Engineering under pressure

Alumna finishes second on engineering reality TV show and shows women can succeed in engineering.

Discovery Channel

Skills that Amy (McDow) Elliott learned in Tennessee Tech University’s mechanical engineering labs and classrooms helped her to earn a co-op position in NASA Marshall Space Flight Center’s machine shop and to develop an interest in additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing.

Her academic achievements at Tech helped the Fayetteville native get into a doctoral program at Virginia Tech, where her dissertation focuses on protecting intellectual property in a world where anything can be quickly and easily replicated on a 3-D printer. Her dissertation helped her land a job in Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s additive manufacturing center.

Meanwhile, casting directors of the Discovery Channel show “The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius” selected her, in part, because of the hands-on experience she got at Tech. She finished second among the reality show’s participants and was team captain on five of the show’s eight episodes, more than any of the other nine contestants.

Discovery Channel

“It was really tough but really fun and a great educational opportunity,” said Elliott, who graduated from Tech with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2009. “It was the opportunity of a lifetime, so I just went for it.”

For seven weeks, Elliott and the nine other contestants lived in front of TV cameras in a house in California. Though the engineering challenges were difficult, the hardest part for Elliott was being away from her husband, Sam Elliott, of Cleveland Tenn., a manufacturing and industrial engineering (now called manufacturing and engineering technology) major whom she met her freshman year at Tech.

“We were in the same intro to engineering class, and we were on a team that had to design a robot. We dominated,” she said. “Then we didn’t see each other until senior year. I was hand-picked to be the captain of the moonbuggy team, and he was handpicked to be the project manager. We worked really well together and got married.”

Their experience on the moonbuggy team is one of Elliott’s fondest memories of her time at Tech. She and her teammates were new to the competition, though the university has had a moonbuggy team for years.

“The best moment was getting to the awards and completely dominating,” Elliott said. “We won in safety, in design and in innovation. That was absolutely my best moment at Tech.”

Elliott was also on Tech’s Baja SAE team. She is in the driver’s seat on a Wheaties box that can still be found in several offices around campus. In its nearly 40-year history on campus, the Baja team has finished in the top 10 in about 80 percent of its competitions, making it the most decorated team in the U.S.


Elliott sits in the Baja SAE car. This photo graced to cover of a Wheaties box.

While at Tech, Elliott was also involved in the Society of Women Engineers and Engineering a Future, a program designed to introduce young girls to engineering fields. Though women are still relatively rare in the discipline, Elliott is part of a growing effort to change that by making the field more appealing to women.

“As an engineer, it’s normal to be with mostly men,” she said. “That’s starting to change now, which is awesome. I love that I can help young girls figure out their path and warn them, ‘It’s OK to fail; don’t get down on yourself.’

“I’m really glad I can share my experience with them.”

Being one of the few women available to audition for “The Big Brain Theory,” she said, may have helped her get cast. She was one of two women in the competition.

“They said it was really hard for them to find female engineers who had the experience and the knowledge and could take seven weeks off their life to do this,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons it worked out for me; I’m in grad school so I don’t have to worry about work leave.”

Because hands-on learning experiences at Tech and after have been so important to her maturation as an engineer, Elliott is working to help her field move away from being so theory-based and to include more physical work in the classroom. She recently gave a TED Talk, part of a series of lectures featuring “ideas worth spreading” about how engineering and manufacturing processes are inseparable, and engineers must approach them as parts of a whole.

“If you don’t understand the media, you can’t understand what its possibilities are,” she said. “It’s like asking an artist to create a piece of art without ever touching the medium.”

After completing her dissertation at Virginia Tech, she says that she and Sam hope to open a maker’s space to “spread the gospel of engineering,” where people ranging from weekend hobbyists to professional engineers can come to use machining equipment.

While she says she never intends to be part of another reality show, she hopes “Big Brain Theory” will be renewed. She said she would like to return as a guest judge or a consultant.

“Everyone always has that secret hope that the skills they’ve gained and the people they’ve met will culminate in a television debut, but I never had it as a goal,” said Elliott. “I’m really glad I got the opportunity.”


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