The nomadic life of two engineering grads

One is a foodie, who is afraid of heights. The other zips in and out of traffic on his motorcycle on San Francisco freeways, gets bored with the status quo, and would rather experience things first-hand than through the filter of television or a book. Together, they are two Purdue Engineering alums traveling the world for a year.

Patrick “Swiss” Weber and Jason LawtonIn August 2009, Jason Lawton (BSChE and BS chemistry ’02) and Patrick “Swiss” Weber (BSME ’03) quit their jobs, sold their belongings, and left San Francisco for the trip of a lifetime. They began in Australia, hopped to New Zealand, flew on to Singapore, took a ferry to Bali, hit the beach in Thailand, made their way to China, and by January were wandering through Laos. Come March, they planned to head on to Japan, Nepal, India, and points beyond, with the remainder of their year spent in South America and Central America.

Lawton, the one who is afraid of heights, worked for Eli Lilly & Co. as a process controls engineer and a quality assurance representative after graduation. In May 2007, he left Indiana for a job in San Francisco as a software quality assurance engineer in IT at Genentech.

Weber, whose nickname comes from the land where he spent the first 16 years of life, was a field engineer at DuPont and, more recently, a machinery reliability engineer at Chevron’s refinery in Richmond, California.

The two men met as members of the Purdue Engineering Student Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting engineering awareness among youth, prospective students, Purdue alumni, first-year Purdue students, and the community. Now they’re promoting engineering around the world.

Jason LawtonTake Weber’s fascination with the counterclockwise spin of draining water in the Southern Hemisphere (it spins clockwise north of the equator). He put this to the test at a hostel in Queenstown, Australia, using a Cadbury Crunchie candy bar as an indicator to illustrate the direction of water draining from a bathroom sink. It is documented in a video on their blog.

Both have traveled internationally — Lawton prefers detailed itineraries; Weber likes to get information from fellow travelers along the way. Given their preferences, Lawton was in charge of most of the logistics for the trip. They originally planned a three-month trip to Southeast Asia; Weber’s mother suggested a year.

Like the engineers that they are, the two made lists of desired places to visit, compared them, checked weather patterns, took cost into consideration, consulted with a San Francisco travel agency, and did a bit of background reading. Edward Hasbrouck’s “The Practical Nomad” was a good resource for planning long-term travel. Chef, entrepreneur, and Travel Channel TV host Anthony Bourdain served as inspiration. Some seven vaccinations each and two garage sales later, the duo launched on August 15.

“It was overwhelming and exciting at the same time,” says Lawton. “I’m used to a pretty standard life. I go to work, pay my bills, visit with friends and family. I’m an engineer who needs structure, and suddenly I’m traveling for a year with no detailed itinerary.”

How’s it going? 2010

In January, four months into their odyssey, the pair were settled into their nomadic lifestyle. They continued to post plenty of pictures of food, and had found a couple of steady travel companions along the way.

Earlier in the trip, Lawton had confessed in an e-mail from Singapore:

“I go back and forth about this nomad lifestyle. On one hand it’s very liberating to live this way, one large and one very small backpack and no bills to pay. At the same time, I miss my bed, the luxury of HDTV and Travel Channel, and cooking whatever I want in my kitchen. One thing I’ve learned is to appreciate everything that I have that much more.”

That also means appreciating what people in other countries don’t have, from an engineering point of view.

“Having just been in Bali, you notice a lot of differences in lifestyles and housing,” Lawton said. “Sewage systems are rudimentary. There is a large population of people in developing nations that would benefit from our technologies — better plumbing and sewage systems prevent disease; access to clean drinking water saves lives. Engineers need to find a way to spread a lot of this to so many more people.”

Weber, who was granted a leave of absence by Chevron, says the trip is helping him “step back and evaluate where I am and where I want to be. Some people say that I’m risking my career by doing this. I consider it a resume builder. Allowing time to reflect without the usual distractions of everyday life can be very enlightening.” Lawton quit his job at Genentech, but is optimistic he will be able to rejoin the company. Both dug into savings to fund the trip.

Swiss Weber in Rotorua, New ZealandBoth men have a good sense of humor that comes across in their RTW (round the world) blog. When asked how their engineering educations are being put to use, they mention the value of creative problem solving and a methodical approach to planning.

“You simply look at the trip as a problem with boundaries (1 year and X dollars) and you tweak a lot of variables to get to a solution (although, unlike some of my professors would like to believe, there is more than one solution). It helped us in the initial planning and has helped us stay grounded and practical,” Lawton says.

When asked if the trip is opening their eyes to ways in which engineers can help make a difference in the world, Lawton replies: “With the ‘westernization’ of the world, we have to be cognizant of providing people with technology for a healthier life while also preserving their culture and normal ways of going through life for fear — at least in my mind — of the homogenization of the planet.”