Xander Havens

PHotos BY:

Patrick Vest

“An interview discussing the importance of art in engineering… and vice versa.” 

Is Da Vinci’s artwork equal to his inventions in engineering? Or should these two fields not be separated at all? Art and engineering are generally found pitted against each other; one using imagination and creativity while the other uses logic and reason. However, in an interview with, Dr. Katie O’Harra, we discussed the differences and similarities between the two. 

Katie O'Harra teaching her 'Chemistry of Baking course'

“Some will say the arts are less of a viable career, but we can’t all be engineers… and we also can’t all be artists. Well, actually, maybe we can all be artists. I’m changing my mind.”

Early on, Dr. O’Harra discovered her interests in baking and dance. She trained in classical ballet from a young age alongside two sisters while her mother and Aunt Judy inspired her through cooking and baking. Tirelessly pushing towards her goals, she sharpened her skills both in the kitchen and on the dance floor to become better at what she loved. The idea of attending college was not in the forefront of her mind at the time. She pictured herself pursuing dance as her full-time career, practiced around the clock, and eventually received professional opportunities in sight of exiting high school. However, fearful of the physical and mental requirements this life path held while potentially resulting in a “nonviable career”, Dr. O’Harra chose to follow her passion for chemistry and engineering while continuing to hold onto her passion for dance.  

“We all have these little artistic domains that are alongside some professional domain… and I almost hate even separating the two, but that’s kind of what society makes it look like.” 

Katie O'Harra performing a Jeté.

Caught between a university and a dance studio, Dr. O’Harra felt constrained by society and was often told she could only choose one: art or engineering. No matter which she followed, part of her would’ve been missing. Contemplating attending college ignited a fear of losing her skills in dance, while considering pursuing dance threatened her passion for STEM. A short time later, Dr. O’Harra discovered an option which would satisfy both sides of her brain when she happened upon the University of Alabama. 

Katie O'Harra teaching her 'Chemistry of Baking course'

“I had taken a much lighter, flexible approach to academics, which seems funny if I look back at it now that I have a PhD as well as 4 degrees and I’m like, yeah, you look like an academic.” 

Eight years and four degrees later, with a Bachelor of Arts in Dance and a Bachelors, Masters, and Doctorate in Chemical Engineering, Dr. O’Harra found herself in the transdisciplinary situation she once longed for. Thanks to the University, she was given the opportunity to hold onto both her ‘artistic’ and ‘logical’ passions. Today, Dr. O’Harra can be found giving back to the community which supported her, whether that be teaching as an assistant professor in the honors college at the University of Alabama or as the adult division ballet instructor at the Druid City School of Ballet. While many experiences shaped her motivation to take on a professional role, teaching in the Honors College has been rewarding and continually broadens the limits of her scholarly pursuits.  

I don’t necessarily have very harsh disciplinary limits in what I can explore in the sense that if classes are approved by our committees and are of interest to our students, we can teach the skills in that intersection that overlap with concepts across our areas of expertise… which is really like an academic luxury. 

Katie O'Harra instructing her student, Jean Leah, on a barre.

The time I first met Dr. Katie O’Harra was two years ago when I enrolled in her class, The Chemistry of Baking. I felt somewhat out of place given that I was majoring in aerospace engineering until I realized my classmates were from varying majors themselves. In the college of engineering, little to no freedom is given when it comes to selection of courses. A major is chosen, and a schedule is given defining every class for the following four years. However, coming in from Louisville, Kentucky with plenty of credits, I was lucky to have just enough leeway to enroll in the honors college and meet Dr. O’Harra, on top of plenty of other amazing professors. 

Pushing against the status quo by holding onto her true ‘selves’, Dr. O’Harra blossomed and followed her dreams. Unwilling to falter, she perfected her skills and became the logical, artistic, inspiring person she is today. Becoming the first professor leading the Engineering Positive and Intentional Change (EPIC) Scholars Program, Dr. O’Harra has already majorly impacted the honors college connections with STEM fields and is paving the way with new courses which unite both engineering and art at the University of Alabama.  

Since interviewing Dr. O’Harra, I feel that we should start questioning ourselves. What parts of us have we abandoned in our past? Have we felt pressured by society to choose only art or engineering? And how can we take inspiration from Dr. O’Harra to reconnect with our true selves? I implore you to reunite with your psyche and discover—or recover—your full potential.