Engineers without Limits

Nov 05 2015 | By Melanie A. Farmer | Video by Jane Nisselson

Columbia Engineering and the Department of Mechanical Engineering have recently launched Extreme Engineering, a new program “where exploration meets innovation,” says former NASA Astronaut Michael Massimino. Massimino spearheaded Extreme Engineering with Dean Mary C. Boyce as a way to excite enthusiasm around all the various fields in engineering.

Part of Extreme Engineering is a new video series hosted by Massimino that spotlights SEAS faculty who are getting extreme—pushing the boundaries—in their own fields of research. The series kicks off with Associate Professor Samuel Sia, a biomedical engineer and entrepreneur who has developed low-cost, handheld devices that can rapidly diagnose sexually transmitted diseases like HIV and syphilis in real time.

“This is an opportunity for the School to showcase some of the unbelievably diverse careers students can have in engineering,” Massimino says. “Engineers are builders and innovators, yes, but we are also explorers and adventure-seekers. And, we know how to have fun while solving some of the world’s greatest problems.”

The School has already co-hosted two events under the new Extreme Engineering banner this semester. And on November 19, astronaut and ace pilot Captain Scott “Scooter” Altman will be the next guest speaker. (Register here to attend.) Referred to as “the real Top Gun,” Altman did all the actual flying in the hit Tom Cruise film and is expected to talk about his extraordinary career spanning the U.S. Navy and NASA.

In September, Extreme Engineering kicked off with a panel discussion featuring NASA and Mars experts centered on the film, The Martian, starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott. Last month’s event featured Captain Alfred Scott McLaren, an accomplished explorer and scientist who captivated the audience with his tales serving aboard five nuclear submarines, including a time he sped across the Atlantic in the world’s fastest nuclear submarine to set a record still standing after 50 years. So the idea behind Extreme Engineering is to very much underscore the thrill and adventure garnered from the different corners of engineering—from space exploration to the deep sea to incredible advancements in technology, science, and medicine.

As a veteran of two space flights, Massimino scores pretty high on the extreme engineering scale himself and it is fitting that he’s the brainchild behind this new program. Massimino has logged a total of 571 hours and 47 minutes in space, and a cumulative total of 30 hours and 5 minutes of space walking in four spacewalks. He joined the SEAS faculty in 2014 as professor of professional practice in mechanical engineering and has since introduced a course on human space flight.

The School plans to host two Extreme Engineering guest speakers each semester.