From designing lunch boxes for consumers in India to working in Silicon Valley, Leslie Light is an engineer who has experienced the career many Mines students dream of. Officially the Teaching Associate Professor and Director of EPICS, Leslie Light is now using her engineering experiences to enhance the EPICS design course sequence here at Colorado School of Mines.
“I never dreamed of being a professor,” Leslie says with a laugh. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Professor Light’s love of math and science led her to pursue a degree in engineering at Stanford University. As she was listening to a panel of Stanford professors from different engineering disciplines one day, Leslie was inspired to study Product Design Engineering, a unique spin on Mechanical Engineering that includes aesthetic features and human factors.
“A lack of human connection is the reason that there are so many poorly-designed products,” Leslie asserts. Product Design Engineering also fosters creativity and allowed her to spend plenty of time interacting with technology and designing products in the workshop—something that she still enjoys immensely. Armed with this interesting degree, she chose to complete her education with an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.
“There are two ways to run your career,” Leslie contends. “You can know what you want to do at age 10 and then work to accomplish that, or, you can not know but follow opportunities that pique your interest.” Leslie definitely identifies with the latter philosophy. Newly graduated and having never been out of the country before, Leslie followed a strange opportunity to travel to India for 6 months designing steam valves as a product design engineer. While she soon discovered that this was not the job for her, Leslie did enjoy working in the factories of India and stayed in the country with a new job modernizing designs for an Indian container company. In her time with Eagle Flasks, she designed 12 new products (one of which was named after her!), interviewed countless consumers, and ultimately, learned more about how cultural differences and expectations fundamentally impact the engineering process.
While she teaches two sections of EPICS I this semester, Leslie’s main responsibility at Mines is to facilitate changes in the entire program. “My goal is to make EPICS the one in a million program that students love to engage in and faculty love to teach.” Changes will include shifting the course focus from lecture and intensive technical writing to a creative problem-solving approach, linking EPICS I, II, technical courses, and Senior Design more effectively, and most importantly, giving students the ability to approach and fix future engineering and science challenges.
“The skills that today’s engineers and scientists need most are persistence, user empathy, and the ability to focus on the details when needed,” explains Leslie. While the changes to the EPICS curriculum will work to develop these in students, modifications to the program will certainly take time. One of the most challenging aspects of Leslie’s role as a leader of change is that the sheer scale of EPICS makes it difficult to implement improvements efficiently and in a timely-manner. This year’s EPICS design project, engineering a residence hall for international students studying English at Mountain Language Institute, is an example of a real-world engineering dilemma that requires students to focus on human-centered problem definition while carefully analyzing technical details.
“I found Golden before I found Mines,” Leslie says on her journey to professor. “I’ve roamed the world and it’s the only town that has felt like a long-term home.” While she didn’t plan on connecting with School of Mines, living in such close proximity to campus while working in an International Development Role produced an opportunity through the Humanitarian Engineering Department, which eventually led to her integral role in the EPICS program today. “I’m so glad I was open to the opportunities that I would have missed had I been too single-minded about my career,” she recalls. Even though she never imagined teaching college students, following her passion for creative thinking, conscientious design principles, and engineering with care allows Leslie to make a difference in the lives of Mines students every single day. Leslie’s advice for engineering students at School of Mines is “not to restrict opportunities out of fear or unfamiliarity, but to allow curiosity and passion to take you to new places.”