets of information, partially formed ideas, or vague ballpark figures that I like to remind myself to examine further. I'm often pleasantly surprised that the items I jot down in my notebook unexpectedly make their way into later conversations or analyses as useful pieces of information.
Whose notebook would you most like to peek into? Why?
Since engineering has become so interdisciplinary and such an intersection of ideas from all areas, I'll name two people who are not engineers in the strict sense but whose work embodies many of the elements I consider most critical to engineering. First, I would love to delve into Ben Franklin's notebook. While he was a printer by profession and later a statesman, his discipline and way of thinking about everyday problems, like designing a better fireplace and keeping residential streets clean, suggests that his thoughts on paper would be fascinating to read. Second would be U.S. Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu's notebook with his ideas on energy and climate change. As an influential Cabinet member with a formidable technical background, Secretary Chu epitomizes the application of science for tackling big, complex problems. This technical savvy combined with his level of responsibility make him someone whose thoughts I would very much like to engage in a candid, non-political way.
How and when did you know you wanted to become an engineer?
I had been interested in science and engineering when I entered college, and just before I declared biology as my major, I thought it would be a good idea to take an introductory engineering class, just to see what it was all about. The one that happened to be offered that quarter was "Introduction to Thermodynamics." I realized that I would become an engineer when, during the week of finals, I was dreaming of entropy equations and mulling over variables in my sleep. That class helped confirm that I had the intensity and obsessiveness required of an engineer and that engineering offered an exhilarating challenge.
What's the most exciting project you've ever worked on?
Working at the intersection of engineering, markets, and policy means that I always have something exciting to do. A recent project involved conducting the third-party technical analysis that enabled a major biofuel producer to enter the carbon-constrained transportation market. By applying my thermodynamics background, I was able to directly impact the commercialization of an advanced alternative fuel in the U.S., which has been one of the most gratifying aspects of my work.
What do you think you'd be doing if you hadn't become an engineer?
I've always been interested in teaching—sharing the joy of discovering new ideas and skills is extremely satisfying. Whether it is math and science or a different subject altogether, I'm looking forward to doing more of it in my spare time.
What's your favorite hobby or activity when you're not working?
I choreograph and I cook. If you think about it, both of these are really not so different from engineering. Like engineering, both choreography and cooking involve the creation of something, whether it's movement or food. And like engineering, both are based on basic rules and require a fundamental understanding of the topic, yet require imagination, customized thinking, and trial and error to arrive at a final product.
Was there a book or a movie that piqued your interest in science or engineering?
Silly but true: my high school physics book during senior year was the first time that I had seen problems and equations presented in a way that would pave the rest of my path to engineering. Up to that point, I had been strong in science that relied on memorization of facts and reactions, but learning that there was another side of science that formalized how materials and energy moved was completely new to me. It also intrigued me that the author of the textbook chose to include a poem on "The Meaning of Success." It suggested to me that even as we're slogging through the tough problems immediately in front of us, our life activities have a greater context, something I keep in mind still today.
Who are your heroes, either within the engineering profession or in the rest of your life?
Two of the people who have inspired me most are Chris Edwards, a professor at Stanford University, and Jennifer Law, a NASA flight surgeon. Professor Edwards played a huge role in my interest in mechanical engineering and energy systems, and his obvious passion and enthusiasm in teaching the subject made it approachable and relevant to the real world. Jennifer, who studied engineering as well and is also my sister, has been my best role model for pursuing ambitious dreams and loving every moment of what she does.
What's the most meaningful or rewarding aspect of being connected to engineering?
More than anything, the impact that engineering can have is the most meaningful part of being in this field. Pulling together disparate pieces to create a useful, integrated product is very rewarding. Engineering doesn't mean knowing all the answers or already being an expert in the specific question being asked, but rather knowing how to think critically and be resourceful to find the answers.
What does ASME mean to you?
ASME represents great opportunities to look across disciplines and industries and to exchange ideas. I'm continuing to discover the incredible breadth of ASME's activities and am looking forward to participating in some upcoming ones, like the International Conference on Energy Sustainability this summer.
Engineering doesn't mean knowing all the answers or already being an expert in the specific question being asked, but rather knowing how to think critically and be resourceful to find the answers.
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