March 13, 2015

Editor’s note: March is Women’s History Month, and the LSU College of Engineering is dedicated to celebrating the bright women who have forged careers in science and engineering. Each week, the College will feature a woman—an administrator, a faculty member, a graduate student, and an undergraduate student—who has made a positive impact on the College and the industry.

When Judy Wornat graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1981, she was one of just five women in her class. At the time, that was the norm, but Wornat, whether she was trying or not, was paving the way for change.

Fast forward to today: Wornat is the only female department chair within LSU’s College of Engineering, and her department, the Cain Department of Chemical Engineering, is home to more female students than any other in the College.

As part of Women’s History Month, I sat down with Wornat to talk about her experiences navigating the engineering education landscape and what advice she would give to young women considering a career in the field. Here’s her story.

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From an early age, Judy Wornat knew she wanted to be an engineer. Perhaps it was because her father was an engineer in southeast Louisiana, or because she excelled at math and science in school. Either way, she said, she knew that was her calling.

“I wanted to get rid of air pollution,” she said. “Or, at least, make it better.”

She set out to do just that. In 1977, just after high school, she moved to Upstate New York to begin her studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the nation’s oldest technological research university.

“It was the only place I applied, believe it or not,” she recalled. “I grew up in the South, and I had heard things about the North, but I wanted to see first hand.”

What she discovered came as a bit of a surprise. Sure, there were few women in her courses, she said, but that didn’t make her feel like an outsider. “I felt more the minority because I was from the South,” she said, laughing.

Culture shock aside, she described her time Rensselaer as “incredibly positive.” In fact, that’s where she decided to pursue chemical engineering, specifically.

“I thought what I wanted was an environmental engineering degree,” she said. “But when I was a freshman, I had a wonderful faculty adviser. He looked at my grades and said, ‘Now, Judy, you’re doing really well. Why is it you want to be an environmental engineer?’ I told him I wanted to do something about air pollution. He asked if I was more interested in cleaning up air pollution that was already there, or preventing it from being formed. I said, ‘Well, of course, preventing it from being formed.’ He said, ‘Then you want to be a chemical engineer.’ That was some of the best advice I ever could have gotten.”

After receiving her bachelor’s degree, Wornat moved to Cambridge, Mass., to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she received both her master of science and her doctor of science degrees.

That wasn’t always the plan, she said. Though she planned on earning a higher degree in chemical engineering, she didn’t expect she would get a doctorate, or even become a faculty member. That part, she said, “just unfolded.”

“I had never done research before, at least not on the big scale,” she said. “But when I was doing research for my master’s thesis, that’s when I said, ‘Oh my goodness. This is what I’m designed to do.’”

Wornat fell in love with her research, she said, and she was productive. In her doctoral years alone, she had 10 refereed publications—a feat for an accomplished scientist, not to mention a graduate student.

Her tenacity didn’t slow after MIT. Following graduation, Wornat continued her research on combustion, energy utilization, environmental pollutants, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in labs from Sydney, Australia, to Livermore, California.

And in 1994, after being contacted by a professor there, Wornat moved into her first faculty role as an assistant professor in Princeton University’s department of mechanical and aerospace engineering, a major hub of combustion research.

Wornat stayed there for more than eight years before returning to her home state and joining the LSU College of Engineering’s chemical engineering department in 2002. Since then, she has collected a long list of accolades for her research and collegiality. She served as the leader in the department’s graduate program for several years, and in 2011, she became its chair.

“It’s been great being able to be back,” she said. “I love researching, mentoring, and teaching. And now that I’m a department chair, I enjoy the department functions. It’s rewarding to feel like you’re using your talent.”

Asked what advice she had for other women to be successful in the industry, Wornat said women—or anyone interested in a career in engineering—should “pursue the avenue you really love.”

“Research is really what I was cut out to do, but not everyone is cut out to do research,” she said. “If you’re interested in science, math, engineering, technology… you have to go into the field that resonates with you.”

Furthermore, she said: “Don’t worry if it takes time to find that niche. When you find it, it’s so fulfilling. You’re doing exactly what you were made to do, and that’s a very good feeling.”

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For more information contact Sydni Dunn, LSU College of Engineering, 225-578-5706, sydnid@lsu.edu



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