Engineering to the Extreme

It takes one to know one.

Jul 21 2017 | By Melanie A. Farmer

As a veteran of two space flights, former NASA astronaut Michael Massimino BS’84 scores pretty high on the extreme engineering scale himself. What’s cooler than being an astronaut? So with this in mind, Columbia Engineering and the Department of Mechanical Engineering introduced a new program, Extreme Engineering, “where exploration meets innovation.” Dean Mary C. Boyce spearheaded Extreme Engineering with Massimino as a way to excite enthusiasm around all the various fields in engineering.

Sit down with Mike Massimino in an animated conversation about exploration meeting innovation in his Extreme Engineering video and lecture series. (Video by Jane Nisselson)

“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. We want to show our students some of the cutting-edge things they can do with an engineering degree.”

The School has already cohosted six events under the new Extreme Engineering banner this academic year and launched a video series, hosted by Massimino, that showcases SEAS faculty and their “extreme” research. The video series kicked 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.

The first in the Extreme Engineering lectures featured a panel discussion in September with NASA and Mars experts centered on the film The Martian, starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott, followed by a guest talk by Captain Alfred Scott McLaren, an accomplished explorer and scientist. McLaren captivated the audience with his tales of 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.

In the first in the Extreme Engineering series, Mike Massimino delves into the future of digital health with Biomedical Engineering Associate Professor Sam Sia, whose lab-on-a-chip coupled with a smart phone empowers patients worldwide. (Video by Jane Nisselson)

Students got a treat later in the fall semester when astronaut and ace pilot Captain Scott “Scooter” Altman came to Morningside and gave an Extreme Engineering talk. Referred to as “the real Top Gun,” Altman, who did all the actual flying in the hit Tom Cruise film, discussed his extraordinary career spanning the U.S. Navy and NASA. In February, three guest speakers—NASA geologist Dean Eppler, NASA flight controller Allison Bolinger, and astronaut Kjell Lindgren—gave talks about their careers and experiences on the job. 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.

Indeed, it’s fitting for Massimino to lead this new program. He has logged a total of 571 hours and 47 minutes in space, and a cumulative total of 30 hours and 5 minutes of spacewalking in four space walks. 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.

“As an engineer, you’re really on the edge of what is possible,” says Massimino. “We’re trying to emphasize this and all the reasons why students became interested in engineering in the first place.”