Maija Benitz

Class of 2008, Physics major and Math minor

Assistant Professor of Engineering Roger Williams University

Q & A

I like that I get to teach students, that is my favorite part of what I do. I also like that as an academic I get to explore areas I am interested in in a way that is very free and open and allows me to follow my passion. I also enjoy the community at the university with both faculty and students.

My job is different day-to-day. I can explore what I want to and it can change throughout my career as my interests change. I am able to do research in collaboration with other faculty in the education or marine biology or psychology departments, and I am able to explore the connections between my work and others.

I have to say it's Baca. Some of my favorite times were going to Baca with my quantum mechanics classes. It was nice to be able to take a break from everything that happened on campus and just spend time secluded in the mountains with your fellow majors and a faculty member. I liked working really long problem sets in this beautiful place then taking time off at night to explore the area and bond with my fellow majors and faculty.

Since I work as an engineering professor, it does really come in handy. All of the engineering concepts I teach are based on physical properties. I constantly rely on my background in physics, classical mechanics especially, since I am a mechanical engineer. I do math every day with my students. Physics has provided the fundamentals of everything I do on a daily basis.

Engineering is fundamentally different than physics because we are willing to make approximations and assumptions in a lot of places just so we can get an answer. We are ok with answers that are close enough but not exactly right. Engineering is different than other sciences in general, too, because other sciences are built on a linear model of setting up a hypothesis and testing your results against the hypothesis whereas engineering is more circular. We come up with a problem statement, brainstorm lots of different solutions to it, and then test until we find the best solution possible to deliver to the end-user. Even then, the cycle continues as we aim to improve the solution.

I never really thought I would be a faculty member. I left CC with a very open mind about where I would end up, and I feel really lucky I ended up in a job I love so much. I am surprised I didn't end up in a lab or a company. I think it's important for students to know that they don't have to know exactly where they're headed, and even if they land somewhere right after college, it doesn't mean you're going to be there forever. I think CC students are trained to think creatively so they are well prepared to thrive in a lot of different places.

In high school, I really wanted to be a math major and become a math teacher. During my time at CC, I pivoted to physics and thought I really wanted to work in renewable energy, so I thought about working at a company or lab and that set my path forward for grad school. However, I got involved with the community service clubs at CC working on renewable energy development and that was where a lot of my passion and focus was while I was at CC.

I was the math paraprofessional after graduating. I loved teaching problem sessions and still having access to the CC community. I also got some time to figure out where I wanted to go to grad school and study for the GRE. I ended up going to UMass Amherst, where they have the oldest wind energy program in the country. I got my Master's in mechanical engineering and thought I may leave to get a job but decided to stay. I got my Ph.D. in mechanical engineering focusing on wind energy. During grad school, I also spent a summer at the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) in Colorado. Once I finished, I taught physics and math for a year at Evergreen State in Washington. After that, I got the job I have now at Roger Williams in Rhode Island.

I took a bunch of math classes when I got to CC, but I started to get curious about how math is used in an applied sense. I never took physics in high school, so I had no idea why one would do calculus or how to apply it in the real world. When I took PY241, I totally fell in love with how you could use math to get real-world answers to problems and started shifting my focus to physics.

I did a service trip to India while I was at CC where we installed solar panels. We collaborated with a CC alum who was working as an engineer on all sorts of cool renewable energy projects. He had what I thought of as my dream job at the time, so I got excited about using my physics skillset to do something more applied that would be a more direct way of helping people in the world. I wanted to get out there and implement something.

In grad school, I worked with modeling relevant to offshore wind energy. I was drawn to Roger Williams because it's in Rhode Island where the offshore wind farm in the US was built. Because of the location and the growth potential of wind energy here, I have had lots of opportunities to grow in my area of expertise. I teach several classes on wind energy and ocean physics where I get to take my students out on the water and the beach to observe the phenomena we study and model. Since the local community is tied to the growth of wind energy, I have also made a community outreach component of my wind energy class where my students go into fourth-grade classrooms to talk about wind energy.

I think it is a great and natural pivot. Physics fundamentals are very helpful as an engineering grad student and as an engineer. The strong foundation allows one to grow into a really strong engineer.

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