Commencement 2004

Commencement Address

Arwen Isaac DaveDream Job
Arwen Isaac Davé '89
Reed College, May 17, 2004

I think I was asked to be your speaker mainly because I have found success and happiness in life. I have been fortunate enough to find both a college I loved and the job of my dreams. Preparing this commencement speech gave me the chance to retrace my journey between ideas formed at Reed and their realization in the fulfilling career in aerospace I now have.

How did I get so lucky? A little encouragement goes a long way when you are struggling, and Reed gave me that encouragement. When I discovered that I wanted to be an engineer for the International Space Station, pessimists advised me there is no such thing as a fun job, that I would never get along in a man's world, and that dreams were not worth the struggle. But Reed gave me the courage to ask, why not?

That rebel spirit was what first attracted me to this college. As a soon-to-be high school graduate, I visited five colleges, and fell in love with Reed after shadowing a student through a day here in the dorms and classes. What drew me here was the way the lectures challenged my old habits of thought, and fired my imagination. This experience continued through my four years here, and I feel a great debt of gratitude to Reed.

Arwen Isaac Dave

I took physics classes while majoring in art. Both fields emphasize spatial visualization and innovation, and I was equally drawn to both. Both were important creative outlets for me.

When I arrived at Reed, I already had practice in spatial visualization, or mentally creating three-dimensional worlds. This practice was honed at Reed in both physics and art. Visualizing a shadow falling across a beach is similar to envisioning the intersection of two infinite planes. Knowing how a person's weight will shift as a foot contacts the sand is akin to predicting the load path of a force through a structure. Knowing how wind will blow cloth differently than hair presupposes an insight into momentum.

Creation of representative art is grounded in an intuition for physics. For me, the awe inspired by a sunset lighting a cliff was the same as that I felt after the first lecture on special relativity.

But prior to Reed I did not have much practice in innovation - I was used to following orders. I was living an unexamined, unquestioning life. It was Reed that helped me start questioning who made the rules and what their motivations were. Here I learned to look not only at the logic behind a school of thought, but at the premise of that school of thought. It was Reed that pushed me to go beyond accepted boundaries, to look within my imagination for new possibilities.

The more I progressed at Reed, the more I wondered what to do with my life. It was in my sophomore year that I became enchanted by physics problems like the leaning tower of Pisa and the puzzle of what keeps it from toppling. I asked my physics professor what kind of people got to think about large, moving stuff for a living. He said engineers! Maybe that was what I wanted to do. But if I did go into engineering, I didn't want to pour my energies into a backward-looking defense technology.

After growing up with the cold war, I was tired of living in a world of constant fear and suspicion and mutually assured destruction. And most of all, I did not want to be stuck in a boring job that would eat up a third of my life.

I found my focus one day during physics class. Professor Reynolds had brought in a TV so we could watch one of the shuttle launches, and during a lull in the countdown, plans for building an International Space Station were announced. Its mission was to help future space exploration by laying the biological groundwork for sustaining life on the moon and Mars. That was it! I knew that I wanted to build large moving stuff, and that the purpose of the end product was very important to me. The proposed Space Station was large and moving, and involved worldwide cooperation. The effort was far from the mutual fear and suspicion of the old space race, and had the higher purpose of the pushing the frontiers of knowledge.

And it was definitely not boring! But once I had spotted my dream job, how could I get there?

Reed gave me the tools to strive for my goal:

  • Its large lectures followed by small conference groups had put me on familiar terms with my professors. I could talk easily about my hopes and dreams of illustration and space-related large, moving stuff.
  • The constant tests of my speaking and writing skills, even in technical classes, and my analytical skills, even in the arts, meant I could communicate better than those from a pure engineering background. Reed's high academic standards gave me the edge in interviews and early assignments.
  • Reed's atmosphere of creativity fostered my idealism and my belief in the existence of a job I could love.
  • _ Reed bolstered my perseverance and my courage to be different. Later, in my mechanical engineering classes at Rensselaer Polytechnic, there was a ratio of ten men to one woman. In industry, it would be 50 to one.
  • Most importantly, Reed helped me acquire my mental toolbox. Here I learned to recognize the premises behind the logic, and tweak them to achieve a new conclusion. I also learned how to learn, so I was not turned away from my calling by a fear of change.

The road from Reed to my dream job was a bit rocky, though. It included five jobs, two extra years of classes, a second bachelor's degree, moving to three states, and a two-inch thick binder of rejection letters. I stuck with it, though, and kept a little toy space shuttle on my desk to remind me of what I was doing it all for.

During one particularly unrewarding engineering job, I talked the local library into letting me paint a mural there. I had to find some kind of creative outlet in my personal life that I was not finding at my job. Aerospace engineering tends to emphasize functionality over aesthetics, especially for unmanned projects. Working on that mural reminded me of how much fun you can have earning a paycheck, and the children there taught me to enjoy painting in front of a crowd. I realized there were still many possibilities out there waiting for me, but decided to hold out in engineering another year.

I finally made it. Those years were not wasted! Even the bad jobs gave me useful experience that led to the job I wanted. I made it to the goal I had set for myself as a young Reedie: I am an engineer for NASA's International Space Station. My dream job! I have found it is worthwhile to keep striving for happiness, because you do eventually get there.

I enjoy my work at Ames Research Center, and wake up each morning eager to see what happens next. The little toy shuttle now hangs from the ceiling in my office.

What do I do all day? I work with hundreds of people from all over the world who are just as idealistic as I am. When the hardware launches I do jump up and down-but so do all the guys in the control room. My first project that flew was the gigantic solar arrays that power the space station. Each of the eight arrays is the size of a basketball court. The station itself will enclose four times more volume than Skylab, or more familiarly will have the living space of a 5-bedroom house, and can support a crew of seven. Now, I am working with the Japanese Space Agency on a car-sized gravity-simulating centrifuge. It will help scientists on orbit find the gravity thresholds needed to support a healthy crew on long missions, and simulate moon and Mars environments. I get to work on big, moving stuff!

I also enjoy the atmosphere at Ames Research Center, where I am surrounded by Reed-like enthusiasm, lectures, and psych experiments. My office is right next to a big runway where I get to watch astronaut practice flights. I rub elbows with developers of the latest Mars Rovers, good old Pioneer 10, and the worm experiment that survived the Columbia Shuttle disaster. And I sleep well at night thinking about how I work with past enemies like Japan and Texas.

My official title is mechanical design engineer, but what got me my dream job was a combination of qualities developed at Reed. My diplomacy in writing and speaking is tested daily as I work with the Japanese Space Agency. If a thought is poorly-worded in English, imagine what happens to it in translation! I also have to convey to management why certain test results are important. Thank you, first year physics, for teaching me to write up my lab results as if they would be published. And the organizational skills I learned in juggling classes and one or two jobs while at Reed apply directly to planning the length and sequence of an international meeting.

As to my future, I look forward to the day when the station is completed and I can pursue work as an illustrator of children's books. My one-and-a-half year-old son is teaching me what kids love about pictures. My experience as an engineer taught me how to survive any bureaucracy with my vision intact, so I am ready for adventures in publishing. And Reed College taught me how to value and pursue change.

Reed College gave me the tools I needed to find the life and work that I love. You graduates have these same tools. You need not fear being stuck in anything. You can avoid the "golden handcuffs" of accepting boredom for wages. If your goal seems too far away and you are urged to stick to what you know, be happy you have that safety net and take a leap into the unknown. If you are told you won't be able to get along with a certain group, give it a try-there is always a first time!

If someone tells you something is impossible, go and find out for yourself. The possibilities are unlimited-follow your dreams!

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