Engineers As Artists

(L to R: Sarah Organ, Ryan Solomon, Arjun Shankar and Emily Peters)

If Penn students were asked in a random campus survey to describe their individual skillsets and learning styles as either “left brain” (analytical, qualitative) or “right brain” (artistic, intuitive), the majority would most likely answer by naming one cerebral hemisphere or the other. An exceptional and talented few would be able to reply, “both.”

Penn Engineers Sarah Organ, Ryan Solomon, Arjun Shankar and Emily Peters (pictured from left) are members of this unique cohort. Their range of talents and how they express them should not be surprising. Together, they show that engineers are fundamentally creators, whether they are developing the next biomedical or nanotech devices, or using their voices to sing or bodies to dance.

Invitation Of A Lifetime

Arjun Shankar, senior in Bioengineering and a tenor with the Penn Glee Club, describes the energies he dedicates to both his studies and to his practices and productions with the 155-year-old club as “feeding all parts of his brain.” In past years, as student music director and a board member of the club, Shankar’s time commitment was close to ten hours a week. He currently spends at least seven hours a week practicing. And then there’s the traveling.

Shankar counts singing The Lion King’s “Circle of Life” at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro during the club’s 2014 Spring Tour as his favorite Glee Club memory, but performing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. that same year easily ranks a close second. Having greeted 700 or so guests with a song at the annual White House Holiday Party, the club members received the surprise invitation of a lifetime: Would they meet with and perform privately for the President and First Lady? With a unanimous “Yes!” Shankar and the others soon found themselves in the Diplomatic Reception Room, shaking hands with President and Mrs. Obama and singing a short set of songs for their entertainment.

In his recent application for a Fulbright Scholarship, Shankar proposed a research concentration that would even more strongly connect his work in bioengineering with his love of singing. He intends to investigate the physiology of vocal production in both Indian pop and the Hindustani and Carnatic classical music traditions of India.

All About The Blend

Emily Peters, music director for the Quaker Notes, the University’s all-female a cappella group, is another engineering student who finds creative expression through song. At tryouts early in the fall of her freshman year, Peters, still somewhat unfamiliar with the Quaker Notes’ culture, had reservations about joining. The possibility of the environment proving to be overly competitive or at worst harshly critical and a distraction from her studies concerned her. But throughout the requisite three rounds of auditions, which she successfully completed, Peters was relieved to discover that quite the opposite was true.

Group singing without instrumental accompaniment is all about “the blend,” and blending requires active listening and self-correcting. And while these concepts refer musically to voice parts, they can also be applied to the personalities of the members. Peters, an alto, found the 13 other singers to be collaborative, supportive and dedicated to the group’s sound.

A junior majoring in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Peters works with the Quaker Notes for three hours, two days a week, but points out that practice can take place anywhere. Should one observe, for instance, any young woman emitting vocal percussive and rhythmic sounds as she makes her way across campus, she is most likely a “QNote.”

Throughout the past few years, Peters has learned and performed more than 60 songs with the Quaker Notes and now creates her own arrangements using an online program called “Noteflight.” She has gained experience as a leader within the group, and finds that singing and performing keeps her stress levels down. She is also strongly connected socially to the group, meeting up for dinners and evenings out, often along with singers from the Pennchants, the Quaker Notes’ “brother” group.

Dedication And Discipline

Sarah Organ, Sparks Dance Company (SDC) artistic director, is a Computer Science major who chose to submatriculate into the Systems Engineering master’s program. SDC, founded at Penn in 1989 to incorporate dance performance with community service, is another close-knit performing arts group on campus.

The 12-member SDC performs in a range of dance styles, including ballet, modern, jazz and hip-hop. Members choreograph their own dances and produce on-campus shows in the spring and the fall. SDC can also be seen performing throughout Philadelphia, sharing their art with audiences at the Ronald McDonald House and Salvation Army.

Trained as a dancer since the age of 3, Organ has long been familiar with the dedication and discipline intrinsic to success as a performance artist. Each week, she attends a one-hour technique class, taught by professional jazz and ballet instructors, and an additional nine hours of rehearsals. (She also puts in 24 hours a month with Philadelphia’s Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT), but that’s for another story!)

Along with the edifying artistic interaction with her peers, Organ feels that she benefits mentally from her SDC activities. Her ability to think critically, she asserts, has been enhanced by the memorization, pattern recognition and attention to detail required in dance performance. The design of a dance presents a series of puzzles with a multitude of possible answers for the dancer, and Organ has found that her problem-solving skills have been honed through her art. Her ability to bring self-expression to an audience has given Organ a self-confidence that ultimately informs her academic and extracurricular pursuits.

Creativity As Cornerstone

Ryan Solomon, a member of the University’s venerable Mask and Wig Club, was 8 years old and at summer camp when he made a life-shaping decision he remembers with great clarity. Presently a candidate for a Master of Science in Engineering in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, Solomon was presented with the choice between two camp activities: playing soccer or putting on a play. While most of his friends gravitated to the soccer pitch, Solomon stepped into the unknown, making the choice he now recognizes as seminal: the stage.

Solomon, who understandably finds it a point of pride to have never “pulled an all-nighter,” dedicates 15 to 25 hours per week to Mask and Wig, and this significant commitment has afforded him the opportunity to direct, write and perform. As director of the Freshman Fall Free Show for the past two years, Solomon and the 19-member club sang, tapped and played to a packed house at the Annenberg Center’s Zellerbach Theater. In the spring, they take their Annual Show on the road, using a script developed by club writers which is professionally directed and choreographed.

Solomon sees creativity as the “cornerstone of engineering” and notes a strong correlation between his Mechanical Engineering concentration in product design and his theatrical background in script writing. “Both require ideation and iteration through the creative process,” he explains, “with the intent of developing a deep emotional bond to the audience.”

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