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Sun Oct 13, 2019, 06:26 PM

Joan Brennecke Returns in Triumph to her Alma Mater with a 2.5M Grant.

Whenever I see a paper from Joan Brennecke while growing through titles in a journal I just have to read it. (Confession: The Journal she edits, Journal of Chemical Engineering Data, is not on my regular reading list; I wish I had more time.)

Most recently I came across this paper of hers: Effect of Water on CO2 Capture by Aprotic Heterocyclic Anion (AHA) Ionic Liquids (Gabriela M. Avelar Bonilla, Oscar Morales-Collazo, and Joan F. Brennecke, ACS Sustainable Chem. Eng. 2019, 7, 16858−16869)

I usually don't notice institutions, but it caught my eye, that after a long career at Notre Dame, she is now at the University of Texas at Austin. So I googled to find out what happened and came across this article: Engineering a New Era

Joan Brennecke, the first female professor of chemical engineering at the University of Texas, has charted her own career course.

As a chemical-engineering student at the University of Texas in the 1980s, Joan Brennecke learned more than formulas and chemical processes; she learned how to stick up for herself. Some professors supported Brennecke in her engineering ambitions, helping her become more assertive and self-assured. Meanwhile, others represented the challenges she would face throughout her career in a male-dominated field.

Brennecke remembers casually chatting with a UT chemical-engineering professor about her career ambitions at a party in 1984, when he surprised her with a mocking laugh.

“A female faculty member in chemical engineering at the University of Texas? Over my dead body!” he declared.

After a $2.5 million governor’s grant returned the world-class researcher to her alma mater three decades later, Brennecke can’t help but laugh at the story’s irony.

“I try never to whine about others’ behavior,” says Brennecke, now UT’s first female full professor in chemical engineering. “I tend to ignore it and do my thing.”

Engineered to Succeed
Brennecke knew chemical engineering was her thing since early high school. She recalls hours spent in the garage with her father, a chemical engineer with a Ph.D., taking apart anything the two could find. When she was 12, they disassembled a massive mechanical calculator he brought home from his job at Alcoa.

Engineering runs in the family: Brennecke’s uncle works as a mechanical engineer, her mother is a secretary for an engineering company and three cousins ended up in engineering-related positions. Brennecke entered the family hall of fame as its first female engineer.

Today, women earn about 20 percent of all engineering degrees. When Brennecke hit high school in the mid-1970s, women earned just 3.4 percent of those degrees...

...Gabriela Avelar Bonilla, one of Brennecke’s Ph.D. students at Notre Dame, says Brennecke serves as a valuable resource for women in engineering.

“In a field that [is]usually dominated by men, it’s important to have role models that you can relate to,” Avelar Bonilla says, “[especially]someone like her because her career is very impressive and she is a good mentor.”

When paired with a female mentor, female engineering undergrads feel more confident, motivated and less anxiety, according to a study published earlier this year.

The first piece of advice Brennecke offers female engineering students is to focus on doing their best.
“There’s no substitute for competence,” she says.

“And for goodness’ sakes, don’t ever be dissuaded or even irritated by somebody’s stupid comments or what somebody does. Don’t waste your brain cells on them. Spend your brain cells on doing what you’re doing well.”

Dr. Brennecke gave a wonderful lecture at Princeton University which I attended a few years back. I have posted the video in this space here:

On the Solubility of Carbon Dioxide in Ionic Liquids.

I was, at the time, a little depressed about the remarks on SO2, but the world has gone beyond that.

In any case, it's great to see powerful women in Chemical Engineering. Dr. Brennecke is a national asset.

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