Six years ago, Guangtao (Taotao) Zhang had just moved to the US from China during her junior year of high school, and she didn’t speak a word of English. Now, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering at MIT, she is preparing to graduate this winter and begin a new job at Apple as an iPad product design engineer.
The path she took from A to B wasn’t the most direct one, nor did it all go as planned, but it was undoubtedly a series of challenges overcome. For someone with such distaste for uncertainty, Taotao embraced change and opportunity with grace and excitement every step of the way. Her first major obstacle was learning a new language. It hindered her college application process, but she took it with stride.
She started her college career at Clarkson University with two years of college credit already under her belt as a result of the AP classes she took in high school. But three semesters in, she felt unengaged with her schoolwork and confused about what to do next. She took a semester off to figure things out, working at GE Transportation in the meantime.
“I felt like I wasn’t being challenged and wasn’t growing or improving myself,” explains Taotao. “That’s why I started considering something else. My thought process has always been that if you don’t try to reach higher, then you will never reach anything higher.” She decided to apply to MIT as a transfer student, instead of graduating almost two years early. She was accepted and started MIT as a sophomore, starting over for the third time in almost as many years.
With several new and intimidating challenges in front of her, Taotao did what many people would not: She flourished. Not only did she keep her head above water, but she also earned excellent grades; reignited the ASME student chapter at MIT – which now has almost 200 members; conducted high-level research, working on the mechanical aspects of a pin matrix apparatus for rigid 3D surfaces at the MIT Media Lab, and on the running dynamics of Professor Sangbae Kim’s robotic cheetah. Professor Douglas Hart asked her to lead this semester’s Course 2.013: Engineering System Design, and Apple offered her a coveted internship – and eventually a full-time job – to work on product design.
“Most of my experience has been in individual-based courses or in small groups. But leading Course 2.013 is forcing me to learn how to live with some uncertainties and be able to delegate. It’s been uncomfortable for me, but I think it will be a valuable lesson.”
Although Taotao is still interested in attending graduate school to earn a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, she couldn’t pass up spending a few years at Apple first. “I wasn’t planning on spending this past summer doing an internship,” she says. “I thought I would spend my junior summer conducting research, but I serendipitously ended up at an Apple info session last year, and before I knew it, they were setting me up for technical interviews and offering me an internship. All of my coursework has focused on controls and robots, but my internship was focused on product design. It ended up completely diverging my path, but it worked out.”
In the little free time she has after all her other obligations are fulfilled, Taotao relaxes with Chinese dance as part of the MIT Asian Dance Team, picking up where she left off almost 10 years ago as a young girl in China. Well, at least some things haven’t changed.
Watch a video about Taotao’s MIT Media Lab project: http://tangible.media.mit.edu/project/inform/