Engineering + Liberal Arts
Halfway through high school, Brian Lawson ’06 decided that engineering would be a good career path. He liked working on cars and his dad is an electrical engineer.
So he applied to engineering schools — and Grinnell.
Lawson chose Grinnell with the intention of pursuing the 3-2 engineering program.
“I wanted a rigorous liberal arts experience,” he says. “Grinnell was the best place for that.”
Lawson recalls working hard for a B in a philosophy course, American Pragmatism: Classical and Contemporary with John Fennell, associate professor of philosophy. “I’m really glad I took it,” he says. It helped balance out the heavy load of science and math courses he took as a physics major.
“My family was always strong in the liberal arts,” Lawson says. “My favorite teacher in high school was my A.P. English teacher.”
Though he didn’t anticipate it back in high school, Lawson says, “Taking liberal arts for three years made a big difference in my ability as an engineer, not just doing engineering, but in explaining it to others. I’m a better engineer because of Grinnell.”
Choosing a 3-2 Engineering Program
The program allows students to study the liberal arts for three years at Grinnell then transfer to an engineering school for two years. By the time they’re done, students earn two separate bachelor’s degrees, says Paul Tjossem, professor of physics and program adviser.
Grinnell College’s 3-2 engineering program cooperates with four universities: California Institute of Technology, Columbia University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Washington University.
Lawson began his engineering degree at Columbia University’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science. At the end of his first year there, he earned his bachelor of arts degree in physics from Grinnell. One year later, he earned his bachelor of science in mechanical engineering from Columbia.
“In hindsight,” Lawson says, “I’m still conflicted about leaving Grinnell before my senior year.” One reason for that — he met his future wife, Katie Ryan ’07, on the track team his last semester. So leaving Grinnell wasn’t easy.
Putting a Bachelor’s in Engineering to Work
After he completed his engineering degree, Lawson followed Ryan to Washington, D.C. and worked for a small defense contractor for nearly two years. The work was compelling, Lawson says, but working on weapons wasn’t in line with his social conscience.
“I enjoy specific, technical work if the problem is hard,” Lawson says. But he also wanted to find work that resonated with him, work that was, in his view, socially responsible.
Lawson found that combination at Vanderbilt University. As a graduate research assistant, he worked in Vanderbilt’s Center for Intelligent Mechatronics — where robotic prosthetic limbs are made.
Lawson works on the software and control systems for robotic legs. Unlike traditional prosthetic legs, robotic legs have “muscles” — motors at the knee and ankle controlled by a computer system that continually adjusts to the person’s motion.
Lawson points out that developing robotic limbs was not a life-long passion or dream. Many Grinnellians find valuable, compelling work by keeping their minds open to possibilities, as Lawson did.
Brian Lawson ’06 completed his doctorate in mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt University in April 2014. He plans to continue working at the center as a post-doc while Katie Ryan ’07 completes her medical degree/doctorate program at Vanderbilt.