Some might say I was destined to become an engineer, or that engineering is “in my blood.” It just so happens that I come from a family of engineers: my father, grandfather, uncle and cousin are all engineers, with specializations ranging from mechanical to electrical to aerospace. Having so many engineers in the family undoubtedly gave me a candid perspective on the field, and at times made me feel like an unintentional apprentice. While I’m certain that my familiarity with the profession had some influence on my decision to become an engineer myself, I do not think it is the only – or even the most significant – contributing factor to my career choice. In fact, I can trace my scientific journey back to elementary school, and specifically, two distinct mentors from that era.

My first mentor was my fifth grade math teacher, Mrs. Johnson. Because she ignited my passion for mathematics, Mrs. Johnson will always remain a special person to me. Every Monday she assigned a difficult “challenge” problem that we would have to turn in on Friday. Although it was nearly a decade ago, there is one problem Mrs. Johnson assigned to us that I will never forget: the problem of the “four fours.”

“Using only four number fours and the mathematical operators of add, subtract, divide, multiply and parentheses, create a mathematical expression for each integer from zero to 10.”

It took no time at all for me to figure out the expressions for zero through nine, but when I got to 10, I was stumped. Then, on the car ride to school that Friday morning, I experienced my first “eureka” moment: I realized you have to combine two fours to make 44, rather than using four individual number fours. The rush I got from solving the problem made me hungry for more difficult problems to solve. I eventually joined the math team, and the rest is history. I am forever indebted to Mrs. Johnson for her mentorship.

My second mentor was the goofy science teacher, Mr. Northcut, leader of the “Extraordinary Science Club” (although he was constantly changing the name of the club). Basically, we just followed Mr. Northcut around on field trips while he taught us interesting science lessons. We looked at radioactive rocks (Uranium), animal species and numerous examples of how the human race impacts the environment. While our scientific explorations were fun, I will always remember Mr. Northcut’s perpetual curiosity and upbeat attitude. Thanks to his mentoring, I learned to maintain an inquisitive spirit, an appreciation for our planet, and finally, that it doesn’t hurt to have a sense of humor along the way.

In case you’re curious, this is the answer to the problem of the four fours:

0: 4+4-4-4

1: 4/4 + 4 -4

2: 4/4 + 4/4

3: (4+4+4)/4

4: 4+(4-4)/4

5: (4*4 + 4)/4

6: 4+ (4+4)/4

7: 4+4 – 4/4

8: 4*4 -4-4

9: 4+4 + 4/4

10: (44-4)/4