Samantha (Sam) Daly (MS '02, PhD '07) is currently a professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Professor Daly's research lab at UCSB focuses on the integration of machine learning with experimental mechanics and materials to characterize, design, and develop advanced materials. Along with numerous journal publications and other scientific recognitions, Daly recently received the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Materials Division Centennial Mid-Career Award in 2022, and was awarded a Fellow of the ASME in 2021.
ENGenuity: How would you describe your professional contributions?
Samantha Daly: I think our group's research contributions have been creative and interdisciplinary, with a focus on combining ideas from different fields in new ways. I hope that my teaching, mentoring, and service contributions have made an impact on students' experiences and on our research community.
ENGenuity: How has your Caltech education influenced you?
Daly: Caltech taught me that I can do hard things. I was not particularly confident when I showed up at Caltech – I wasn't sure that my being admitted wasn't some sort of administrative mistake. I learned that trying and failing is okay, and that it is an integral part of the process of discovery. What matters is how you pick yourself up and try again. Caltech also taught me how to be part of a scientific community and to be, hopefully, a good mentor and colleague. My advisors played a key role instilling a culture of open discourse and discussion, and I am so lucky that I had that opportunity to learn this and so much else from them. Importantly, my time at Caltech taught me to look forward to the next generation. Students—in my classes, in our research group, and those I interact with in a myriad of other ways—they are the future of everything we're trying to do.
ENGenuity: What inspired you to become an engineer/scientist/researcher?
Daly: I think what first hooked me on science were all the experiments my undergraduate program required. I have always enjoyed working with my hands, starting with making theater sets in middle school. As I continued in engineering, I started to appreciate how it enabled me to combine new fields in different and creative ways. The flexibility that both Dartmouth (for undergraduate) and Caltech gave me played a huge role in fostering my interest in engineering. For example, in my fluid mechanics class as an undergraduate junior, I asked for permission to do my final course project using Joukowski mapping to simplify flows around various shapes, since I was taking this in a concurrent math class. It was an unusual request that was geared to the mathematics side of things, but the professor said yes. This flexibility continued throughout the next several years and gave me the chance to explore my interests.
ENGenuity: What advice do you have for the next generation of Caltech students?
Daly: To view failure as a necessary part of learning. There is a book by Henry Petroski called To Engineer is Human, which talks about the role of failure in the history of engineering, and why it is so important for us to learn from our failures to make progress. Also, to really enjoy your time at Caltech – it is an incredibly special place, and the time there goes quickly, even though the homework nights can feel really long! Caltech is somewhere where people can be completely themselves, in a supportive environment that encourages both individuality and collaboration.
ENGenuity: What is your favorite story and why (story, myth, book, film, TV show, etc.)?
Daly: I love the entire storyline of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I used to watch it with my mom when I was a kid, and it's remained my favorite. The writers were way ahead of their time with their storylines, which are so thoughtful and kind.
ENGenuity: Do you have a favorite Star Trek character or episode?
My favorite character is Geordi (the character played by LeVar Burton). Worf is a close second. My favorite episode is Darmok.
ENGenuity: What is your favorite destination?
Daly: Honestly, my favorite destination is somewhere I haven't been before. For my favorite destination where I have been before, it depends on the season and reason. I particularly enjoy visiting the East Coast over the holiday season, and the Midwest in October during the Fall colors. I also enjoy traveling internationally – my favorite so far has probably been Barcelona, and I hope to go to Japan someday. Traveling with my family is the best – anywhere with them.
ENGenuity: Is there a project you're most proud of or that you found the most challenging?
Daly: Usually, it's what I'm working on at the time, but I'm proud of all the projects that we've worked on. They represent a huge amount of intellectual energy from the students in my group. They come with such interesting ideas, and I love that my students and I end up challenging each other along the way to a discovery.
ENGenuity: What is a typical day like for you?
Daly: One of the things I enjoy about my job is that every day is different. A typical day would probably involve meeting with my graduate students in the morning to discuss their individual research ideas and progress, taking a sandwich and a walk on the beach for a quick lunch break, and then teaching class and holding office hours with students to talk over course concepts, followed by administrative tasks, and then perhaps working on a proposal describing a new research idea. Students usually stop by my office during the day as well, with questions about research, coursework, or career advice. I was surprised by how much writing there is in academia – you have to be able to communicate ideas clearly in order to gain support for them, and you also need to be able to clearly communicate findings to your community.
ENGenuity: What gives you the most satisfaction in your work?
Daly: Seeing students succeed. Whether it's someone in our research group overcoming an obstacle in their work, giving a great research presentation, or writing a hard-earned paper, or whether it's the students in my classes working to understand a new concept and seeing that light when it clicks for them, that's the part I enjoy most.
ENGenuity: What keeps you up at night?
Daly: Thinking about students who are having difficulties. Both undergraduate and graduate years are formative times that can sometimes be a bit rocky – many things can happen that can be challenging. I think we all worry for our students who may be struggling in some aspect and think about ways we could possibly help them through a challenging time.
ENGenuity: What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Daly: That would be our dog Penny, who leaps into bed like a firecracker the minute she hears the alarm go off, full of sheer joy that we are awake. Beyond Penny's enthusiasm, it's the camaraderie and friendships with my colleagues. I am grateful to be part of a community that is so welcoming and supportive, and to have people that I enjoy working with across all corners of the globe. They bring different perspectives into my life and make my life so much richer by doing so.