Q&A: Warming to Engineering


Q&A session with Nilanjana "Nel" Dutt '05

By Brendan Sullivan '06
Photography by Fred Field

Photo by Fred Field
Nilanjana "Nel" Dutt '05 admits that, when she came to Colby from New Delhi, in 2001, she had no idea how cold Maine winters would be. Through the Colby-Dartmouth dual-degree engineering program, she spent her junior year in Hanover, N.H., and last May she graduated from Colby Phi Beta Kappa. Though she still hasn't exactly embraced New England winters, Dutt is now back in Hanover completing a Dartmouth B.S. in engineering during a fifth undergraduate year. Appropriately, part of her focus is on engineering buildings that are better at maintaining heat. She spoke with Colby writer Brendan Sullivan '06.

What is it like to graduate from college only to be an undergrad for another year?

Well, actually I still have about a year and a half left, since I'm getting my master's in engineering management, too, so I should be done in spring 2007. But it is really more like grad school. As an undergrad my lifestyle was more inefficient. Now I have an office in the engineering building, I grade papers for professors, I'm a research assistant, and there isn't as much class time. It's more like work now.

What area of engineering do you want to go into?
I was thinking about majoring in electrical engineering, but I've decided I'm not such a fan of that technology and I'm looking to major in environmental engineering. So the focus of my studies is to study environmental systems and then applications of sustainable design.

What would that entail?
Well, for example, instead of building a regular building with brick, you would use some insulation like polystyrene, plastic, or foam. And when you are actually constructing the building you have to change the design, use a different type of cement"like cinderblocks stuffed with foam that increases their ability to hold on to heat. That would use a lot less energy to keep that building heated.

Is it a technique that's widely used?
It's basically a way of life in Europe and is gaining popularity in the U.S. With the rising cost of oil and fuel, it's going to become a much higher priority than it is now. But it's disappointing that people are interested in it only to save money, not so much for the long-term effects of preserving and not using nonrenewable fuels. Even though it would save lots of money in the long run, it's not a priority for many American builders because it costs more up front.

Do you plan to stay in New England?
A lot will depend on where I get a job. I'd like to stay around here"except I don't like the weather"but I'll probably stay for five years or so and then go back to India.

How would environmental engineering differ in India?
In India, because it's such a warm country, the terms would be very different than in New England. Because it's a developing country it would be different as well. I wouldn't focus as much on green buildings as I would on sustainable development, like providing clean water systems and low-income housing. The society has to progress to a certain point before people are going to worry about green architecture. The technology is way different there, and people need to save money there, not primarily out of a love of the environment, but because they can't afford any other way.

Are there other engineers in your family?
My dad is an engineer who spent the majority of his career in the Indian Navy working in electronics and weapon systems. I didn't know much about what my father did, but visiting him on deck was really fun, and my family moved every few years because of his job. I'm guessing some of the things he did were confidential.

That world of secretive military engineering didn't attract you?
No, I wasn't very influenced by that, and the exposure to the Indian Navy didn't teach me anything about engineering really. The environmental side is much more appealing. I just like doing math and science and working with my hands"that's really what it comes down to.

Does that come from an interest in the outdoors?
Well, I like hiking, and I love to mountain-climb. I'm quite involved with the Dartmouth Mountaineering Club. I went climbing with them at the mountains in Rumney, New Hampshire, a number of times this fall, and I'm going on the spring break trip with them to Red Rocks in Nevada. I like to think I'm more than just your regular engineering nerd.

What advice would you give to liberal arts students thinking of careers in engineering?
For me the Dartmouth program was a great opportunity because Colby has no engineering program. But really it's not for everyone. Being an engineer isn't about being really intelligent, it's about being able to handle work and not getting stressed out about it. I wasn't good at that in the beginning, but I got better at it. Being a grad student is way less stressful than an undergrad student, though. Your life is a bit more set, and you are used to it. I'm pretty happy where I am.
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