Embracing Failure to Become Better Engineers

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A tinkerer at heart, mechanical engineer Amy Elliott graduated with a Ph.D. from the Virginia Tech DREAMS Lab, where her studies focused on inkjet-based 3-D printing. After her graduation, she began her career at Oak Ridge National Lab’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility, where she advises the industry on strategic application of 3-D printing. Elliott is also an on-camera expert for Science Channel’s Outrageous Acts of Science and the cohost for the web series RoboNation TV. When not working on random inventions, she enjoys the outdoors and loves to snowboard, kayak, hike, backpack, or anything that seems slightly adventurous.

Q: You studied additive manufacturing when it wasn’t popular. How did you decide to pursue it as a career?
Elliott: When I started grad school, I studied additive manufacturing, but this was back in 2009. At that time, additive manufacturing and 3-D printing were not popular. So when I graduated, that’s when additive became really popular, and I scored this dream job at Oak Ridge National Lab, the world’s premier facility for additive manufacturing. And I really just lucked out. It was in the right location, at the right time, and I have been really working with some amazing people and solving some really hard problems in additive manufacturing for the past three years that I’ve been there. 

Q: What obstacles did you face in your engineering career?
Elliott: I think the biggest obstacle that I faced in my engineering career and in my engineering education was just the fear of failure. I was not a risk-taker and did not want to fail. But as I look back, I realize how important failure is, and failure happens all along the way, we just don’t recognize it. Not being afraid of it and actually embracing it can really make you a powerful engineer. It can really empower you to do amazing things.   

Q: You are also the host of science shows on TV and the Internet. What’s the purpose of these shows?
Elliott: The main goal of all of this TV presence and trying to get kids excited about engineering is so that they want to pursue the careers in these fields. We have a major shortage of people that get into these fields, and there’s a reason, right? It’s hard. But if we can help them see that it is so valuable and it’s so important and it’s actually really exciting and fun, once you get past the course work, once you get past math, it’s a really rewarding career. We need more kids to pursue those careers so that our nation can continue to be innovative.

Q: How can young students prepare themselves for a career in engineering?
Eliott: I think the best thing that a student can do to prepare themselves for a career in engineering is to do hands-on projects, build stuff, learn what it takes to actually make something that works. It’s so different from just drawing or theorizing about a machine or a mechanism or a little robot, but actually putting it together and making it work, that’s a whole other level. And once you do that, you see how critical engineering is, and it also helps you appreciate your education.

View the complete interview with Amy Elliott and other videos from E-Fest East and West.