I accidentally scheduled Oscar’s interview for a holiday, but characteristically, he was already planning to be on campus. The bench under the window of his office was, as always, covered with functioning breadboarded circuits. He wore his usual easy grin and silk tie.
A native of both Spain and Puerto Rico, Oscar came, as he describes it, “home” to Boston in 1990. He earned his degrees at MIT, then came to Olin in 2005. At Olin, Oscar teaches Electrical Engineering, Design, and International Development.
FS: Can you define your teaching philosophy?
OM: I think part of it is the idea that I never thought of myself as a teacher. I think that I’m learning with you. And when I teach, all that I’m doing is that I’m presenting to you something that I find cool. So the prerequisite there is that I have to find it fun. And then I just share that with you. But I feel more like I’m engaging you like I would engage a friend. like, “Oh, check out this cool thing.” Not so much as, “You need to learn that.” I don’t know if that’s a teaching philosophy, but it’s the way I operate.
FS: Do you teach differently for the design courses?
OM: I think it’s really crucial to understand that engineering without people is nothing. To me, it loses all its meaning if you don’t think of the impact that it has on people. That’s something that meshes very well with the Olin philosophy: I can almost not conceive of engineering being taught in a vacuum that says it’s just science. You have to think of it in terms of what you’re doing for people. And design is very much the way to do that very formally.
FS: What brought you to Olin?
OM: I graduated in 2003. I was one year in Spain, one year in Puerto Rico, and I decided that the best fit for me would be to be in Boston. I really missed MIT. So one summer, I just up and left. I showed up in my advisor’s office at MIT and I asked him, “Jeff, I have nothing else to do with my life. What should I do?” He was the one that told me, “Well you’re going to be a teacher, right?” I said, “I hadn’t thought of that.” He was insistent. He said, “You have to be a teacher.” I’m like “OK.” And I said, “How do I go about that?” And he mentioned, “Well, you know, there’s this school.” I actually remember his description: “They’re loaded.” That was his description of Olin. “They’re loaded.”
I looked at the website and sure enough, Diana Dabby, my undergrad thesis advisor, was here. I emailed her, and she said, “Oh, sure. Come on by.” I came and the rest was history.
FS: What was it about Olin that you liked?
OM: I liked the world possibilities that this place has. The fact that it has a mission that is larger than life.
Changing engineering education is a large mission, but I believe in having missions that push you to your limit. I was very happy at MIT, because MIT has one of those missions. I found that this [Olin] was a really good match because it was a place that you have top-notch students that are dedicated to changing engineering education.
FS: Do you think that you, through your work here, personally contribute to changing engineering education?
OM: That is actually a very tricky question. The short of it is I think yes. There are a lot of people who bring what we do to the outside. And I profoundly agree with that. I mean, you’re not going to change engineering education- as much as we love you- just by training all of you.
Having said that, I like a term Rick uses: he says that some of us are “education engineers,” because we are experimenting with students all the time. And I find myself very much in that camp, because as much as I try, I cannot recycle anything. I always have to tweak it, and I always have to think of how can I make it better, how can I give my students a different experience. I think that’s not unique about me. i think all the faculty here are very much devoted to that.
You do have to have some energy to do that externally-facing stuff. And you have to have also a lot of energy to do that internally-facing stuff. And I think that we, as an institution, are learning that balance.
FS: Do you write new problem sets and material and lectures for every class?
OM: I wrote all of my problems at one point or another, though some of them might be inspired by problems I’ve seen elsewhere.
I think that something that Olin and you particularly, you guys [students] push me— which I think it’s a good thing— is to make really relevant problems.
I love the way I was taught, because I am a mathematician at heart, and I will always be that, and I understand things and I love to learn things through mathematics. But that’s not the Olin ethos. I look at the books that I learned from, and I see a lot of problems that are, “Assume this system,” and “Find transfer functions, find solutions.” And I don’t think I could stand in front of you and tell you, “Assume a system and this happens and all that.” Immediately, the reaction would be, “Why do I care?” And I think that that’s a good thing. That means I have to change all of my problems: where do I see an application of this in the real world? Why does this matter? I need to make that connection. I needed to make it real. Because otherwise, why would you be there?
FS: Can you tell me about your research?
OM: I started designing a MEMS [micro-electrical mechanical systems] lab. However, I wanted to make sure that students were involved in the research and I think that if I had made a MEMS lab that it might have alienated students more than brought them into research. So as I gained experience, I realized that I wanted to do something that not only that you can learn, but you can help me with. If I do something that is too obscure and abstract, then I don’t get students to help me.
The wireless power transfer is a natural outgrowth of my energy harvesting research on a more macro scale. I think it is very accessible; you only need a little bit of wire. It is sufficiently revolutionary. It is important, accessible, and meaningful. As I told you, it has to have meaning.
Now, I still struggle a little bit with wireless power transfer because the number one application is, say, charge your cell phone. Yeah, you can make billions if you charge your cell phone without having to plug it in. I’m sure that that’s true. It’s not what gets me up in the morning. To say, “Oh, I want to make sure people don’t have to plug in their iPhones so that they get charged.”
I am working on power transfer, but in my mind what’s important is what it enables. Other applications are having medical actuating devices, like on artificial hearts, artificial retinas, things inside the human body. And that’s a really good application of wireless power transfer because in that case, it actually is important that you can transfer power into the human body. You really don’t want cables sticking out, because you have infections and that’s how things go wrong. That, if it doesn’t get me up in the morning, at least wakes me up and makes me toss and turn a little bit.
But the other big part of my research, I guess formally I can say now that I have funding, is the whole development thing. Because I think—I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t think this—that that’s what we should be doing at Olin. It is the golden ticket. It is a perfect blend of design. It’s very human. It’s incredibly liberal arts. It really forces you to design in other contexts, in other cultures, really pay attention to human needs. The only other engineering that people would love more would be something for puppies. Or kittens. It’s just the most attractive thing because it has meaning.
And I think that that’s very important because if we’re going to change engineering education, we have to engage students at a deeper level than just their brains. We have to engage them at a very deep emotional level. And now, because we’ve gotten this huge grant, we’re moving in the direction of that getting recognized: development engineering. It’s a new ball game: how do you design things with people’s needs in mind, and with constrained situations and all that?
FS: What are your specific research projects within development?
OM: For the longest time, my help in ADE was just mechanical. I use my mechanical engineering and my systems engineering. I help design fluid things and mechanical things. Of course I also get called for electrical things. But again, a lot of electrical things, which is where your question really comes in, are really just connect a battery and a light goes on. Really, the electrical part is nothing. But sure enough, we do that. But that still to an extent is mechanical: how do you make a mechanically reliable electrical connection?
FS: Do you engage students outside of ADE in development through research?
OM: Yes. Something that was cooking up in my and other people’s brains is that there has got to be something that we can do with the electrical domain and with electrical engineering knowledge that can help people in developing countries. It’s not a clear answer. If you don’t have power and you need to cook things— there’s a reason why mechanical projects are the bread and butter. You need mechanical things to do your thing, and to some extent electrical things might be secondary.
Having said that, there are very important electrical engineering applications. Light is important. Light is life and death. If you could use electrical engineering to clean up water, that could mean life and death. Medical diagnosis. That’s life and death. There are little nuggets of places where you have electrical engineering creeping into developing countries.
But again, what’s fascinating is that the context in developing country is really strange. You know for example, that many countries in Africa, they are never going to have landlines. They have completely skipped that; cell phones are ridiculously cheap. So you have people in Ghana in places that have no water, no sewer, to say nothing of electrical power, but people have cell phones. That’s a very odd problem. It’s a very strange problem. It’s a crazy world. And then they have LEDs. And because they have LEDs now, they have to get batteries.
There’s a nugget of things that you could do, but you really have to know the context. That’s what makes this whole thing fascinating. So, what I am developing, very formally now is, what is that space? What is the space of applications where you can do more complex electrical systems? You have really sophisticated computers and cell phones that are almost disposable. I want to explore that. I think we’re taking the initial steps, using microcontrollers, but again that’s almost intentional because we have POE here and it’s something that students here can get engaged with. And they would be excited to do “POE for development.” That would be an exciting notion.
FS: You mentioned that you spent a year in Puerto Rico, then a year in Barcelona. You have family in both places, right?
OM: I was born in Barcelona, as many people know, and I was raised half-and-half.
FS: How do you get raised half-and-half?
OM: I was raised in an almost geometric progression. I was in Barcelona for half of a year, in Puerto Rico four years, then four years back in Spain, eight years in Puerto Rico. Which means that at every point, I was long enough in a place to move to the other place and not feel that I belonged to that original place.
I was long enough in Barcelona that when I came to Puerto Rico, I wasn’t a Puerto Rican anymore. And then I was long enough in Puerto Rico that I was not a Spaniard anymore. And then when 17 came, I came here. Ironically, if there was a home for me, that would have been MIT.
When I graduated, I knew that socially speaking, the place that I’m most comfortable is Barcelona. In terms of environment, social, everything. Unfortunately, I found that I wasn’t going to be able to use my degrees, my engineering, my knowledge, in the way I wanted. So I had to make a decision. And ultimately, I decided that I wanted to do state-of-the-art research— that I wanted to change the world more quickly and directly, and that the best place to do so would be here in Boston.
FS: You bring some of your Spanish/Puerto Rican culture to Olin through extracurriculars, though, right?
OM: I inherited Por Supuesto. Por Supuesto existed before me. I think it probably must be one of the longest lived co-curriculars at this school.
It was led by Linda Canavan. But as soon as I was hired, I remember one of my first conversations with Linda was like, “So you speak Spanish, of course, right?” And I was like, “yeah…” “So you can take over this Por Supuesto co-curricular.”
I did run the Latin dance co-curricular for a while. Of course I enjoy it a lot. It’s trying to bring a little bit of what it means to be not from here, here.
That’s another long conversation: how are you yourself? To what extent do you adapt to a place, and to what extent do you say, “This is who I am and it’s different.” And I have to be very conscious of that. Even little things like the way I dress. Of course I know I’m dressy, but that’s who I am. But it has an impact. People notice. I think it has a message. I don’t know what message it has. I think some people might take it in a different way. Some people might say, “Oh, he’s Puerto Rican, that’s what Latin people do, they dress up.” Some people might think, “Oh, he’s a rich guy.” That would be wrong, but some people might say that. Some people might say, “Oh, he’s just snobbish and vain.” I don’t think I’m that way. I’m just naturally beautiful. [laughs and shakes head] I’ve gone back and forth on many things, and it’s a little bit of adjusting who you are to your environment, if that makes any sense.
FS: If you could change one thing about Olin, what would it be?
OM: One thing, just one thing?
The easy one is that I would be far more radical about the curriculum. When Olin was founded, it was really radical, and I think we’ve cut back from there. I understand the reasons why. I know we have to. But I would be far more in the other extreme of saying, for example… I never saw ABET accreditation as ‘we have to get accredited’. I think ABET knew who we were. I don’t think ABET could not have accredited us. Think about it. We are the innovation in engineering education school that’s getting built from scratch, doing all these crazy experiments. ABET was probably paying close attention to us in order to learn what could be done in this environment.
I think that actually that came to pass, because there was a lot of concern about ABET, and when they came, they loved us. And they did because of who we are, not because we had binders and binders full of classes. It’s because of who we are. We are on the edge. And these people that come from more traditional institutions got it. They’re smart and they got it. It’s like, “I know that you’re doing something crazy here, and we like that.” So I would not have been so worried. So what would I do for starters? I would cut the curriculum in half. The material that you deliver: half. We’d go through every major. Instead of five core courses for ME and ECE, two and a half. That’s all you have.
The rest, I think I would grow more projects, research, self-directed things. I would have SCOPE all four years. You would start and you would have UOCD and you would have POE. You would have that whole thing over and over. I would also like to create real value.
Back in the day, it was very conceivable that a student could actually inject his own project into the courses. Now, we’re pretty good about this, but I don’t want to pretend. Let’s not inject projects into courses. Let’s flip it around. Let’s have projects and we teach around them. I know that this is a hard goal, but I think that’s what we’re here for. We’re here to solve the hard problems. That’s something I would definitely change.
I would definitely change—and I know this is even stickier—but I really want this place to be more diverse. I am so happy that it’s gender-balanced, and I think we should double down with diversity. Because I don’t think we can say with a straight face that we’re the future of engineering education if we don’t have a diverse population. We are moving tiny steps with our future work with University of El Paso and all that, but we could do it ourselves. It would cost resources and money, but I think that that should be a primary thing for us to do. Those would be two initial good battles to fight. I think that with those two things, there’s enough there to do for a while.
FS: What’s your favorite thing about being here at Olin?
OM: You guys [students]. It’s easy, it’s trite, and I think most of the faculty when you ask them, that’s the easy answer. I would amend that to include my colleagues. They’re just wonderful people. I think everybody here gets that we’re here for a reason. I think for the most part we all think that we could be other places. I know that’s a little bit stretching it, but certainly for students, that’s true. For the most part, you could get in to many other schools. So if you’re here, you know what you’re getting yourself into. I think the faculty know what they’re getting themselves into.
One thing that I love, oh my God I love the passion. Even when we have faculty or student discussions and angst, and “no, the curriculum, we should teach this way, we should teach the other way,” Believe it or not, this is me, the Latin person from the outside saying, “wow, you people are very dramatic about these things.”
But I love that. Because it actually means people profoundly care. I want that discussion to happen. It’s like a democracy. You have life. The opposite of having just people, “Mm, I don’t care.” That’s death. I think that as long as we have healthy discussion that that is good.
If you want to flip a little bit back to things that I would change, I would like for us to have more mega projects so that we can act more like a unit. Faculty can be very creative, but being creative versus having an impact might have a balance. If there’s a good program, or a good direction, let’s embrace that direction. I remember one of Rick Miller’s first white papers was about bioengineering. It didn’t happen, certainly not to the extent that that paper envisioned it was going to happen.
FS: That we would become a school much more focused in bioengineering?
OM: Yeah. Maybe this was just my read, but it sounded like you would have a bioengineering core that would be as powerful and as extensive and formal as you have an ME and ECE core. And I think that that would have been very revolutionary. I still think that one of our strongest exercises that we need to do is we need to figure out how to get chemistry and bio in the first year. I know it hasn’t happened because it’s hard, but again, that’s why we’re here, to solve the hard problems. I would really like to see how can we get first-year students to do meaningful, exciting design in biological systems. How do we do that?
FS: Is there anything else that we haven’t talked about that you’d like to put in here?
OM: Yes: my number one plea. The older I become, the more I realize that being a successful student is not so much about what you know, but it’s how you act and it’s how you feel about what you act. And again, this is not wisdom, this is just age. I’ve been faced so much with the imposter syndrome, which by the way, I learned in the Gender and Engineering co-curricular. The irony is that in places where there are really smart people, there’s far more imposter syndrome than in places where there should be imposter syndrome. I went through this. I thought that the only reason I got good grades and I was able to succeed was that I’m not naturally intelligent I’m just a really hard worker.
And you know what? It’s not true. I know now that there is nobody that’s just [so] naturally intelligent [that they don’t have to work]. We all feel that way. But I really would like for Olin students to know really the caliber, the potential—and this is going to sound cheesy, but it isn’t—really the potential that each and every one of you has. That I’m in awe of all of you. That I am amazed. That I admire all of you. That I think all the faculty do.
It’s not just me. That, and I know it’s really hard to be young and understand all the potential that you have, but the experience of being at Olin (and I think we’re one of the best places) should be a happy place, should be a happy thing, and should very much reinforce all the possibilities of what you guys can do. But I think it starts by being very clear, and making all of you understand that you make us better because you’re here. Not the other way around. You don’t have to prove to us that you deserve to be an Olin student. We have to prove that we’re worthy of teaching you. And if there’s a closing thought, that’s that.