Akshar Wunnava, ’14, ’15

"In the real world, you are no longer working with only chemical engineers. So, it is advantageous to be able to communicate effectively with engineers from different disciplines, for which I think 10-ENG prepares you well."

Why did you decide on Course X for your undergrad?

The three big reasons that led me to choose Course X were research, skill set, and the department itself.

After conducting research on climate modeling in high school, I came to MIT with the intent of focusing on energy studies. I found that Course X had several professors conducting research relevant to a wide array of energy applications (virus batteries/solar cells, energy storage, carbon capture and sequestration, enhanced oil/gas recovery, etc.). So no matter which sector of energy I wished to focus on down the road, I knew chemical engineering would not only be applicable, but also highly useful.

In my first year, I participated in a UROP in the Strano Lab on thermopower waves. This experience exposed me to how chemical engineering concepts can be applied to study a system. In particular, I felt that chemical engineering provides the technical know-how to focus on solving problems at the molecular scale, while maintaining an overall systems-level view of how all the pieces fit together in a process. This is an approach that is very useful not just in chemical engineering, but in any industry or field.

Through my UROP, I also found out about Monday-afternoon research seminars where I learned more about research in chemical engineering, and also got a better feel for how the department is structured. The size of the ChemE Department was just right for me – not so big that it’s easy to get lost or hard to develop a rapport with professors, but at the same time, not so small that you feel limited in the opportunities the department has to offer. Since each undergrad class (~50-70 students) takes all the core classes together, I felt that the structure would really allow me to develop a core group of peers and lifelong friends.

…and I never once regretted my decision!

What attracted you to 10-ENG?

My main goal when I came to MIT was to learn as much as I could about energy, which I knew would require an interdisciplinary approach. I learned about energy economics and policy through majoring in Course XIV (Economics) and minoring in Public Policy. When it came to developing a technical skill-set, I knew that I liked the way chemical engineers think about problems. However, I would be lying if I said only chemical engineers had a unique perspective. Since solving the energy crisis of our day is going to require diversity of thought, I wanted to interact with and learn from my peers in different departments as well. When I learned about 10-ENG, I thought it presented an interesting opportunity to take classes in other departments and learn about how our friends in MechE, MatSci, or Physics (and others) solve problems and think about energy. I jumped at the opportunity and was the first student to sign up for 10-ENG. Of course, I concentrated in Energy Studies, which had the added benefit of being advised by Prof. Robert Armstrong, the Director of the MIT Energy Initiative.

For anyone interested in Energy Studies, I highly recommend looking into the Energy Minor as well (http://mitei.mit.edu/education/energy-minor).

How was your experience in designing your own program?

I am extremely satisfied with the 10-ENG program I designed for myself, with help from my advisor. Since I was a part of the inaugural class of 10-ENG, the department was also figuring out how the program should be structured. The electives offered within each concentration were quite varied and numerous. For example, within the Energy concentration, I took classes from global change science to electrochemical energy storage to the Physics of Energy (I highly recommend this one!). Since there were so many courses that I was interested in, it was not difficult to schedule in enough classes to fulfill the requirements without conflicts. The only difficult part was choosing only 6-7 classes out of all the options. The advising for 10-ENG is very good, because the areas of expertise of all the advisors are closely aligned with the interests of the students. I was able to talk to Prof. Armstrong very openly not only about which classes I wanted to take, but also about my research and career ambitions.

What are you doing now? Did 10-ENG help you with your career or personal growth?

10-ENG helped me expand my network of peers who were interested in energy beyond just Course X. Through these friendships, I became quite involved with the MIT Energy Club and eventually served as one of its Co-Presidents. Through these experiences and from mentorship from Prof. Armstrong, I also worked on two start-ups during my time at MIT. The first aimed to develop bacterial batteries for off-grid lighting applications in Indian villages, which involved working closely with biological engineers. The second was developing bicycle-powered battery chargers for use in LED lanterns in off-grid Indian villages, which involved working with mechanical and electrical engineers.

After finishing my undergrad in 2014, I stayed an additional year for the Masters in Chemical Engineering Practice (mainly because I just wan not’t ready to leave MIT or Course X!). This was a phenomenal program and the industrial component in the end really showed me how valuable it was to have diversity of thought. In the real world, you are no longer working with only chemical engineers. So, it is advantageous to be able to communicate effectively with engineers from different disciplines, for which I think 10-ENG prepares you well.

After my time at MIT, I wanted to combine all of the skills I had learned from engineering to economics and policy, but still wanted to explore the energy industry as a whole. So, I decided to start my career in consulting at McKinsey & Company, in their Houston office.

Do you think 10-ENG would be beneficial for MIT and Course X undergrads?

I think 10-ENG and flexible degree programs in general add a lot to MIT and offer a lot of benefits for undergrads. First, it allows for cross-pollination of knowledge across the engineering disciplines. Meeting other students across the Institute is possibly one of the best learning experiences at MIT. Second, if you know you are interested in a particular field, like energy, environmental science, biomedical sciences, or materials science, then 10-ENG would allow you to develop expertise in that area, more so than would the regular degree program. Especially with the accreditation of 10-ENG, there really is no downside to 10-ENG if you are passionate about your concentration.

Do you have any other thoughts about your personal 10-ENG path or the program in general?

One of the most common questions people ask about 10-ENG is the designation of the degree. The regular Course X SB degree reads “Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering”, while the 10-ENG degree reads “Bachelor of Science in Engineering as recommended by the Department of Chemical Engineering”. I’ll be honest – this was one of my major concerns when I was considering the program. However, after talking to numerous professors and employers themselves, I can safely say that no one really bothers with the name of the degree. They care about what classes you take and what you learn. For example, if you are a 10-ENG student concentrating in Energy Studies, then your academic course work is more suited to the needs of an employer in the energy industry. So, it really is an advantage when it comes to finding jobs within your concentration.

The second thing I hear about 10-ENG is that it is a way to get out of taking some of the Course X requirements. If this is the case, one should think hard about why he/she is Course X in the first place. 10-ENG is right for only those students who are passionate about their concentration and are fairly certain that they want to pursue either work or further studies in that concentration. In this situation, 10-ENG can be an extremely rewarding and enriching experience. Choosing 10-ENG was by far one of the most impactful academic decisions I have made and I am quite thankful the program was created.