Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering
Jessica Shang has always been a hands-on learner, and she got early exposure to engineering because her father worked in the field. Her childhood interests in tools, tinkering, and math and science continued into her student life and career. As an undergraduate at Harvard, she even designed flying robots as a way to explore the mechanisms of biological movement and how we can use nature’s designs in machines.
Although Shang’s research area is fluid mechanics generally, one specific aspect of her work involves examining how flexibility affects flows. Natural materials, ranging from plants to wings, have evolved to be light and flexible. These materials often interact with flows differently than the rigid materials traditionally used in engineering design. Shang asks how these mechanics inform our understanding of biological phenomena, and under what conditions this knowledge may be useful for human design.
She enjoys “trying to find what the really interesting problems are that no one is looking at,” and devising experiments to understand the “underlying physics.” She sees the process as going back to the basic problem or question at the heart of the matter, and then seeing how it can help illuminate the actual problem at hand. That mindset is one she hopes to teach her undergraduate students, who she says are “energetic, optimistic, and highly involved.”
As a woman in academia, Shang has seen how imposter syndrome—an inability to recognize one’s own accomplishments—can be pervasive and damaging, as can the permissive culture of allowing inappropriate behavior under the guise of “boys will be boys.” When women are labeled as the “woman engineer” or “woman scientist” (instead of simply, “engineer”), it can cause them to doubt their professional identities. However, Shang says, women can combat this by having confidence in themselves.
She admits that it is hard to give tips to other women wanting to go into academia, in part because everyone comes at it from such different perspectives. However, she encourages women to remind themselves, “I’m good enough, and I deserve to be here.” She also emphasizes the importance of having a support network of friends, family, advisors, and others who believe in you.
As of late, Shang has gotten into amateur woodworking, which she uses as an outlet for physical creative work now that she is directing her lab and teaching. She enjoys spending time with her pet cat and dog as well.