Ji Young Yoon is a Mechanical Workshop Technician in the Faculty of Engineering. She began her university journey in dentistry, but quickly realised her real interests lay in engineering.
She made the brave choice to change her path, and has never looked back.
Listen to Ji in this full audio interview, or read the highlights below.
When was the first moment you felt like a scientist?
I don't usually call myself a scientist. I'm a mechanical engineer, and a scientist might not agree if I start to call myself a scientist! I think, however, we are like cousins. I work with scientists every day here at Imperial and we are all under the umbrella of STEM which is the term for science technology engineering and math.
Actually, because of this question, I thought about it and I looked up what is actually the real difference between ‘scientist’ and ‘engineer’ and I found that the goal of science is to produce more knowledge. Scientists ask questions like ‘why does this happen?’ And they observe and investigate. Whereas an engineer’s goal is to provide something that solves a problem. Engineers are problem solvers, and they ask questions like ‘how can I make something happen?’ Engineers provide solutions to programs and try to improve human life. It is most likely if you work at a place like Imperial you will be working with people from various backgrounds in their specialism but under the umbrella term of STEM.
The first moment I felt like an engineer…I don’t have an amazing story unfortunately. It’s maybe my first day at work when I first got the job and received my first business card. I remember it was a very special moment and a very exciting moment.
Scientists ask questions like ‘why does this happen?’ And they observe and investigate. Whereas an engineer’s goal is to provide something that solves a problem.
Why didn't you describe yourself as an engineer before that point?
Growing up, I always had this problem solving mindset and I loved making and creating things. And when I was a student, I still remember I built a canoe out of concrete, because that was the aim of the project – you will be building a canoe with the concrete and you will be racing them. You'll be on the boat and you'll be rowing this canoe. I still remember at the end of the race I started to see these cracks getting worse and worse and then water was coming in. It was a really fun experience even though the outcome was not something I was hoping for. But, you know, I was becoming an engineer, learning from failure, learning from different experiences. Even now I'm learning every day so am I an engineer, yes. I think I am, but I think I'm becoming a better engineer every day by putting myself out there to fail every day, or make some kind of mistake. I’m always looking for the cracks in the canoe!
I think we look great with our goggles, our lab coats. You make it look good, you make it look great!
What do you think are some of the biggest myths about being an engineer?
I know certainly some of my friends think engineers have terrible fashion sense, as well as like we just carry books and have heavy backpacks. But I do disagree with that. We just maybe have a different fashion sense. I think we look great with our goggles, our lab coats. You make it look good, you make it look great!
Engineers actually have to be very creative to solve difficult problems. You know, companies like Tiffany & Co, which is a jewelry company, have engineering jobs. I think engineering jobs can vary so much, it's almost like engineering rules exist in almost every company, because it's about producing something and often it's physical things and you need engineers to produce them in mass quantities.
So you can work in any industry. If you really are passionate about planes, you can go work in Airbus or Boeing. If you're interested in farming equipment, you can work for a Caterpillar or John Deere or something like that right. If you love cars, you can go work for McLaren or Lamborghini. Endless opportunities are out there, and I think engineers definitely need to be creative in order to solve very difficult challenges and unique challenges, so we have to have that intersection of art. Art students are I guess more perceived as creative, but actually scientists and engineers equally need to be creative like an artist.
Are there other reasons you think someone should pursue studies or a career in engineering?
It is okay not to know what you want to do in life. There’s so much pressure at a young age, especially when you are not quite sure what you want to do in life. And if you look at STEM, there's so many different things you can do – biology, chemistry, engineering. Even within engineering there is chemical engineering, mechanical engineering. Like, what do I want to do? It's hard to choose, especially if you haven't had an opportunity to talk to someone, or had exposure to different jobs.
It is okay to design your life the way you want and choose what works for you.
Even if you think you know your dreams, dreams can change and your interests can change. I don't want to put a limit or a number on when you should go to university and do your Master's and PhD. It is okay to design your life the way you want and choose what works for you. So if you don't want to go to university but you're interested in STEM you could apply for an apprenticeships program here at Imperial. We have great apprenticeship opportunities. Once you complete, you can work for Imperial mostly in a lab setting or within another higher education institution. And if you want to get a Bachelor's or Master's degree, you still can do that after completing your apprenticeship. I am currently finishing a Master's degree and I'm working a full time job. So, learning is a lifelong journey.
I was not actually an engineering student when I first enrolled in university. I was a dentistry student who was taking courses like chemistry and biology. I was not bad at chemistry and biology and physics when I was in high school, and I didn't hate them, so I was like ‘sure, which one should i choose?’ I didn't mind chemistry, I didn't mind biology, I didn't mind physics, I was getting good grades. I just did Pre-dentistry because my parents kept pushing me to go for Pre-dentistry because they want me to become a dentist. I also was good with art and sports and in my first year of uni I started to feel that I no longer was interested in building deeper knowledge in chemistry. I realised that what I really wanted was to study engineering, and specifically mechanical engineering. I applied to the engineering school at the university and got in and started a new chapter. I don't regret this choice, I think this was the best decision.
Is there any advice you would offer your younger self or people in a similar situation?
Don't listen too much to what people say about what you should do with your life. Personally, I grew up in Korea and there was a big cultural influence in this. My parents always wanted to guide me, but life is all about you taking ownership of your life. I think it's good to get to know yourself and get to know what you like, rather than teachers telling you ‘oh, you know, you should be an artist, you're really good at art’, but if you really like STEM, then pursue it.