By Thomas K. Grose
THE MECHANICS OF A CAREER - WHAT MAKES SOMEONE DECIDE TO BECOME AN ENGINEER? SIX HIGHLY ACCOMPLISHED EDUCATORS TELL THEIR STORIES.
a given: All engineers were strong math and
science students while growing up. Clearly, those talents
provided them with an entree to the world of engineering.
But a facility with math and science offers a wide variety
of career paths. At what point in their childhood, adolescence,
or early adulthood did today's engineers decide
that engineering was for them? Was there some signal
event? A Eureka! moment? Or was it a process, a series
of fortunate events? Are they the sons and daughters
of engineers carrying on a family tradition? Perhaps
some astute grade-school teacher pointed them in the
right direction. Or maybe they were
garage tinkerers who just stumbled into it?
Wanting to find out, Prism spoke to six
engineering academics and asked them for their stories,
what led them to eventually don lab coats, pick up a
slide rule, and become distinguished engineering researchers
and teachers. We expected to hear some interesting stories
well worth sharing with Prism readers. We weren't
1. WALLACE T. FOWLER
As a child growing up in Greenville, Texas, Wallace
T. Fowler was besotted with airplanes. He kept a box
of 3x5 cards detailing the specs of every plane made,
and when B36s flew over his grandmother's house,
he could tell which engine they had, just by the sound
of their drone. So clearly, ending up as a top aerospace
engineering professor was a foregone conclusion. Right?
Not really. What Fowler, professor of aerospace engineering
at the University of Texas-Austin (UT), wanted to be
was a test pilot. Poor eyesight and childhood asthma
dashed those hopes. And his decision to go into engineering
initially resulted from the need to better communicate
with two graduate engineering students he was working
After graduating from high school in 1956, Fowler
first went to college at Rice University as a physics
major. A year later, he transferred to Texas for financial
reasons and changed his major to mathematics. In his
junior year, Fowler began learning computer programming,
and as a senior, he was hired to do some programming
for a couple of mechanical engineering graduate students.
But there was a communications breakdown: "I did
not understand the engineering and they did not understand
the numerical analysis." To improve matters, Fowler
began taking engineering mechanics courses—and
discovered he liked them. When he got to graduate school,
Fowler switched from math to engineering mechanics.
"I was hooked," he says.
Not long after earning his master's, Fowler
began working on his first space-related project, which
involved guidance systems for vehicles flying Earth-to-Mars,
low-thrust trajectories. After completing his Ph.D.
in 1965, he joined the budding space engineering program
at UT. And in 1976, when he became a full professor,
Fowler spent a semester working at the United States
Air Force Test Pilot School—a thrilling sojourn
for someone who dreamed as a kid of being a test pilot.
During the 1981-82 academic year he also taught at
the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. There
Fowler's career was once again transformed. He
was asked to teach a design course, something he had
never done before. It turned out to be a great fit.
"I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is what it's
all about,' " Fowler recalls. "I had
never taught design, but found that I loved the challenges
of working with teams of students developing new concepts
and systems to meet specified needs." Back at
UT, he developed a spacecraft/space systems design course
that he's been teaching ever since. His most recent
class had 57 students divided into nine teams working
on such projects as a Mars Rover, an interplanetary
navigation system, and a system to extract water from
Although he is "now on the space side of the
house," the 66-year-old Fowler admits it still
surprises him that he's been able to carve a career
out of his boyhood fascination with airplane flight.
2. Linda P.B. Katehi
On July 20, 1969, Linda P.B. Katehi decided to become
an electrical engineer. There's a good reason
why Katehi, 55, can pinpoint when she decided her career
path with such accuracy: on that day, Neil Armstrong
became the first man to set foot on the moon. Katehi
was a middle school student living in a small rural
community on the Greek island of Salamis, a large pine-covered
tract of land in the Aegean Sea that was home to the
mythic hero Ajax and the playwright Euripides. Her father
was a musician, her mother a homemaker. Luxuries were
scarce. They didn't have a television, so Katehi
watched the NASA broadcast of the historic moon walk
at a neighbor's.
"For my generation, the moon landing had a major
technological and social impact," she says. It
certainly affected her. But as fascinated as Katehi
was by Armstrong's lunar stroll, she was even
more gripped by the shots of Houston's mission
control, with its banks of blinking lights and flickering
screens. "That's what impressed me most,
and that's when I decided not to be an astronaut,
but an electrical engineer." Twelve is an impressionable
age for kids, especially girls, Katehi says. "That's
when [girls] more or less make up their minds about
what they like or don't like and what they want
to do." Which, she adds, is a good reason for
members of the engineering profession to reach out to
girls at an early age. Katehi was the first in her family
to go to college and the first girl from her community
to attend a technical school. She was helped by her
math teacher, Mr. Balbouzis. He found her advanced math
books, then in short supply on Salamis, and encouraged
her to seek a career that utilized her math skills.
Katehi's father was initially shocked by his
daughter's career goal. And though he was highly
supportive, he nonetheless predicted two sad outcomes:
No one would hire her, and no one would marry her. "He
was wrong on both counts," Katehi recalls with
Dean Katehi got her B.S. in electrical engineering
in 1977 from the National Technical University of Athens.
In 1981, she earned her M.S. and three years later her
doctorate in electrical engineering from the University
of California-Los Angeles. Post-graduation jobs included
a year-long stint as a research engineer at Greece's
defense department naval lab, and assistant, associate,
and full professorships at the University of Michigan.
These days, Katehi is dean of engineering at Purdue
University, a position she's held since 2001.
Katehi's childhood dream to work with NASA
did not go unfulfilled. Earlier in her career, she worked
on several agency programs, including one that led to
smaller, cheaper, and lighter radio systems for spacecraft.
These systems help keep spacecraft in better contact
with the Houston mission control operations that so
captivated her 36 years ago.
3. Legand L. Burge, Jr.
For five years now, Legand L. Burge Jr. has been
doing what he calls "the deaning thing"
at Tuskegee University's department of electrical
engineering. Before that, Burge, who has a doctorate
in electrical engineering from Oklahoma State University,
spent 30 years in the Air Force, rising to the rank
of colonel. That's an impressive set of achievements
for an African-American male who came of age in the
Burge, 57, credits many people for inspiring him
to reach his goals. His interest in electronics first
came from his father, Legand L. Burge Sr., an electronics
radar technician. His father also beat the odds for
a black man of the 1930s and '40s, a time when
few blacks could breach the color barrier in professional
work. Burge Sr. was in the Navy after Pearl Harbor and
scored so high on his tests that he was trained as an
electrician. After an executive order in 1948 desegregated
the armed forces, he joined the Air Force and rose to
the rank of master sergeant. He later continued his
radar work for the Federal Aviation Administration.
Burge also credits his mother, Bobbie, for stressing
education. "She was old school," he recalls.
He and his brothers were encouraged to read, and television
was kept to a minimum. All four of the Burge children
went on to earn masters' degrees. Burge also benefited
from attending Douglass High School in Oklahoma City,
which emphasized academics and had a strong cadre of
teachers. It was Fred Baker, an electronics teacher,
who encouraged Burge to seek a degree in electronic
engineering. That would be a daunting choice, not because
Burge wasn't qualified—he excelled at math
and science—but because a degree in electrical
engineering required going to Oklahoma State University.
In 1967, the year Burge graduated from high school,
OSU had few black students enrolled and even fewer in
the engineering school. But Burge persevered. When he
earned his doctorate, he became one of the engineering
school's first two African-American Ph.D. recipients.
After getting his bachelor's, Burge joined
the Air Force. He admits that he expected to stay in
the service for only a few years. But great jobs, promotions,
and opportunities to see the world kept coming his way.
So Burge stayed 30 years. "I had a great career,"
Aside from engineering, Burge's lifelong passion
is music. He began playing piano at 4 and later took
up the organ. He has played, arranged, and composed
music of all types—from gospel to pop to country-and-western—and
has directed choirs numbering 300-strong. Burge believes
that being a musician has enhanced his engineering career,
and he points out that many of his engineering colleagues
are also musically inclined. He sees a connection: "Music
made me a stronger technical person."
4. Janie M. Fouke
Tinkering came naturally to Janie M. Fouke. That's
just as well, too, because she grew up on a farm outside
the rural community of Ayden, N.C., about 100 miles
east/southeast of Raleigh. That flat, sandy country
was one of the state's biggest tobacco-growing
areas. Fouke's family farm grew mainly tobacco,
but also soybeans and corn; there were also beef cattle
Of course, farming tools and machines break or need
servicing with all the regularity of the changing seasons,
and calling a repair person usually isn't an option.
"You have to fix things yourself," says
Fouke, who has been dean of the college of engineering
at Michigan State University in East Lansing for six
Fouke, the first member of her family to earn a university
degree, says that by the time she was 9 her parents
realized she was skilled in science. For Christmas that
year she got a chemistry set that proved too messy for
her bedroom. Her father built her a lab in one of the
farm's outbuildings, complete with plumbing and
wiring. The next Christmas, Fouke was given dissecting
tools and preserved animals—not the type of toys
usually found in Santa's sack.
With so much of her childhood spent in her farmyard
lab, it wasn't surprising that Fouke wanted to
study medicine at the University of North Carolina-Chapel
Hill (UNC). But her mother deemed the school too liberal.
"She was worried that I would wear bell-bottoms,
become a hippie, and do unspeakable things." Another
possibility was an English degree from North Carolina
State, but her mother was wary of that place, too. So,
Fouke pursued a degree in biology from St. Andrews Presbyterian
College in North Carolina.
Marriage and three kids ruled out going to medical
school after graduation, so Fouke earned a teaching
certificate and taught science to middle and high school
students. That lasted two years. "I was desperate
to get out of teaching eighth graders," Fouke
recalls with a laugh. When she learned that UNC offered
a graduate program in biomathematics and medical engineering,
she jumped at the chance: Here was a program that played
to her engineering skills and medical interests. She
moved to Chapel Hill—now an acceptable place,
given her married-with-children status—and her
husband, a constitutional law professor at St. Andrews,
commuted. Five years later, the next logical step would
have been post-doctoral work, but the need to earn income
led Fouke instead to seek a part-time job. She was hired
as a research assistant by an engineer who studied lungs.
It was a serendipitous collaboration. "I had a
blast; I loved it," Fouke, 54, says. And it helped
launch her career designing instruments to better understand
the human respiratory system.
Chance also played a role in the next step in Fouke's
career: teaching at Case Western Reserve University
in Cleveland. After applying to the university's
Case School of Engineering, which historically had not
hired many women faculty, Fouke got a letter expressing
interest. When she read it, Fouke realized that someone
had mistaken her gender—the letter greeted a "Mr.
Jamie Fouke." She figured once the mistake was
cleared up, she wouldn't have a hope. But in the
end, Fouke got the job and stayed at Case Western for
18 years. During that period she spent four years as
the first director of the Bioengineering and Environmental
Systems Division of the National Science Foundation.
5. James L. Melsa
It was a Latin teacher who helped place James L.
Melsa on the road to electrical engineering. The classics
teacher at his high school in Omaha, Neb., noted Melsa's
talent for math and science and began suggesting science
fiction books to him. The teacher was himself a fan
of sci-fi literature. "Books like 1984…it
was something that intrigued me," recalls Melsa,
66, who retired last year after nine years as dean of
the Iowa State University College of Engineering.
His interest in the wonders of science helped convince
the young Melsa that he belonged in the lab. When he
applied to the Iowa State physics program, Melsa, the
first in his family to go to college, realized that
to be the kind of physicist he wanted, he needed a Ph.D.
Yet at that point in his life, Melsa didn't feel
he could plan his career beyond a bachelor's degree,
so he switched to electrical engineering. It came close
to physics, he says, "and it was a salable skill."
Nevertheless, upon graduation in 1960, Melsa was
still interested in graduate school. He applied and
got into MIT and several other schools. But he was also
newly married and needed to earn a living. RCA offered
him a job that let him attend graduate school two days
a week at the University of Arizona (UA).
That's when Melsa met his next mentor. When
he and his wife moved to Tucson, Melsa discovered that
Andrew Sage, a professor of electrical engineering,
was a neighbor. Melsa took Sage's course and so
impressed his professor that Sage negotiated a position
for Melsa as a part-time graduate student and full-time
instructor at UA—at a salary nearly equal to what
RCA was paying. Melsa eventually earned his master's
in 1962 and his doctorate in 1965 from Arizona. During
his career, he also taught at Southern Methodist University
and the University of Notre Dame—where he was
also chairman of the electrical engineering department.
Melsa spent 11 years at Tellabs Inc. in Lisle, Ill.,
working in a variety of posts, including vice president
of strategic planning and advanced technology. He and
Sage went on to write a number of books together.
Certainly Melsa has no regrets that he chose electrical
engineering over physics. "It was a great career,"
he says. Ironically, Melsa only rarely reads science
fiction these days, though he's still a fan of
sci-fi movies and TV shows.
6. Walter W. Buchanan
It's been hypothesized that the future of work
in America will be a series of careers, bolstered by
ongoing, life-long education. Few workers in the future,
including professionals, will remain in one career for
life. If that theory proves correct, then consider Walter
W. Buchanan a pioneer.
Buchanan is currently a professor at and director
of the School of Engineering Technology at Northeastern
University. But he was 43 before he found his true calling
teaching engineering technology. Moreover, he received
his doctorate 12 years ago, 30 years after earning his
first bachelor's degree.
Certainly he was strong in math. Indeed, his first
degree was a B.A. in mathematics with a double major
in Russian from Indiana University. Buchanan then worked
for several years in the engineering units of the aerospace
companies Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Next came a four-year
hitch in the U.S. Navy, where he spent time as a gunnery
officer aboard the carrier USS Ticonderoga in the Gulf
of Tonkin off the coast of Vietnam.
After Vietnam, Buchanan went to Indiana for a law
degree. He practiced administrative law for several
years after graduating, "but I got bored with
it," he recalls. He considered a move into patent
law but instead took a job as a researcher at the Naval
Avionics Center in Indianapolis. He also began taking
night classes in engineering at Purdue, eventually earning
his second bachelor's in 1982 and his master's
two years later. "I like to tell people that I
used to be a lawyer but then decided that I wanted to
do something useful for society, so I became an engineer."
His moment of revelation came in 1983 when he was asked
to teach a course in engineering technology. "I
loved it," Buchanan says. "My only regret
is I didn't discover it sooner."
Buchanan's new career also gave him opportunities
to live in various regions of the United States, which
he enjoyed. Buchanan has taught engineering technology
at the University of Central Florida, Middle Tennessee
State University, the Oregon Institute of Technology,
and Northeastern University in Boston, where he's
been since 1999.
Buchanan says his years working in industry benefit
him in what he does now, especially since engineering
technology emphasizes grooming students for a life in
the workplace, not academia. If today's students
end up having a variety of careers while accumulating
a number of degrees along the way, then Buchanan serves
as the perfect role model.
Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer based in