THE BLOG
11/02/2015 12:20 GMT | Updated 13/04/2015 06:59 BST

An Ode to My Parents: The Making of a Young Engineer

1. Start with balanced skills. Add books liberally.

My parents were never bothered by whether girls or boys should do something in particular. They agreed that all of their children had to be self-sufficient - and useful. My twelfth summer was marvellous. I helped tar the roof in the morning and cooked sinigang, the tamarind soup beloved in my native Philippines, with my grandmother. I sewed tiny clothes for my four-inch-tall teddy bear after lunch and came back outside to dry cuttings for firewood.

At some point, I came to regard being useless as one of the worst things you could possibly be. I wasn't useful to my parents every minute, but those times weren't wasted, either. Many of my favourite days involved sitting and reading a book in its entirety. I've gone from being sprawled on the floor with The Hobbit, to being curled up in the back-seat with Wicked as we drove through the deserts of the American southwest.

2. Stir in imagination continuously.

My mother nurtured our imaginations. We had tea parties and rode the Oregon Trail from our Conestoga (bunk bed) wagon. She gave us paper for our stories and furnished comic strips for our newspaper and its circulation of five. She understood the personalities of our imaginary friends as well as we did, and she never let me be mean... to my sister's easily-frightened imaginary friend.

3. Break a few things.

My father and I like to have a project to complete, a problem to solve. It still doesn't matter what it is--we've built model bridges, renovated furniture, and made a cocktail hat that I wore to the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering's Buckingham Palace awards ceremony. The first time I used a drill press by myself, I snapped the end. I froze - terrified. But my father didn't seem upset as he switched the bit: "I knew you would break it. Everyone breaks one before they learn." They both let us make mistakes; but only on the condition that we learned from them.

4. Encourage and let grow.

My parents also had a consistent manner of encouraging us. We were only praised for things we had some control over, to motivate us to become better. Consequently, my parents never once praised us for innate intelligence or natural beauty. They would say things like "You must have worked so hard!" if I did well, or "Just do your best," if I was anxious, or "What did you learn?" if I was disappointed. They occasionally scolded with "Use your intelligence!" But never once did I hear anything that suggested I did well because I was smart. That wasn't what mattered to them, and it's not what matters to the world.

5. Use wisely.

This is the heart of engineering. We keep trying, and we keep learning. Perhaps engineering is most beautiful when its solutions are elegant and clever; but it never matters unless it is out in the world, doing good work, and effecting change.

This year's Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering winner, Bob Langer, always does just enough clever thinking to elegantly solve the problem - but he doesn't stop his work there. When existing companies moved too slowly to implement his first innovation, he started his own - and then he started another, and another. Bob also says that his chemical engineering passions started with the chemistry set his parents gave him when he was eleven.

That curiosity and freedom to explore, the challenge of a real problem, and the possibility of learning and becoming better should be inspiring to all of us, not just to engineers. For me, usefulness was about making the world better. Once it was just about my family having firewood, or a roof that wouldn't leak. I work in industrial corrosion research for BP now, and I know that every piece of work I touch, and how I do that work, could make life safer and healthier, not just for people I work beside, but also for strangers I will never meet. In the 1970s, Bob was one newly minted engineer, doing the hard work of experimental medical research on a problem most people will never think about. Today, the technologies from his laboratory have touched two billion lives. This is why we are engineers.