Aspiring mechanical engineer explains why he chose to pursue a degree in math first

Features > The Caribbean

By STEM Caribbean | Posted on June 3, 2019

Hashim Gray

Anyone considering pursuing an engineering degree would most likely be advised to appreciate math to a large extent.  The foundation of engineering involves math and requires many applications of mathematical theories, from pre-calculus to partial ordinary differential equations, for some engineering disciplines. Although math is often ruled out as a necessity for certain types of careers, it’s also essential in our everyday lives. If you spend a few minutes contemplating on your daily activities, you would probably realize that math is incorporated in many more ways than we sometimes think of, for example, cooking, shopping at the grocery store for the best deals, budgeting, time management, and traveling/commuting. Math also helps with critical and problem-solving skills. Meet Jamaican American, Hashim Gray, who discovered that he couldn’t get enough of math by only pursuing an engineering degree.

Hashim was surrounded by high achievers while growing up in a Jamaican household in the United States and he strived to excel at school in all areas. Unlike many students, he loved math, which he was generally inclined to at school. This passion compelled him to pursue a degree that would involve math and its applications. He eventually chose to pursue a degree in civil engineering at the State University of New York, Buffalo. Once he began that engineering program, he realized that the content taught in the courses was not what he expected to learn. He then switched his degree major to math, his first interest. 

Hashim expressed that obtaining a math degree helped explain seemingly simple mathematical concepts and facts, such as the reason 2 is the sum of 1 and 1, and why the number 2 comes after 1. By the time he was in the last year of the math degree program, he had set a goal of pursuing another degree, this time in mechanical engineering. Already having a strong and broad foundation in math, Hashim has been able to grasp concepts more quickly than his peers in the courses which he has been taking in the mechanical engineering program. His two favourite mechanical engineering courses are thermodynamics and energy conversion which sparked his interest in jet engines, turbines, and power plants. In December this year, he will be completing the program at New York Institute of Technology and has an interest in working in the automotive or aerospace industry. 

Hashim Gray

Studying engineering can be challenging, but Hashim balanced the late-night study sessions, working on campus, leadership roles, and playing football during the semester. Two of the leadership roles which he held was President of the National Society of Black Engineers, and resident assistant, which is arguably one of the most challenging positions for a student. As a resident assistant, he was responsible for overseeing 35 students with learning disabilities and autism spectrum diagnosis. In addition to playing an active role in the experiences of other students on campus, Hashim also gained experience in engineering during the holiday breaks. Last year he interned for a company in New Jersey where he explored different aspects of engineering and improved his skills in essential engineering software programs. The internship program also helped him discover more about himself and grow professionally. 

In our conversation with Hashim below, he explains why he chose to pursue two degrees and offers advice to anyone interested in studying math or mechanical engineering.

Why did you first pursue a degree in math? Was math one of your favourite subjects in school while growing up?

Growing up in a Jamaican household, excelling in all subjects was always enforced and was my personal goal. Even with that in mind, math naturally came easy to me. While in high school, looking towards the major I wanted to pursue in college, I wanted to pursue a degree that involved mathematics as well as something that I could use math to expand my knowledge on that particular major, and engineering seemed like something that fit perfectly and would maintain my interest. When I first went to the college, I decided to pursue a degree in civil engineering, but as I went further in the program, I realized the material that I was learning wasn’t exactly what I expected from the major. So I switched my major to mathematics because I still had an interest in the subject, and I wanted to learn the theory portion of mathematics, which I believed would be useful in my future.

What’s one course you enjoyed while you were studying math?

One of my favorite courses in my math curriculum was “Introduction to Higher Math.” This course gave me a solid basis for the theoretical portion of mathematics. This was a course heavy on proofs and definitions, such as proving why 1+1=2 and why 2 comes after 1. Although these may seem like obvious mathematical statement, it is more complex than what you see on the surface. 

What motivated you to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering?

In my senior year of my math degree, I had already decided that I was going to pursue another degree in engineering, but I made sure I thoroughly researched each field of engineering prior to deciding on my engineering discipline. I decided on mechanical engineering because it is the broadest type of engineering. I am a person that likes to know where things are originated from and how they function and mechanical engineering is the perfect discipline for that.

How much has the math degree helped with mechanical engineering courses?

My degree has definitely helped me a lot with my mechanical engineering courses. I believe that math is at the core of all engineering. With my mathematical background, some concepts in my courses are easier to grasp for me, giving me a small advantage among my peers. 

Is there a course that you loved while studying mechanical engineering?

It’s weird that the courses that I look back and say that I enjoyed studying the most, were the most difficult courses for me. I feel like as any student goes through the mechanical engineering curriculum, there will be courses that they naturally gravitate towards. I was fascinated with the courses Thermodynamics and Energy Conversion (technically Thermodynamics II). The way that the material was explained and the concept of how jet engines, power plants, and turbines function really grasped my attention. I can see myself working on similar topics on projects in my professional career.

What professional goals do you have?

I plan of pursuing a position in a company that works with automotive and/or aerospace. I have always had an interest in aerospace, and I have recently found strong interest in automobiles, which could stem from my father being a mechanic. Ultimately, I would like to be in a position where I would be in charge of major projects and other engineers in different fields, where we would also have an opportunity to learn from one another and make a change in the world. Although my goals may alter as I gain more experience, I believe I would be content as long as I can learn something new and expand and share my knowledge.

What do you like to do in your free time?

I play football in a Men’s league on the weekend and with my friends during the week. I recently have been trying to learn Spanish, I’ve been intrigued by the Spanish culture through the football games that I have watched throughout the years, and I accept any fun challenge that can make me more versatile as a person. I also try to travel every year with my friends because I believe vacations are a necessity.

What advice do you have for Caribbean students considering to study math or mechanical engineering at university?

The best advice I can give is to make sure you actually have a passion for either math or mechanical engineering, because although the road to success in these fields are difficult, having a high interest and passion for it will make it easier and worth it in the long run. Also, don’t be timid, and reach out to other Caribbean students and professionals, although it may not seem like it, there are a lot of Caribbean students and professionals in these fields that have already gone through what you will be going through.

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