Jill S. Tietjen, P.E., served as SWE’s president in 1991-1992 and is currently the president of the Board of Directors of the National Women’s Hall of Fame. In honor of Women’s History Month, the licensed professional engineer in Colorado took a few minutes to share with us words of inspiration and character to look up to for aspiring engineers. This year’s theme of Women of Character, Courage and Commitment is especially relevant to Tietjen, who is a life member of SWE and earned her B.S. in mathematics from the University of Virginia at a time when very few women pursued college degrees, let alone advanced degrees in engineering.
1. How were you introduced to engineering?
My father was an engineer who loved his job. He spent his entire career at NASA—at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. However, no one, not even my father, suggested I study engineering, so I started as a mathematics major at the University of Virginia and transferred into engineering after my first year. No one told me that applied mathematics was not an accredited degree; I didn’t know that until after I had graduated. I got licensed as a professional engineer as soon as I was eligible.
2. When did you join SWE?
I joined SWE in 1979. Because I was in the third class that admitted women as undergraduate students to the University of Virginia, there was no SWE Section there when I was a student (I graduated in 1976). My first employer, Duke Power Company, sent me around to various universities doing on-campus recruiting. At a career fair in a gymnasium at North Carolina State University was a card table staffed by SWE. I visited the table, took an application, and immediately filled it out. I helped charter the Charlotte-Metrolina Section while I lived in Charlotte, North Carolina. I became very active in SWE when I moved to Denver in 1981.
3. What has been your most rewarding experience with SWE?
This is such a hard question as there have been so many rewarding experiences. Serving as national president certainly ranks up there. Being at the White House twice to see my nominees receive the National Medal of Technology was very rewarding. Nominating SWE members to the National Women’s Hall of Fame and seeing them inducted has been and continues to be wonderful. And, very importantly, my friends—really my best friends—who I’ve met through SWE.
4. In one sentence, why is engineering an excellent career for women?
Engineers make the world work and provide value in every facet of our lives.
5. What three women of character, courage and commitment inspire you?
Admiral Grace Murray Hopper who said it is easier to ask forgiveness than to ask for permission. Admiral Hopper developed the first computer compiler, the computer program that allows humans to speak in our language to a computer and then translates our languages into the zeroes and ones that a computer understands. She was my first successful nomination for the National Medal of Technology and my first successful nomination to the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Maria Goeppert-Mayer so loved physics that she worked for many years in labs that she made out of broom closets as a 'volunteer.' Her husband was employed; nepotism rules forbade hiring her. Goeppert-Mayer worked on the Manhattan Project (the project that developed the atomic bomb) and received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963.
Gertrude Elion decided to make pharmaceutical drugs after she watched her beloved grandfather die a slow and painful death from stomach cancer. A rarity in that she didn’t have a Ph.D. (economic circumstances prevented her from obtaining that degree), Elion developed the first effective childhood leukemia drug. She developed the first immunosuppressant drug, thus allowing organ transplants She also worked on developing the drug AZT, for the treatment of AIDS. Elion received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1988.