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What the heck is an engineer anyway?

I always knew I wanted to study biology. But before enrolling in college, my university threw me a curveball: Did I want to major in science or engineering?

It was the first time I’d even heard of engineering as a field—at least outside the context of driving trains. It was never a subject in school—those were social studies, English, gym—and now I had to choose between enrolling in the School of Engineering or the School of Everything Else. Those really were the two choices. The only degrees my school offered were a Bachelor of Arts—which included clearly non-arts fields like chemistry and computer science—or a Bachelor of Science in Engineering.

What was this so-called “engineering”? And how did it somehow become so prominent that it balanced against arts-and-sciences-and-politics-and-sociology-and-economics-and-philosophy? If the world could be divided into engineering and everything else, why had I never heard of engineering?

I remember running frantically through a college fair, asking every booth attendant the same questions: What’s an engineer? How is an engineer different from a scientist? And, most importantly, can I keep this pen?

One of the first answers someone gave me was that “engineers solve problems.” Neat. Maybe I should be an engineer. Scientists, on the other hand, … do what with problems? Ignore them? Describe them? Wish for them to go away? Create them? Exacerbate them?

I next asked the most biased possible person: the dean of my university’s engineering school. “There are no jobs for scientists!” he exclaimed. “There are always jobs for engineers!”

Aha,” I thought. “Because they solve problems.”

And that’s how I (a) joined the engineering school and (b) ran screaming from the engineering school a year and a half later, after scoring a 20% on my Introduction to Chemical Engineering midterm.

Twenty years later, I’m a scientist (with a job—take that, engineering dean), but I still have no idea where to draw the line between science and engineering. In one of my graduate school rotations, for example, I worked on protein engineering. But I was enrolled in the biology department—and the lab where I rotated was in the chemistry department.

It’s not something I think about a lot. I don’t stay awake wondering whether a degree from the School of Engineering would have helped me solve more problems. (In fact, in light of my midterm score, I think it would have created some.) But the subject resurfaced recently when I gave a talk at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory about how members of the public view scientists. Someone approached me afterward to suggest that I expand the talk to include the public perception of engineers.

The comment surprised me. I had assumed that engineers are kind of subsumed within the umbrella of science. Were engineers really listening to a talk about scientists and thinking, “Nah, that’s not me”?

I asked Science Careers reporter Maggie Kuo, who trained as a biomedical engineer, what she had understood as the distinction between the two when she chose her field. “Engineers build things,” she wrote, “and scientists understand things.”

So, do engineers not understand what they build? Like, they make a car, but then they think the car is magic? Or, when it would be helpful for scientists’ research to build something, do they just shrug and go home?

I spent some time Googling “science vs engineering.” It seems a lot of people have asked this question. (Hopefully these people are 12th graders deciding their life’s path, not scientists and engineers wondering what they’re supposed to be doing at work.) In fact, it came up as Google Autocomplete’s fifth-most-suggested closing for “science vs,” with the first four being “religion,” “pseudoscience,” “God,” and “magic.”

One distinction I read is that “science creates questions, while engineering creates solutions.” This almost sounds like it gives engineers license to be annoyed with scientists. I can hear them now: “Dang, all we do is create solutions, but those jerks in the science department just keep asking more questions!”

Another is that “engineers solve real problems, while scientists solve theoretical problems.” This explanation sounds like it was written to deliberately shortchange scientists—because when a theoretical problem has a theoretical solution, what’s to say they’re not both a bunch of bull? How many roads must a man walk down? Five. Good job, scientists.

I’ve also read that “all scientists are engineers, but not all engineers are scientists.” By this logic, I’m clearly underpaid, because I’m doing two jobs.

Here’s an interesting one: “Engineers are hard workers, while scientists are free workers.” While I’ve certainly known many scientists who essentially work for free (hooray for postdocs!), I think this oversimplification captures the romantic misperceptions about both fields. We want to see scientists as visionaries, exploring the corridors of the possible. And we want to see engineers as highly competent but narrowly focused, ensuring that the joists of those corridors have been machined to the proper specifications.

Many of these aphorisms reinforce the too facile portrayal of scientists as theorists and explorers, while engineers are solvers of real-world problems. Indeed, this is the most common characterization of scientists versus engineers. It reminds me of two books by the same author that my 6-year-old daughter owns: Rosie Revere, Engineer and Ada Twist, Scientist. Both are great rhyming stories about kids destined for certain careers based on their talents and proclivities. Rosie Revere builds awesome machines that she sketches on graph paper. Ada Twist, on the other hand, basically just asks “why?” a lot.

The problem with this representation is that it discounts the existence of applied scientists, and of theoretical engineers—both of which are real. Often scientists solve problems, and often engineers ask “why?” (Granted, this is sometimes because scientists are solving problems that engineers inadvertently created by asking “why?” and because engineers are asking, “Why … did the scientists think they could solve this problem?”)

The predominant feeling that I got from reading a Google search full of suggested answers, however, is that the distinction between science and engineering feels forced. It’s as though someone demanded that the difference had to be summarized in a pithy sentence. But the subtext is that the two aren’t all that different—at least, not to scientists and engineers.

I hope this article doesn’t start an internet flame war between the two camps. (Scientists: “I will investigate why you suck.” Engineers: “I don’t care why, but I will quantify, to five decimal places, exactly how much you suck.”)

I hope, instead, that it answers my question from 20 years ago, a question many science trainees face today: What’s the difference between a scientist and an engineer?

The answer: Surprisingly little.

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