Finding love in the lab

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This past May, Larissa Nietner SM ’14 PhD ’17 and Scott Nill SM ’14 PhD ’18, dressed in academic regalia, crossed the stage at MIT’s doctoral hooding ceremony, and emerged on the other side with their doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering. Less than two weeks earlier, Nill and Nietner were at another life-changing ceremony: their wedding.

“Going through the experience of juggling wedding planning with defending our PhD theses together definitely made us stronger as a couple,” says Nill.

Nietner and Nill can trace nearly every major milestone in their relationship to a seminal event in their academic career at MIT. “We met at the Thirsty Ear on the MechE pub crawl during orientation,” recalls Nietner. “When he was introducing himself, I realized that we would be working together and got very over-excited — that was his first impression of me.”

As master’s students, Nietner and Nill were both assigned to work in MIT’s Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity with David Hardt, professor of mechanical engineering.

“Scott and Larissa are two of the most interesting people I know. They are a lot of fun to talk to,” says Hardt. “It’s fun to know they started to date while working in my lab.”

The research they conducted with Hardt focused on microcontact printing. Their goal was to make small scale fabrication faster and cheaper so it could be scaled up for industry.

In August of 2014, the two filed a patent application for a startup idea they developed, which later became Larissa’s PhD thesis. One day later, on a stroll in the gardens of the Longfellow House in Cambridge, Nietner and Nill shared their first kiss.

After graduating with their master’s degrees in mechanical engineering and passing qualifying exams, Nietner and Nill began their respective PhD projects in 2015. For his PhD, Nill developed models for optimizing composite aircraft production with Warren Hoburg, an assistant professor in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. His work was based on ideas Nill and Nietner had during their master’s research.

For her PhD, Nietner worked with David Wallace, professor of mechanical engineering, on an idea she had developed with Nill: increasing STEM engagement among teenagers by developing a wearable device kit that high schoolers can create themselves.  

“Teenagers, especially teen girls, are some of the most technologically engaged people in our population,” explains Nietner. “But what they learn in school often is not at all related to how they connect with technology on a daily basis.”

While Nietner was refining the idea for her PhD thesis, Nietner and Nill launched STEMgem — a wearable smart device kit that teenagers can build and program themselves. “The idea is to empower teenagers to build technology themselves so they can learn about STEM in a meaningful way,” Nietner adds. “We have seen some incredibly innovative technology!”

In addition to testing and iterating devices for STEMgem, Nietner and Nill also laid the groundwork for their second venture as both a couple and business partners: an operations software company, recently named Advanced Analytics LLC.

“With Advanced Analytics, we are developing a completely new approach that bridges design, manufacturing, and operations,” explains Nill. “We’ve seen that advanced manufacturing can have cost overruns as high as 30 percent. Our approach helps engineers and managers by revealing the complex interdependencies among labor, inventory, and other parts of the factory.”

As their relationship blossomed, Nietner and Nill kept supporting each other’s research. “Our relationship was forged solving some the most difficult problems we have as engineers,” says Nill. They would bounce research ideas off each other. As a result they never stopped taking an active role in each other’s work, and experienced the highs and lows of graduate student life by each other’s side.

In May 2017, two days after the patent from their first project together was finally issued, Nill proposed to Nietner by Lake Michigan at Loyola University Chicago’s campus. “He asked me in German,” adds Nietner, who grew up in Germany.

As with their courtship, Nietner and Nill’s wedding was a decidedly “MIT” affair. Two weeks after Nietner defended her PhD thesis, the couple was married in a civil ceremony. Several months later, they had a church ceremony in southwest Germany — one month to the hour after Nill defended his own thesis. After a honeymoon in the Maldives, they landed back in Boston two days before their doctoral hooding ceremony.

“One of the best parts of being married to someone who has been through the MIT PhD program is you have an immense amount of understanding and empathy for what the other person is going through,” says Nill. “We never had to explain the qualifying exam process or thesis defense process to one another.”

Nietner and Nill will continue to work together professionally. In addition to collaborating on STEMgem and Advanced Analytics, as of January they both belong to the research group of Stephen Graves, the Abraham Siegel Professor of Management at the Sloan School of Management.

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