The data are overwhelming: there are more than 175 times more electrical engineering graduates than music and theater arts grads from MIT. Neerja Aggarwal ’16 studied both however, discovering the similar creative process behind the two disciplines.
This spring, Aggarwal directed Einstein’s Dreams for her thesis project, readapting the novel by MIT professor Alan Lightman. Like Aggarwal, Lightman specialized in both science and the humanities; his novel illustrates Einstein’s grasp of the creative process through his quest to understand the limitations and effects of time.“I liked it because you got to see a humanity underneath scientists and focus on the human consequences associated with scientific phenomenon,” Aggarwal said.
Aggarwal’s own struggles through her graduate research drove the show’s focus toward exploring the effects of the creative process. “I could channel all of my frustrations and obstacles in trying to do research and direct a play at the same time back into the show, which is how I stayed sane throughout the process.”
The show, produced by a mixture of students, alumni, and local professionals, mirrored daily obstacles the MIT community faces. “I really wanted to make a show by MIT for MIT. I hope it led the audience to appreciate the difficulty and the magnitude of the problems they tackle here and the costs of taking them on.” Aggarwal said that the cost of her own pursuits is losing time with her family in Texas for the past five years.
If she had to, Aggarwal would choose electrical engineering over theater, she says. Nevertheless, being a director makes her a better engineer, and, vice versa, as the two fields possess surprising similarities. “Both requires immense research. You have to choose a direction, go hard in that direction, and if it doesn’t work, start over.” Defining a problem to conquer is the most difficult aspect in both cases, a skill Aggarwal felt she honed through directing this show.
Although Aggarwal plans to pursue engineering professionally, developing small theater projects in her spare time, she remains grateful that MIT encourages students to pursue the humanities alongside their STEM studies. “It’s easy to get caught up in the technical side and not realize that no matter what you create, at the end of the day, there is a human being who will be impacted,” Aggarwal said.
Through theater, Aggarwal became a more socially conscious engineer, exploring important topics affected by her scientific research. “I used to shy away social, political, and economic problems because they’re so complicated; it felt easier to approach more logical, scientific problems. I’ve come to realize that I could use art to act on issues that I care deeply about.”