Uncommon in every way: Engineers in intercollegiate sports

December 14, 2010 by Rachel Shafer

Consider these numbers: Of 35,838 students at Berkeley this year, 4,665 are engineers. Of 800 athletes in intercollegiate sports, only a handful—fewer than five at any one time—are working toward an engineering degree.

The combination is rare because any sane, reasonable person would wonder: How on earth do you pursue one of Cal’s most difficult academic programs while playing for its most demanding teams? In their own distinct way, three members of this rarefied circle, Richard Fisher, Sati Hsu Houston and Dustin Muhn, have managed to do it successfully.

Richard Fisher
Major: Civil and environmental engineering
Year: Senior
Sport/Position: Football, offensive lineman

“It’s technical, but you can’t overanalyze it,” Richard Fisher says of his offensive lineman position. “You gotta apply what you know and think outside the box. Just like engineering.”

Fish (as teammates call him) gets up around 5:30 every morning. He practices with the team until 11 or so, then heads to weight lifting and treatment, where players get iced down and wrapped up. After lunch, he’s back to his apartment to study or in class. At 6:30, Fisher, who’s a vegetarian, eats dinner with the team, and by 8:15 he’s in his apartment, studying or hanging out with friends. Lights out, he says, around 9.

It’s tough to balance everything, the football player says. “You have to know what to prioritize, what to sacrifice.”

Engineering isn’t something Fisher will sacrifice. A math and physics buff, he taught himself computer-aided design in high school and worked with engineers on construction projects for his dad, a properties developer. Structural engineering seemed a natural fit, but once in Davis Hall, Fisher became interested in environmental engineering and sustainable design.

This past spring in CE 180, Design, Construction, Maintenance of Civil and Environmental Engineered Systems, Fisher and his project group designed a flood management system for the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta that would serve small-scale aquaponics, a sustainable agricultural method using water and fish to grow food. Fisher advocated a new line of thinking to progressively return the delta back to nature, Professor Robert Bea explains, “while also developing future sustainable systems that can help support this state. He’s a good engineer and a good thinker.”

Fisher graduates in December. He’ll stick around Berkeley for spring training, he says, to see if he attracts the attention of the UFL or NFL. But you’ll also find him seriously applying for industry jobs. His future lies in engineering, not football … just how this student-athlete designed it.

Sati Hsu Houston
Major: Industrial engineering and operations research
Year: Senior
Sport/Position: Softball, catcher

Sati Hsu Houston doesn’t simply walk into a room. She blows into a room, radiating energy everywhere. So when she declares that life as an engineer and softball player was “beyond difficult,” it gives you pause.

Houston always wanted to play softball for Cal. She got her chance sophomore year and successfully tried out, a rookie. To manage the brutal schedule of spring away games in tandem with an engineering workload, Houston made special arrangements with professors six months in advance. She’d lug books, notes and laptop with her gear and take tests on planes. “I’ve never pulled an all-nighter, but I’ve come close, like within a couple hours,” she says.

By junior year, she reached a watershed. “I got greedy,” she recalls. “I wanted to be a starter and an All-American. But I knew I wasn’t going anywhere in softball. And I’d already accomplished a childhood dream — to play for Cal.”

At the same time, Houston developed a deep interest in her classes and wanted to apply for IEOR’s five-year bachelor-master’s program, which required her to take five technical classes junior year. She took a courageous leap, negotiating with her coaches to ratchet down her softball commitment. That year, she was invited to join Berkeley’s chapter of Tau Beta Pi, an engineering honors society for those in the top eighth of their class.

“She’s bright and talented and makes the classroom a livelier place with her interesting questions and enthusiasm,” says Rhonda Righter, professor and chair of industrial engineering and operations research. “She’s a leader among her peers.”

Houston finished her final season with Cal softball this past spring. She’ll graduate this month but is already taking graduate courses (yes, she was accepted into the program). And she’s playing on the women’s ultimate Frisbee team, a club sport. “My life hasn’t gotten any duller,” she says, laughing.

Dustin Muhn
Major: Civil and environmental engineering
Year: First year master’s
Sport/Position: Rugby, wing/scrumhalf

Dustin Muhn readily admits he’s a “numbers, math-y guy” who likes problem solving. On the rugby pitch, though, where he’s a starting player and three-time All-American, Muhn drops the nerdy tendencies. “It’s a matter of getting focused on the task at hand,” Muhn says. “No distractions.”

Muhn brings the same focus to engineering. He minored in structural engineering (with a major in architecture) and is now pursuing a master’s in structural engineering, mechanics and materials. It’s a natural evolution from his high school summer jobs framing buildings and driving loads for his dad, a contractor. It will also be a familiar dance: balancing a busy, academic workload with the demands of a team that’s won 25 national championships, most recently last year.

“Dustin has been invaluable to our team from the moment he stepped onto campus,” says head coach Jack Clark, who’s coached Muhn for four years now.

(On September 28, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau announced that rugby will no longer be an intercollegiate sport, part of several cost-cutting measures by Cal’s athletics department. Starting fall 2011, the university will designate it a varsity club sport. Muhn says he’s discouraged by the downgrade but focused on the upcoming season.)

Muhn says he’s learned he can’t do school and sports full-throttle simultaneously, instead tackling whatever demand is surging at the moment. After that, it’s time management, to-do lists and occasional all-nighters, he explains, grinning. His days often start around 6:30 a.m. and end around midnight.

Muhn hopes to try out for the U.S. team competing in rugby sevens, a version of the sport newly approved for the 2016 Olympics. But, with an eye on an industry job, he also wants to earn his professional engineering and structural engineering licenses.

Muhn, like Fisher and Houston, is sweating his future now, so that when it’s time to walk away from the scrum, he’s competitive elsewhere in life.