A novel penned by a mechanical engineering alum tells the story of two freshmen college students and their journey to discover what engineering is.
Najeeb Kuzhiyil, who graduated with a PhD in ME in 2013, recently published his first novel: Spirit of Engineering: The Journey of Two College Freshmen and the Soul of Engineering. The idea to write the book, which was published in December 2017, first came to Kuzhiyil while he was a student at Iowa State.
“So I thought before you begin your undergrad studies, you should understand what engineering is in simple terms,” said Kuzhiyil. “I really wanted to write a book that was simple enough for high school students.”
The book took about a year and a half to write and started out as separate essays covering four pillars of engineering: methodical approach, practical skills, abstraction, and creativity.
“One morning I was lying in my bed and I thought why don’t I tell this as a story. I can include all of these concepts and wind them into a nice plot,” Kuzhiyil said.
The target audience for the book is high school students or perhaps even freshmen in college. The plot is set in modern times and follows around two main characters who are both first year engineering students at an unnamed Midwestern college: Matt from northern Iowa and Maya from India.
Matt and Maya come across a presentation about the Wright Brothers which piques their interest to the point that they decide to travel to the Wright Brothers museum in Dayton, Ohio in an attempt to better understand what engineering really is. During their travels they meet an experienced, middle-aged engineer who helps them understand how math, physics, and other natural phenomena apply to engineering.
Kuzhiyil said that his PhD advisor Robert C. Brown, Anson Marston Distinguished Professor in Engineering, was a major influence on him personally and with his writing style specifically.
“He’s a wonderful engineer and he’s a great writer because we as engineers aren’t always great writers,” said Kuzhiyil. “Before coming to Iowa State I never paid attention to my English but Dr. Brown told us ‘You might be great engineers but you also have to learn how to write well. It’s very important to be able to express your ideas.’”
Brown, who also serves as director of the Bioeconomy Institute at Iowa State, wrote the foreword of the book. He said he thinks the book can be helpful for the next generation of engineers.
“I would have benefited from this book when I was in high school, at the time having no clear idea of the engineering profession. Even today despite the emphasis on STEM education, engineers are rarely portrayed in popular culture except for the occasional less than flattering role of bumbling technocrat. Najeeb’s book helps to overcome this stereotype,” Brown said.
Kuzhiyil cited Brown, whose research focuses on biorenewable resources, as a major reason why he chose Iowa State to pursue his PhD. Kuzhiyil is originally from the state of Kerala in southern India. He attended school in the city of Kochi and began developing an interest in chemical engineering in high school. He attributed his interest in engineering to his older brother, Dr. Abdul Kader, who studied chemistry and worked at a fertilizer manufacturing company.
“I didn’t know anything about chemical engineering, but as a kid I thought it would be cool to learn about it,” he said, adding there was a large petroleum refinery close to home that always fascinated him.
Kuzhiyil graduated with a bachelor of technology in chemical engineering from the University of Calicut and went on to work as a tech service engineer for Indian Oil Corporation.
After a decade in industry, Kuzhiyil decided to pursue an advanced degree. In graduate school his interest shifted from chemical engineering to renewable energy. He graduated with a MS in Combustion and Energy from the University of Leeds in England in 2005.
Kuzhiyil came to Iowa State in 2008 and was involved in various groups outside of his engineering studies, including serving as president of the Indian Students Association from 2009 to 2010. Despite spending just three years in Ames, Kuzhiyil said he made friends and memories that will last a lifetime.
“There were so many moments I really enjoyed at Iowa State,” said Kuzhiyil. “Our research group was so big we had people from all over the world. We had people from India, China, Europe, Africa, from all over and we had discussions on science, on politics, on life, on love, on everything. They were all great for me because different viewpoints and perspectives on different things were really insightful. I really had a blast and enjoyed every moment of my PhD.”
Kuzhiyil added that he loved the beauty of Iowa State’s campus, especially during the spring bloom, and that he enjoyed participating in the International Food Festival during the annual VEISHEA celebration.
After completing his PhD, he worked as a fuels and lubricants technologist at General Electric for six years. In November 2017, he was hired as a staff engineer in synthetic lubricants at ExxonMobil Corporation. His current work focuses on engine oils and gear oils and how it relates to fuel economy.
“By using synthetic lubricants we can improve fuel and the energy efficiency. Synthetics are more of a move toward a sustainable future,” Kuzhiyil said, adding that the job has been a nice marriage between his interests in chemical engineering and renewable energy.
During his career, Kuzhiyil has studied or worked on three different continents. He said that these diverse experiences have contributed to his professional development and have been helpful when approaching challenges.
“In engineering most of the problems we deal with are open-ended. There’s no single answer to many of the problems. You can design things in different ways so the engineer’s job is to design a product or a process or whatever, within the constraints of resources, environment, culture and weather. All of those factors play into the engineering,” said Kuzhiyil.
“Because I come from India, and I lived in Europe and the U.S., all of these places are different if you look at the available resources, the weather, the philosophy, etcetera. I really got a lot of examples of how the same product can be different on these three different continents and I think that’s been helpful in getting me to where I am today.”