Essential Skills: Kindness Over Equations

Diran Apelian, UCI Distinguished Professor of materials science and engineering and co-founder of Ascend Elements

May 28, 2024 - If you want to succeed as an engineer, you can’t go wrong learning from Distinguished Professor Diran Apelian, a serial entrepreneur who co-founded Ascend Elements, a company that invented ways to recycle EV batteries and is worth over $1 billion. TIME magazine named it one of America’s Top Ten Green Tech Companies of 2024.

In 2022, Apelian launched Essential Skills, a class at the UCI Samueli School of Engineering that teaches subjects outside the traditional parameters of engineering, skills that are essential to succeed in professional life. “It’s everything I wish someone had told me when I was a student,” he says.

Topics range from connecting with your audience, leadership and communication to the 10 essential skills of a supreme professional, which include honesty, courtesy, listening, exceeding expectations and email etiquette. Apelian also covers practical subjects like time management, planning and rudiments of the business world.

Students learn not only from Apelian but also leaders in a variety of fields. Drama Coach and Activate to Captivate CEO Bri McWhorter teaches the importance of body language and voice. Students learn how to pivot, navigate transitions and plan one’s career from former professional chess master Iryna Zenyuk who shares about her difficult decision to leave chess for academia. Zenyuk is the director of UCI’s National Fuel Cell Research Center.  A whole week is devoted to planning – how to plan your day, your week, your career. Aaron Birt, CEO of Solvus Global (another company Apelian co-founded) also speaks about inflection points and how to deal with bumps in the road.

Engineering Dean Magnus Egerstedt shares insights into storytelling.

Storytelling is taught by Samueli School of Engineering Dean Magnus Egerstedt who says, “Being a scientist, engineer is all about storytelling, how we get people excited to come along for the ride.” He shares insights such as, “People who are authentic and play to who they are – they’re good storytellers.”

SoCalGas CEO Maryam Brown speaks on leadership and shares how she won the trust of male factory workers as a new manager in her early 20s. “Spend the time to build the relationships. Understand who they are, what drives them,” Brown said. “Build that trust so that even naysayers will be on your side.”

The lessons are sinking in. “It’s really eye-opening,” said materials science engineering senior Chloe Chuayisuso. “We learn how building good relationships helps us be a better engineer.”

“I could have a 4.0 and do well in lab, but if I can't effectively communicate to my audience, none of that matters,” says Ph.D. candidate Andrew Nguyen. “If I can effectively connect with people. That’s very powerful.”

What kind of homework is there? Filming yourself answering the prompt, “Tell me about yourself” is one of them. “I’ve never been good at presentations, so it really helps,” said mechanical engineering freshman André Dimri. “It helped me do well in my interviews and land an internship.”

Distinguished Professor Diran Apelian in his Essential Skills class.

Every week, the students also write six to seven pages in a personal journal on how they’re incorporating the class lessons. “The journaling has been the best part,” says mechanical engineering senior Nicholas Buzby. “You can reflect and learn about yourself. I’ve learned how to have goals that are actionable.”

Apelian enjoys reading their writings. “I love seeing the impact this course (MSE 187/287) is making on our students.” He strives to set up students for their professional success and peppers the course with personal stories like how having a meal with a janitor solved his first challenge as a university department head. “Engineers are problem solvers,” Apelian says. “The class is about teaching them they can solve more through kindness than equations.”

- Natalie Tso