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Theodore Hughes
Theodore Hughes has a bachelor’s degree in both architectural engineering and mechanical engineering. He founded the Architectural Engineering Institute chapter – Texas A&M chapter as an undergraduate. | Image: Texas A&M Engineering
The scene — middle school. The question — what to do for the rest of your life? For Theodore Hughes, it was always going to involve buildings. Even then, he was drawn toward art and had a knack for math. Daunted at first by art's technique demands, young Hughes turned his mind toward the happy marriage of art and science: architecture. It wasn't until years later that he discovered architectural engineering, and his path led him to the Department of Multidisciplinary Engineering at Texas A&M University.
Before graduating, Hughes worked hard to build his industry experience as a student by completing multiple internships. Now as a mechanical engineer-in-training at Shah Smith & Associates, Hughes is working toward his certification as a professionally licensed engineer.
Q: You started in mechanical engineering. What led you to a double degree that included architectural engineering?
A: There are so many different options for engineers, from chemical, architectural and mechanical to petroleum, to name a few. However, I always enjoyed buildings.
After hearing about architectural engineering, I realized it combines the engineering side and the art side. It encompasses designing the interior experience of the building and the exterior, from ensuring the overall structure is sound and built properly to overseeing the mechanical systems within the building itself.
Q: What was it like joining multidisciplinary engineering, a brand-new department at the time?
A: Soon after transferring to Texas A&M, I learned about this new department forming and I couldn't pass up the opportunity to pursue architectural engineering. I would have spent the rest of my life wondering, “What if?”
I was a junior in mechanical engineering then, so I worked with Dr. Timothy Jacobs, now the current department head, to figure out the next steps. I had so many credits already built up that it didn't make sense to transfer degrees, so we developed a double degree plan.
The department was young, and that was exciting. Still, building a new department can be challenging, and there were hiccups along the way. However, because all of us students were such a small group, we came together to build a community. That group of five to 10 students made all the difference. By the end of undergrad, I was close with everyone. In true Aggie fashion, we gathered our forces and marched forward toward graduation.
Q: You helped start the Architectural Engineering Institute chapter – Texas A&M chapter. What was that like?
A: At the beginning of fall 2019, I knew we needed something that could officially bring all our students together while giving us that exposure to networking and bridge the gap between the classroom and what happens in the field. The Architectural Engineering Institute (AEI) seemed perfect for our students. I went to Dr. Morad Atif, the program director at the time, and shared my idea. He was very encouraging and put me in contact with other student chapters and a few personnel within the national AEI organization. They helped me walk through the process of becoming an official student organization under AEI in 2020.
After the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, we had to pivot and adjust to running a new organization virtually. But I had a great group of highly dedicated officers: Astrid, Coby, Rachel, Yung-Hsin and Ali. They understood the importance of this connection between the industry and our students. As a team, we were able to navigate the difficulties of starting a new organization under the uncommon circumstance of a pandemic.
As a chapter, we brought companies to speak to students and share more about their industries. The companies lectured on in-depth industry topics students might hear about briefly in the classroom.
It was also an excellent opportunity for these companies to broaden their knowledge of the architectural engineering students at Texas A&M. The ones we collaborated with were all very supportive. They thought expanding our learning as students to include what professionals learn on the job was brilliant. That led to word of mouth within the industry. The chapter sometimes had scheduling difficulties because so many companies wanted to talk to the students.
Q: The Texas A&M chapter received the AEI Outstanding Chapter recognition. How did that come about?
A: We were a young chapter. However, my other officers and I tried our best to attend the national student meetings once a month. Our local meetings were already virtual due to the pandemic, so we invited AEI student chapters at other universities to join us.
We decided to share our local meeting invites with the other regional chapter leaders and invited their students to join our lecture series. More than anything, we were open to allowing other chapters and students from across the nation to come and learn with us. If we were hoping to learn, they were hoping to learn as well. That's the one thing that stood out to me that semester that led to us receiving the outstanding recognition.
Q: What was your experience with internships?
A: The purpose of internships is to learn more about the industry and yourself and gain engineering experience. Initially, I wanted to be a structural engineer. I worked as a structural analyst intern, a structural engineering intern and lastly, as a mechanical engineering intern with Shah Smith & Associates. Working in those different fields helped me understand what I found most interesting and what was the best fit for me.
It wasn't until after my internships that I realized I wanted to go the mechanical route. As an undergraduate, you can easily get tunnel vision and focus on precisely what you want – or rather, what you think you want – which can lead to you missing out on opportunities that could take you down a different path.
I recommend that students not limit themselves when trying to gain experience. If you're on the structural engineering track, for example, you don't have to get your first internship at the perfect structural engineering firm. It's far better to get any engineering and field experience during your student career. If you didn't enjoy your first internship as much as you thought you would, that's OK. You learned something new about yourself and expanded your resume.
Q: What is the learning curve for moving out of an academic setting and into a professional industry?
A: In the classroom, you're learning the fundamentals of physics, calculus and engineering calculations. Often when you work on a single homework problem or a section on a test, it may take 20 minutes to answer a difficult question using hand calculations. But when you're in the field and your daily work requires thousands of that same calculation, you can't spend a whole day doing that. We use industry programs to speed up that process and remove calculation errors. Additionally, the classroom teaches you the names and standards used in the industry, but in the field, you have to actually read into those codes and understand how they will apply to your designs.
In industry, you need to use the software which does the calculation for you and then apply your engineering background to ensure that the results from the program you used make sense. The professional engineers in the industry are great when you're working through all these learning curves. They understand that your knowledge in those areas is lower, and they help you through the process.
Q: What is the most challenging part about your current role?
A: Some of the more challenging things involve that learning curve. I often need to research specific codes for a hospital or laboratory project. Sometimes those codes can be tedious to figure out, and it's a matter of finding the correct section we need to reference.
Another example is that once we've designed the building, the next step is ordering mechanical equipment. We then review what's referred to as a submittal to ensure that we've ordered the proper equipment, which can also be tedious. The challenging part is paying attention to detail.
There's a lot that goes into a building. As a mechanical designer, I'm not just putting ductwork into a building. Sometimes I also deal with thermal piping. I have to make sure I'm coordinating with all my different trade partners. You may hear about this coordination as a student, but you only experience the full collaboration necessary once you work on these projects.
Q: What is the most rewarding part about your current role?
A: As these projects are in construction and they reach their final stages, we go to the job site to review the final design and installation. Getting to see the tangible result of your designs is very fulfilling. Whether the project is a lab, hospital or higher education facility, it's incredible to see my impact to everyone who walks through those doors.