Interview with 2008 Basic Sciences Scholarship Winner Dylan Shinzaki

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In applying for your scholarship, you wrote about Dr. Hiroo Kanamori  a Caltech geophysicist who received the 2008 Kyoto Prize for his work in developing earthquake “early warning” systems. What interested you about Dr. Kanamori?

Well, since I was living in San Diego, the idea of earthquakes hit close to home. Physics is something I always thought was pretty interesting: putting together all of these basics of physics to model a natural phenomenon. I was interested in the physical application of that knowledge.

Why did you decide to study mechanical and aerospace engineering?

I’ve always been drawn to engineering because I liked physics in high school, but modern physics is a little too abstract for me. I wanted something more concrete. In high school you don’t have many engineering classes per se. I didn’t know what kind of engineering I wanted to do, but I knew I did better in mechanics than in electromagnetism. And mechanics sounded broad enough that I wouldn’t be too tied down in what I had to do. It’s actually turned out pretty well.

Why did you decide to go to Princeton?

I wanted a school with a good mechanical program. But I didn’t even apply to places like Caltech, partly because it’s too technical. I thought Princeton was a good balance: its engineering school is quite good, but it’s not all about that. There’s a huge number of other offerings, and all of the other departments are quite good. So when I was applying, I thought if I wasn’t sure I wanted to be an engineer, I could change to political science and be perfectly happy. Also, I did want to go somewhere kind of far away [from San Diego]. I actually wanted to go somewhere it snowed.

Your internship was sponsored by Boeing and Princeton. What did you work on?

I was working under Professor Naomi Leonard with some of her grad students. She studies an area of engineering that could broadly be defined as control theory, which is basically just the study of how you control complex systems. We looked at one specific thing. She had purchased a small number of robots that could all be controlled with computers. We studied how you could control their range and movement so you could synchronize their movements. Of course, you could simply hard-code all the movements, but that’s not very dynamic. You want them to be able to respond to external [stimuli]. One of the ways is to use a kind of metaphor with tensegrity structures. Tensegrity structures are just minimal structures that are formed by wires and bars. The idea is that the wires and bars kind of force each end to be a certain distance away from each other to get a stable structure. So with robots, we said, “This robot needs to be this far away from this robot and this robot.” If you program them correctly, then they might form a shape. One of the broader problems we were working on was computer vision. We had to identify the robots from a camera connected to a computer. The computer would put out the appropriate robot instructions as a result of what the camera saw.

Was it enjoyable work?

Control theory is a really interesting aspect of mechanical engineering. Think of all the things that need to be controlled — there are a lot of environmental applications. Professor Leonard is interested in the movement of biological systems, like a school of fish, or birds flying in formation. She looks at how those very complex, very big systems can be analyzed in terms of very simple control laws. I find that interesting: mechanical engineering with biological applications. When you think of mechanical engineering, you think of engines, planes, very non-organic matter — so the idea that it could apply to fish is really kind of cool. I felt really lucky. One advantage of being at Princeton is the huge amount of resources [available]. I felt really lucky that I even got such an opportunity because, you know, freshmen becoming sophomores don’t always get positions under professors.

What do you enjoy most about Princeton?

I’ve met some very interesting people here. Princeton attracts a lot of people who are very good at what they do. Even if you don’t know a lot about whatever they’re studying, it’s very smart to be around someone who really loves what they do and has become really good at it. It encourages me to do the same.

You’re the president of Princeton’s aikido club. What got you interested in martial arts?

Well, I was five years old when I started. I liked it because, you know, you’re told that doing martial arts is cool. I also like sports that I can do barefoot. I remember the fact that I didn’t like things like soccer or baseball — anything with shoes and socks. That was kind of what got me interested, but obviously not what sustained me through the years. As I got older I liked it because it’s a little bit different. The way that they taught it at my first school, it wasn’t very competitive. I think I liked it better than some other sports where everyone gets stressed about who is better.

How do tae kwon do and aikido differ?

Tae kwon do, in general, is probably more of what you would expect from martial arts. It’s known for kicking, especially kicking really high. It’s hard to do. And it’s more about punching, blocking, kicking. Aikido is a grappling art. It’s purely defensive, so they don’t teach you to punch or kick. Aikido teaches you defense against an attacker. It’s much less aggressive. You use someone else’s momentum against them — not many martial arts do that.

Has this training helped you in other activities?

Aikido, in particular, kind of forced me to deal with problems differently. It made me think about being calmer in conflicts — that’s been helpful. Tae kwon do helped a lot when I was growing up because it forced me to concentrate. When I was in high school, I didn’t have to try that hard to get good grades. Tae kwon do kept asking me to do better than I was already doing. So even if you can kick well now, even if you can kick better than the person next to you, you should still see what’s wrong with it and what you can do to improve. In a sense, it’s non-competitive, because you’re not competing against others; but in another sense, it’s very competitive, because you’re always competing against yourself.