Women's History Month: Rensselaer Aglow with the Achievements of Women

Posted by Jenifer Monger on March 31, 2021

Our second post in honor of Women’s History Month explores and celebrates the countless achievements of women throughout the Rensselaer community over the past several decades. I’d like to note that seventy nine years after women first entered the Institute, Rensselaer no longer quibbles over whether it is coeducational; women are here to stay!  From the intrepid few to the increasing numbers of female students, faculty, and staff who study and work here, thousands of women have altered the history of Rensselaer. Changing attitudes and increasing opportunities have resulted in numerous advancements for women, so many in fact, that we couldn’t include everything in this post!


Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute | In December 1998 the Rensselaer Board of Trustees unanimously selected Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson as the 18th president of the Institute.  As the first female and African American president, Dr. Jackson's leadership has been another positive step for women at RPI. When she assumed the presidency in July 1999, Dr. Jackson initiated and led a comprehensive campus wide strategic planning process, resulting in the Rensselaer Plan the following year. Under the plan she elevated the Institute "to greater prominence as a top-tier world-class technological research university with global reach and global impact." Under Dr. Jackson’s leadership, women have gained greater representation at Rensselaer than ever before in our almost 200 year history. 


Female Students | Beginning in the early 1980s women began serving as Grand Marshals and Presidents of the Union, the two highest student offices on campus while many others occupied leadership roles in student government, campus publications, athletics, clubs and professional societies, and every other type of activity at Rensselaer. As for research, in 2006 Jordan Mader '06 and Amanda Lund '06 became the first female students to move directly from undergraduate to doctoral work in Rensselaer's accelerated science program. On the sports side of campus life, in 2002 Rensselaer sponsored the car of Erin Crocker '03 who competed as the only female driver in the Empire Super Sprints. Meghan Hartman '04, became Rensselaer's first national champion in swimming after her win at the 2004 NCAA Div. III Women's Swimming & Diving National Championships. In the same year Women's Ice Hockey became the first women's sport elevated to Division I and over the past few years a few of RPI’s female hockey players have gone on to play for the National Women's Hockey League! 


Women in Technology Conference | In 1999, the first Women in Technology conference was held at RPI. It drew more than 300 female attendees. This conference was organized by Vicki Lynn and Paula Simon '68. Vicki Lynn was Assistant Dean of Engineering and had worked to increase the number of women students in Engineering. In 1994 Lynn had established a fellowship program that would award a select group of women students $5,000 per year, 2 paid summer internships, a company mentor, and, often, travel expenses with companies such as Ford, General Motors, or Alcoa. 

Women as Chairs, Deans, Directors | There were still a handful of women's firsts to be found in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010’s, but many of the firsts for women had already been accomplished in the prior decades. As a result, much of women's history at Rensselaer in more recent decades has reflected the many accomplishments of women at the institute and their contributions to their fields. With a new President at Rensselaer, and an abundance of activity ranging from student athletics, to research, to large scale events on campus for women, we also begin to see a substantial increase in women being appointed as department chairs/heads, deans of schools, directors and faculty.

Dr. Gwo-Ching Wang in Physics, Applied Physics, and Astronomy
2004 Dr. Linda McGown in Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Kathy High in the Arts, and Sharon Anderson-Gold in the Science and Technology Studies department.
2005 Natacha DePaola was named chair of the department of Biomedical Engineering, which made her the first woman to chair an engineering department at Rensselaer. 
2016 Dr. Kim Fortun in the Science and Technology Studies department. 

Dr. Faye Duchin to the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, Dr. Sandra Nierzwicki-Bauer to the School of Science.
2011 Dr. Mary Simoni to the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.
2012 Dr. Laurie A. Leshin to the School of Science. 

Dr. Kim Fortun became Director of the Center for Ethics and Complex Systems.
2003 Anna Dyson was co-founder and Director of the Materialab.
2013 Dr. Tomie Hahn was appointed as Director of the Center for Deep Listening, a field which was founded by RPI professor Pauline Oliveros in 1985. 

Women in Research 
Anna Dyson, Associate Professor of Architecture, was co-founder and Director of Materialab, which was working on a radical new photovoltaic system.
2005  "Molecularium: Riding Snowflakes", based on an idea primarily from Dr. Linda Shadler, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, won the Best Show Excerpt at DomeFest 2005. This project created an immersive look into the world of atoms and molecules, which was projected onto a planetarium dome. 
2006 Dr. Deborah Kaminski and Dr. Cheryl Geisler earned the ADVANCE Grant as principal investigators for the RAMP-UP program. 
2008 Dr. Barbara Cutler, Assistant Professor of Computer Science, led a team that was creating an interactive system to simulate and evaluate the natural lighting in an architectural design. 
2011 Three women were highlighted for their work. First, Dr. Mimi Katz, Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Studies, led a research team whose findings on the global impact of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current were published in the journal Science. The second professor to be recognized was Dr. Heidi Newberg, Professor of Physics, Applied Physics, and Astronomy. Dr. Newberg received a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to fund the MilkyWay@home project. Finally, doctoral student Rebecca Wachs was awarded an AAUW American Dissertation Fellowship to support her research on lower back pain. 
2012 Dr. Francine Berman was awarded a grant from the NSF, which was used to develop the Research Data Alliance to promote data sharing among scientists. 
2013 Dr. Mariana Figueira, Associate Professor and Director of the Lighting Research Center's Light and Health Program, conducted a study on how light from electronic devices impacts melatonin levels. In the same year, Dr. Susan Gilbert, Professor and head of the Biology Department, was awarded the MERIT award from the NIH (National Institute of Health), which would be used to fund her ongoing research on kinesins. 
2016 Dr. Lillian Spina-Caza, lecturer in Communications and Media, worked with Schoharie Area Long Term Inc. to begin developing the "Geo to Go" interactive website. 
2017 Emily Kosmaczewski '16 M.S. '17 became the eighth RPI student to receive the Fulbright award. 
2018 Dr. Aparna Gupta, Associate Professor of Quantitative Finance and Risk Management, was invited to join the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in its Division of Economic and Risk Analysis (DERA) as a visiting researcher. 

Notable Women in the Alumni Hall of Fame | The Rensselaer Alumni Hall of Fame was created in 1995 to “honor the past while celebrating all generations of Rensselaer pioneers.” The inaugural class was inducted in September 1998. Several women have been inducted over the years, two of which we celebrate here!


Nancy DeLoye Fitzroy, Class of 1949, Heat Transfer Engineer, Manager | In 1975, Dr. Fitzroy became the first woman to receive the Demers Medal of Rensselaer. She is an internationally recognized and honored expert in heat transfer and fluid flow, and was with the General Electric Company from 1950 until her retirement in 1987. Dr. Fitzroy was among the first engineers to work on the design of heat transfer surfaces in nuclear reactor cores. In 1986, Dr. Fitzroy became the first woman to head a major national engineering society, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. She has been an active participant in activities designed to encourage women to seek careers in the profession. Most recently, in 2014, Dr. Fitzroy was the first woman to be awarded the Davies Medal for Engineering Achievement. (credit: Rensselaer Alumni Hall of Fame)

Claire M. Fraser, Class of 1977, Pioneering Genome Explorer | Claire Fraser helped launch the field of microbial genomics and revolutionized the way microbiology has been studied. In a landmark publication in 1995, she reported on the first complete genome sequence of a free-living organism, H. influenzae. Since then Dr. Fraser has become one of the world’s most highly cited microbiologists. A former president of The Institute for Genomic Research, in 2007 she launched the Institute for Genome Sciences at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Dr. Fraser has led the way in applying genomic and bioinformatic tools to address challenges in disease research, bioterrorism, and environmental issues. (credit: Rensselaer Alumni Hall of Fame)

Many of the details above regarding the history of women at Rensselaer can be credited to Brooke Hayden (RPI Class of 2017) for the incredible research she conducted in the Institute Archives during the summer of 2016 as an undergraduate research assistant. Brooke was able to tap into one of the most important publications produced and now archived in the department, the President's Annual Reports which are filled with a wealth of information regarding the achievements of women. 

Feel free to comment below, we'd love to hear from our community! 

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