Engineering Educator’s Second Act Is Picture Perfect

SWE Fellow nurtures her creative side into burgeoning photography business.

By Mary C. Verstraete, Ph.D., F.SWE, SWE Editorial Board

A common belief persists that there are two types of people: right-brained and left-brained. Right-brain-dominant people are thought to be more creative, more intuitive, and more emotionally connected. Left-brained people are considered to be more logical, more math and science savvy, and data driven. While this theory has long been contested and science has shown that the differences are not so clear-cut, many engineers have long labeled themselves left-brained because of their proficiency in such disciplines as science, technology, engineering, and math.

In her second career as an entrepreneur photographer, Mary Verstraete exhibits her work at a local art show. CREDIT: Mary Verstraete

However, I believe that I am equally left- and right-brained according to these conventions, and because I don’t know of a clearer way to describe these distinctions, I will use this terminology. As a child, I spent hours “building” things with a pack of construction paper, scissors, and glue. My mother told me I once constructed a toaster from paper that even had a piece that went up and down to hold the paper toast. Later in my childhood, I received a marionette puppet for a birthday. Within a week, I made three more puppets using the tools and wood from my father’s workshop. The engineering or left-brain tendency was evident early on. At the same time, however, I was also drawing images found in the magazines of my youth that invited readers to “draw me,” referring to cartoon images of animals. I also loved writing short stories and poetry and embraced a variety of crafts in my teens.

In high school I was equally excited to take math as I was to take drawing courses, to study physics as I was to study graphic design, and to explore chemistry as I was to dive into creative writing. These diverse talents and interests made choosing a college major challenging. Part of me wanted to pursue a career in fiction writing or as an illustrator. The other part recognized my love of science and math, my penchant for problem-solving and building things. I chose the “left-brained” path and became an engineer, confident I could pursue my other interests as hobbies in my free time.

Unfortunately, during undergraduate and graduate school at Michigan State University, I had little time to pursue my artistic or writing interests. I worked with several different faculty on a variety of research projects and received a stipend. However, on one occasion, the faculty member did not have any personnel money in her grant to pay me. She did have funds left in her equipment budget, however, and asked if she could buy me something instead. I always had an interest in photography and asked if she could buy me a camera and lenses. That purchase launched my artistic journey with photography.

As a faculty member in biomedical engineering at The University of Akron, I still had little time to pursue my hobbies. Whenever I had a free moment, though, I would take a drawing class to stimulate my right-brained interests. I also had my camera and would often go out and take pictures. Every conference I attended to present research findings or learn about educational techniques, I took a couple of extra days to explore and photograph different cities and environments. Doing this truly enhanced my love of photography and developed a yearning for travel.

I recall a trip to Portland, Oregon, for a technical meeting and the three days I took after the conference to explore the state’s northern coast. I returned home with 14 rolls of 36-exposure film and couldn’t even afford to get them all developed at one time. Eventually I replaced my original camera with digital equipment and embraced the convenience of the new technology.

When I retired in 2018, I wasn’t 100% sure what I wanted to do next, but I was certain I would spend more time nurturing my right brain.

When I retired in 2018, I wasn’t 100% sure what I wanted to do next, but I was certain I would spend more time nurturing my right brain. I started with a land/cruise trip to Alaska and tacked a week onto the Anaheim SWE conference in 2019 to visit Yosemite National Park and the coast of California. I realized that some of my favorite experiences during those trips were capturing special sights with my camera. I began to realize my burgeoning skills at framing just the right shot.

During the same period of time, I donated two framed and matted prints to a charity auction and was pleasantly surprised when a minor bidding war began for one of my sunflower pictures. Friends and family often complimented my photographs, but I was never sure if they were just being polite.

The coronavirus pandemic hit the next year. I tried to stay busy by doing some of the same things other people did: volunteering making masks, cleaning and organizing the house, taking up new crafts, and cooking (though I never made bread, one of the popular lockdown pastimes). I started organizing files on my computer and discovered just how many pictures I had that I had never refined. I began looking through them, editing some to tweak the lighting or add a bit of warmth to the colors. This process helped me determine my niche in photography, what I considered my best images. I wondered how they would look printed, matted, and framed, remembering how well they were received at the charity auction. At the same time, I found an online class for new business owners that covered all the basics of running an arts and crafts company and ended with an outdoor launch market. I decided to take the plunge and start my own business.

After a hefty investment of time, study, and money, ‘Mc’s Pics’ was born. I followed the lessons learned in the online class, including designing a display booth, setting up a budget/payment system, securing a business license, and branding my company. I was ready for the launch market in May 2021. Both nervous and excited, I set up my tent and arranged my matted photos in white painted crates and hung my framed work on a grid wall I found. It was a huge success! Not only did people buy my pictures, but many also complimented me on my eye for capturing images and my well-designed booth setup. At that point, I was off and running. I began submitting my photographs to other shows around the Akron, Ohio, area.

Now, after completing my second year as the owner of Mc’s Pics and submitting work to various outdoor and indoor shows, I am fully committed to this new endeavor. Although I have no plans to make this a full-time job and am resisting the pressure to develop an online store and the challenges of shipping items, I love my new endeavor and the joy it brings to my right brain.

Mary C. Verstraete, Ph.D., F.SWE (she/her), is an associate professor emeritus of biomedical engineering at The University of Akron. She is immediate past chair of the SWE editorial board, was named SWE’s Distinguished Engineering Educator in 2007, received the Society’s Outstanding Faculty Advisor Award in 2011, and became a SWE Fellow in 2016.