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5 Questions for a Scientist: Mechanical Engineer, Entrepreneur, and Inventor Elaine Chen

The gap between the science classroom and a real-life career in the sciences can seem distant for some students. The 5 Questions for a Scientist interview series was created to bridge this gap! We aim to inspire students to pursue careers in the sciences by showcasing the incredible diversity of STEM careers by talking to scientists themselves. See all of the interviews here.


Get to know Elaine

Occupation: Senior Lecturer and Entrepreneur-in-Residence
Institution: Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship
Field: Entrepreneurship
Focus: Product strategy and innovation

Elaine is a startup veteran and product strategy and innovation consultant who has brought numerous hardware and software products to market. As founder and managing director of ConceptSpring, Elaine works with innovative teams to help them define and build new products and services with the speed and agility of a startup. She is the author of the book Bringing a Hardware Product to Market: Navigating the Wild Ride from Concept to Mass Production and a 2017–2018 AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador.

A senior lecturer and entrepreneur-in-residence at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, Elaine teaches entrepreneurship (the process of starting a business), corporate entrepreneurship, primary market research, and organization development for new ventures. She has previously served at the VP level in engineering and product management at several startups, including Rethink Robotics, Zeo, Zeemote, and SensAble Technologies. She holds a B.S. and an M.S. in mechanical engineering from MIT. You can reach Elaine through Twitter.

1. Explain what you do in your work in one sentence (or two!).

I am a mechanical engineer by training with a robotics background. I used to lead engineering teams that build robots. Now I teach entrepreneurship and product development at MIT.

2. When did you first become interested in your field?

When I was in college studying mechanical engineering, I hung out with friends who were interested in building things that help people with a disability get around more easily. I ended up designing a stair-climbing manual wheelchair, while my friend designed a power wheelchair that can go sideways. My next project involved programming a robot to help a quadriplegic person pick things up and put things down. I've helped build quite a few robotic devices since then, including a gaming joystick, a virtual sculpting tool, and a 5 foot, 6 inch-tall humanoid robot named Baxter that works side by side with people in factories.

3. What is your favorite part of engineering in general?

I have two favorite parts. The first part is to define the problem to be solved—and for whom I am solving this problem. The second is to actually build the solution to the problem.

4. What is a typical day like for you as an engineer?

There really isn't any such thing as a typical day, because the work is so varied. One day I could be in the factory interviewing machine operators to understand how they do their work. The next day I could be doing a design review of a new robot. The following day I could be in the lab trying to get 3D printed parts to fit. Engineers get to write code ... build physical things ... solve real problems. It's never the same, and it's never boring.

5. Do you have any advice for young people interested in science and engineering today?

First of all, go for it! Science and engineering can be sources of excellent entertainment. Isn't it far more fun to make video games than to play video games? Second, if you are already all in, don't forget that science and engineering are still here to serve people. Take time to talk to humans and understand them. It will help you become a much better scientist and engineer!

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