Letter to a Young Engineer

This letter from Dean Cristina Amon is an excerpt from the book Letters to a Young Engineer, which is given to all U of T Engineering graduates at convocation.

I want you to think back to the first time you set foot on your campus. Back then, the road that has led you to today must have seemed long. There is no denying that the journey has at times been challenging. Much was expected of you. And you are now an engineer because you rose to the challenge. My warmest congratulations to you.

Before you head out into a world that urgently needs your expertise and wisdom, I would like to offer a few words about two polar opposites: disassembly and creation. Together, they have informed the arc of my career and have helped me to understand what gives me joy and fulfillment. I share this with you in the hope that it might inspire you to make the same discovery.

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Dean Cristina Amon

When I was a child, my parents had a radio. It was, to me, a magic box filled with music and hundreds of voices — singing, talking, laughing. I loved the little people in that box. I wanted to meet them.

One day, when my parents were out, I took the radio apart so I could see the amusing people inside. But there was no one home, only tubes, resistors, capacitors and wiring. My little heart fell. It was my first great research disappointment.

The experiment had not gone as planned.

Then my parents came home.

It was not a good day in the lab.

I learned that day that I liked to take things apart and to understand what makes them tick or, in the case of the radio, talk. I wanted to get to the essence of things, to learn the rules of nature and the ways we humans can learn from and reshape the natural world.

Of course, I did not know that as a little girl. I was just curious. I looked at the devices as if they were made of glass, and I could see the cogs and hears, understand the systems, feel the patterns. I know this curiosity was something that set me apart. I did not understand, back then, that it was also a great responsibility. That would come later.

But I burned with that curiosity. We, as humans, and as engineers, begin to answer the question “Why?” by taking things apart. It is the first stage of creation and innovation. “What is” is broken down into its parts and “what is to be” stands proudly in its place.

So I began my curious career, or my career of curiosity, with disassembly. But I soon learned I could build. I was interested in building and creating things which can help people.

Years later, when my loving, lovely parents had forgiven me for the radio, they encouraged me to attend the Universidad Simón Bolívar in Venezuela. I revelled in the give and take of the issues and debates, and found boundless opportunities in the innovation I saw all around me. But I had to choose between the practical and the theoretical, inquiry or creation. I was attracted to engineering, despite the allure of science, because I wanted to create things that could have a direct, immediate impact on society and on people’s lives. Maybe if I had been less impatient, I would have been a scientist. But I was restless, and I was passionate about learning, and about creating and changing what was into what could be.

I am delighted I chose engineering.

I also began to understand that the love o my parents, my luck, and my aptitude for engineering came with the mantle of responsibility. I was gaining the power to change the world, just as you are now. It is a power all engineers earn and bear, and a power of which we must always be mindful.

You are, in a very real way, stewards of the world. Keep it well and sustain it with your creativity and innovation.

Reach out to the diverse network you have forged while at university, and look for solution beyond your formal disciplines. Collaborate for success by seeking different opinions, building and engaging multidisciplinary teams, and remembering that diversity is at the heart of creativity and innovation.

Whatever road you take, you can take that step confident in the knowledge and experience that you have gained. Find the strength that will allow you to take risks. Never lose your sense of curiosity and your joy of engineering new possibilities and opportunities — what you create and change will have a great and lasting impact on you and others in your global community.

I encourage you to transform the engineering profession in ways that reflect your passion. And never forget that you could not have made these strides if it had not been for the love and encouragement of other people. For my part, I must thank the mentors and colleagues I have encountered all my life. I must also thank my parents, who believed that their curious daughter could dismantle and rebuild, and make them, I hope, proud.

With warmest wishes for a rewarding engineering journey.

— Cristina Amon