Campus Life

Afterhours with Carol Livermore

MechE professor tells us why she thinks she could win a chocolate-eating contest

Carol Livermore is one of three professors who teach 2.001, Mechanics and Materials I. Her research investigates power microelectromechanical systems, which are devices that manipulate large amounts of power but in a small package. Her lab also explores the self-assembly of microscale and nanoscale systems. This week I had the opportunity to sit down with her to discuss why she became a mechanical engineering professor after getting a PhD in physics, how to get a job in MechE, and even her favorite MechE joke.

The Tech: What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you?

Carol Livermore: I had spent the night at children’s hospital. My kid was having emergency surgery, and I was really serious that I was going to teach the next day. So I did my best to look halfway human and came racing straight from the hospital to campus, and I gave my whole lecture. Then I went to put my coat on and head back to the hospital, and I looked down and I had given the whole lecture with this giant teddy-bear decorated, authorized parent/guardian sticker stuck to the front of my clothes. The funniest thing about it was not so much that it happened, but that no one commented. I felt so embarrassed about it. I mean, everybody wears really interesting things, and if I wanted to get away with it, this was the right place to do it.

TT: Did you always know that you wanted to go into mechanical engineering?

CL: When I was sixteen, I figured out what I wanted to be, and that was a physics professor. So I went ahead, and I got a bachelor’s and a master’s and a PhD in physics. And then I said, what have I done? I want to be an engineer. So I switched.

TT: And what made you decide to make that change?

CL: The value system is different between the two fields. In physics, research is more prized the more fundamental it is. In engineering, the very same piece of research might be prized not just for how fundamental it is, but for how useful it is. So I came to MIT in 1998 for one year as a post-doc and that’s how I was going to turn myself into an engineer. I just forgot to leave and I became a professor.

TT: What is it about 2.001 that really attracted you?

CL: I think having switched to engineering is actually an advantage, because I can remember what it’s like to not know the stuff. It’s actually not so far back in my history because I learned it after I had my PhD. So it’s partly that and also partly that I like to teach the first class [in course 2] because it’s an opportunity to try to teach students approaches, not just facts, that will be useful as they go along. I think that if you start somebody off with the wrong kind of experience that you can do a lot of harm. So I try to introduce the subject the same way that it made sense to me, which is kind of 50% math and 50% the cartoon laws of physics, the mental images of physics that we all have. Also, part of what I like about teaching the first class is that you can teach people that it’s OK to ask for help. It’s good to ask for help.

TT: What do you enjoy the most about being a professor?

CL: I like working with students because you can’t get set in your ways if you have this constant stream of people with all these new ideas and different perspectives. I also enjoy the fact that it’s entrepreneurial. You get to decide on the direction of your research as long as you can convince someone to pay for it. And you have an unprecedented opportunity to meet people from all over the globe. Not just here on campus, but there’s a lot of travel involved, like conferences.

TT: What’s the coolest place you’ve been able to go?

CL: I think the one I enjoyed the most was probably going to Belgium. The conference was in Leuven, which is a medieval university town. It was just fantastic. The buildings, although a lot of them were rebuilt after World War II, they’ve maintained the same spirit. And it’s full of students, too. It’s not a car-centric place because it wasn’t built for cars. What you see is students riding bicycles over cobblestones in the snow. A lot of the things here are big, but over there they’re tiny. The shops have a lot of character.

TT: What steps would you encourage your students to take if they wanted to get a job or an internship in the field of mechanical engineering?

CL: The most important thing is to network. Informal networking is great, and also don’t ever pass up a career fair or whatnot, but also networking with professors. There’s plenty of professors who are consulting with industry and so forth and they often have connections that can help too. It’s a matter of finding the person with the right opportunity. If you talk to a lot of people, you find out about a lot of different types of jobs and you make a lot of accidental connections too.

I’ve actually talked to a lot of people who are looking for permanent jobs now. And there’s a lot of ways that you can do it. My favorite quote that I’ve heard recently was “everybody knows that responding to HR is like putting your resume into a black hole.” Everybody knows that, so what’s the alternative? You talk with people.

TT: If you could give any one definitive piece of advice to your students, what would it be?

CL: It’s really easy to think that what’s most important is what everybody else says is most important. My advice would be to do what you think is most important. People see a very narrow section of what’s possible when they’re going to college. I think there can be a certain uniformity in what you hear from your professors because they tend to come from similar backgrounds, but you’re the one who has the life. It has to work for you, so that needs to come first.