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A trip to Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center in Orlando for many children is a chance to take a trip around the world. For Wendi Heinzelman, it was a glimpse into her future as well.
As a girl traveling to the high-tech international theme park to see an exhibit created by her father, she realized she wanted to develop her own love of math and science.
Heinzelman, the first woman to lead the Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the University of Rochester, credits her father and her childhood experiences for igniting her passion for what many long considered a man’s field.
“As a kid, it was really fun to see something at Epcot that your dad worked on,” Heinzelman says.
She recalls the excitement of being able to skip to the front of the long line at the exhibit, “The Mouse in the Maze.” Speaking into a phone caused the mouse to follow the voice commands through the maze.
“My dad, an electrical engineering researcher who spent most of his career at AT&T Bell Labs, invented one of the first speech recognition systems. I was inspired, not only by the cool technologies he created, but also by his passion for his work. Since I was good at and very much enjoyed math, but also wanted to use math to solve real-world problems, engineering was a natural fit for me.”
Heinzelman, 44, began her career at UR in 2001 as assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and computer science. She advanced to associate professor in both fields in 2006. Two years later she was named dean of graduate studies for Arts, Sciences and Engineering, and in 2012 she became full professor.
Last July, she was named dean of the Hajim School of Engineering when Robert Clark stepped down to become provost.
Clark fully supported Heinzelman’s appointment, which followed a national search. He credits her involvement that led to significant success in recruitment efforts.
“We worked together to lead efforts in growing the master’s programs,” Clark says, “which grew from about 60 students in 2008 to a current number of 271, by selecting programs that matched students’ interests. Wendi brings great leadership to the school.”
More female students
There are 319 Ph.D. students and 1,739 undergraduate students in the engineering school. The percentage of undergraduate female students is growing.
“Overall, the female student population here is 30 percent,” Heinzelman says. “If you break it down by program, it is even higher in some fields.”
Statistics Heinzelman provided show biomedical engineering has the highest percentage of female students, with 47 percent. Chemical engineering is second at 44 percent. Interdisciplinary engineering and engineering sciences rank third, with 30 percent.
The field with the smallest percentage of female students, interestingly, is Heinzelman’s own—electrical and computer engineering—with 19 percent.
She believes her achievement as the first female dean out of eight at the Hajim School is motivational for other women.
“I do hope it inspires other women to know it is possible,” she says. “I don’t feel I’m looked at differently. Personally, I hope it’s beneficial and helps us achieve our goals of diversification. The key difference between male and female is a different perspective. Having diverse perspectives is always good.”
She has led efforts to increase the population of underrepresented minority graduate students in engineering.
In 2006 Heinzelman co-founded Networking Networking Women, or N2 Women, an international group that encourages female participation in computer-related fields.
As dean, she oversees a faculty and staff of 200.
“A big challenge I face is how best to make an impact with a small faculty size. To address this, it is important to build on our strengths, to maintain or become world-class in some areas in which we have excellent faculty,” Heinzelman says.
“In particular, this has led to our data science initiative as well as growing initiatives in high energy density physics, optics and photonics, virtual reality and augmented reality, and engineering for health care applications.”
Several benefits could result if the faculty size grew, Heinzelman says.
“Adding more faculty would lead to additional research that can have greater impact on the field, provide the university and the Hajim School with a larger presence nationally and internationally, and provide additional and more varied opportunities for our undergraduate and graduate students,” she says.
As important as additional faculty would be, Heinzelman would like to increase opportunities for more students in experiential learning with internships, research and global experiences.
Now that she is dean, Heinzelman has pulled back a bit from her research work. Her field of specialty is wireless communications and networking, mobile computing and multimedia communications. She has worked on research projects with Harris Corp., developing radio communication systems for soldiers in the battlefield who do not have access to Wi-Fi.
“We worked on creating a mobile ad-hoc network,” Heinzelman says. “It creates a network without the use of a fixed infrastructure so they can communicate with each other in the field.”
Another research project with a colleague from another department parallels work her father did in voice recognition.
“It involves using voice to detect emotions. It’s important because it allows doing the research in a way that is not intrusive,” Heinzelman says.
The research can be applied to interactions in relationships ranging from husbands and wives to mothers and their children, she says.
The software development project was interdisciplinary and involved working with Melissa Sturge-Apple, dean of graduate studies in arts, sciences and engineering, and an associate professor of psychology. The two met in an unusual way.
“I needed an engineer to collaborate with,” Sturge-Apple says. “I didn’t know anyone in the department. When I looked at the faculty list, Wendi had a big smile on her face. She didn’t look professor-like. I decided to call her.”
That was 2007, and they have been collaborating ever since.
“There is never a problem she can’t solve,” Sturge-Apple says, noting how their work has spanned over several projects, including studying children’s attachment to their mother and a research project on prejudice.
The two have become friends as well, sharing many common interests. Their children are close in age.
“Wendi is the kind of person that when she finds something is important to you, it becomes important to her,” Sturge-Apple says.
Heinzelman helped support a cause that was founded by Sturge-Apple’s parents. John and Judi Sturge are founders of the Cure Childhood Cancer Association.
“She brought her Girl Scout troop to the annual 5K run and helped us raise money. She’s just great like that. She is an Energizer bunny.”
Heinzelman, who lives in Pittsford, enjoys leading the Girl Scout troop and feels it is important to help girls gain their confidence at a young age. It also gives her more time with her 11-year-old daughter, Molly.
She also has a 13-year-old son, Nate. The family enjoys the outdoors: downhill or cross-country skiing in the winter and sailing in the summer.
“I never knew how to sail until I met my husband, Steve,” she says, explaining the couple met as undergrads at Cornell University. “I wish I learned it as a kid because I see how automatic it is now for our kids.”
Sailing is the family’s favorite way to spend time together, and Heinzelman jokes that they have more boats than they have people in their family. They spend many weekends on Canandaigua Lake.
The love of the water is something she has in common with Provost Clark.
“We both like to be on the water. I slice the water with a slalom (water skiing) and she prefers a sailboat,” Clark says.
Heinzelman’s ability to do great work and also enjoy play is one of the traits Clark most admires about her.
“We have to keep perspective in life,” he says. “We are most effective in our jobs when we keep a balance.”
While Heinzelman is good at knowing how to separate herself from her work to make time for family and the pleasures of life, Clark says, there is no doubt about her dedication to her profession.
“She accomplishes a tremendous amount and always on time. That level of responsiveness is so important. The adage is true: If you want to get something done, give it to a busy person,” Clark says. “I’m a big fan. I think she is off to a great start.”
Position: Dean, Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, University of Rochester
Education: B.S., electrical engineering, Cornell University, Ithaca, 1995; M.S., electrical engineering and computer science, 1997; Ph.D., electrical engineering and computer science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1999
Family: Husband, Stephen Heinzelman; son, Nate, 13; daughter, Molly, 11
Activities: Snow skiing and sailing
Quote: “I don’t feel I’m looked at differently. The key difference between male and female is a different perspective. Having diverse perspectives is always good.”