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Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire


Animated life leads to success

“Of course I have a secret identity. I don’t know a single superhero without one. I mean, who wants the pressure of being super all the time?” said Mr. Incredible of Pixar’s hit animated film “The Incredibles.”

Dr. Aaron Lefohn, ’97, has lived the life of a superhero, accomplishing the extraordinary and learning from unforgettable experiences that started here at Whitman, but included stops in Western and Eastern Europe, Nepal, Smith Rocks, Utah, San Francisco, and finally Seattle. Sponsored by the Career Center, his lecture “Choosing Mentors: To Pixar & Beyond” last Thursday was the perfect example of an alum whose journey throughout the last several years were nothing short of incredible. Lefohn graduated with a bachelor’s in chemistry, earned a Ph.D. in computer science from UC Davis, taught skiing in the German and French alps and, not to mention, worked for Pixar, one of the most successful computer animation studios to date.

“It’s been a long path to get to Pixar,” said Lefohn. His achievements did not come without the help of some personal discoveries. Lefohn was heavily involved with the Outdoor Program while at Whitman and has continued to share his love for skiing and climbing with many others.

Leading up to spending years teaching skiing in the German and French Alps, as well as rock climbing all over the U.S. and Europe, Lefohn realized that being happy required following an non-traditional, unstructured path, even if it meant leaving school for a while.

“By the middle of my sophomore year, I was very frustrated with Whitman because I passionately wanted to pursue life as a ski instructor and rock climber rather than follow the ‘conveyor belt’ to a desk or lab job. Most professors and fellow students thought I was destined for failure, but I really didn’t care—the obvious and expected path was no longer of any interest to me,” said Lefohn, reflecting on the twists and curves of his path at the time.

Lefohn’s adventures led him to discover one of his true passions, inspiring students to pursue the unknown.

“I thought the best advice coming from his talk was to take chances and follow your heart, even if it left you empty-pocketed,” said freshman Brianna Jaro. In his talk, Lefohn credits his career success to following his passions, even when they led him away from profitable pursuits.

Although Lefohn went his own way before returning to school, he noted the importance of mentors and how their guidance and advice could lead a person to a new and exciting direction. He also warned of the damage that a selfish or vindictive mentor can inflict on someone’s career.

“My parents role modeled by living passionate lives,” said Lefohn who mentioned, among many of his mentors, Stephen Schvaneveldt. The former Whitman chemistry professor advised Lefohn to learn a computer programming language so that they could perform theoretical chemistry research together. It was then that he discovered his passion for computer science, which eventually led to significantly shifting his graduate school career from a Ph.D. program in chemistry to a Ph.D. in computer science. “Sometimes it is okay to quit…,” said Lefohn in reference to walking away from his Ph.D. in chemistry to pursue a Ph.D. in computer science after three years, two successful publications, and passing his Ph.D. oral qualifying exam, “as long as you are leaving a dead-end path and embarking on a new path that you know with your entire being will take you to where you want to go. All of the jobs I wanted required a Ph.D. in computer science, not chemistry. In retrospect, the decision was obvious.”

“Lefohn’s meandering career path was encouraging. His devotion to hard work allowed him to switch career paths and make up for lost ground in new fields, a skill I think Whitman can bring out in its graduates,” said sophomore Andrew Witherspoon.

After working as a researcher and graphics software engineer at Pixar for three years, Lefohn left Pixar in 2006 to work for Neoptica, a computer graphics startup company that was acquired by the Intel Corporation last fall. He is currently living in Seattle with his wife (former Whittie, Karen Gamache/Lefohn) and daughter, working as a senior graphics software architect for Intel to define the future of interactive graphics programming and learning to be a mentor for his daughter.

“I don’t have all the answers for you. All I can do is tell you my story about how I found a career that I absolutely love,” said Lefohn, “I was lucky enough to find a path that captured my heart. I have no idea what is next, but I’m having a great ride.”

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    Tom jobseekerJul 23, 2008 at 11:55 pm

    Ever see any successful people who is sad and sorrow? You probably can’t find too many examples. Get happy and you will get ahead in life – that people with happiness likes to try new things and challenge themselves, and these actions will lead them to success in work, health and relationship.
    This is quite logical: Willing to try new things is a way of express their creativity, and creative people tend to have high successful of solving difficult questions. They will be more successful at work and relationship, as those areas sometimes surround with difficult questions.