Julia Weertman

Julia Weertman

Materials Engineer
Northwestern University
Julia Weertman
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Hello, my name is Julia Weertman, and I'm a professor in the Materials Science and Engineering Department at Northwestern University. Our campus is located on the western shore of Lake Michigan, just north of Chicago. I teach one course each quarter and head an active research group consisting of graduate students and post doctoral fellows. We carry out original research on advanced materials such as high-strength, high-temperature aluminum alloys and nanocrystalline materials. When I was in junior high school I was enthralled with airplanes. Airplanes were more exotic back then than the buses of the sky that they are now. I chose to study science and math to become an aeronautical engineer. Somewhere, along about my junior year, I decided I preferred physics and did my undergrad and grad studies in that area. I was the first woman admitted to the College of Engineering and Science at Carnegie Mellon, mostly because I was the first woman to apply after the school changed their policies during World War II. I heard later that the Dean did not think I would make it, but I never met anything but kindness and encouragement from the faculty. I worked for 6 years at the US Naval Research Lab in the field of magnetism. Then I moved to Evanston, Illinois, when my husband was recruited to the newly-formed Materials Science and Engineering Department at Northwestern University. (We met in my first year of graduate school: he was a returning GI student in a physics class for which I was the teaching assistant. I dated him on Fridays and his lab partner on Saturdays.) After an extended time out for raising our two children (13 years!), I had the chance to join the MS&E Department too. I became the first woman to chair a department in the engineering school. A number of people have influenced my career path. First, and most fundamentally, were my parents who quietly instilled in me the belief that I could do anything I set my mind to. I had an outstanding thesis advisor, excellent supervisor at NRL, and now top-notch colleagues at Northwestern. My husband has enthusiastically supported and encouraged me. The common denominator of these individuals is that they are all people of the highest quality. I find that in general such people are much more open, positive, and helpful than mediocre people who are always looking over their shoulders to see who will outperform them. What do I like about my work? I like the challenge of research--trying to make new materials, then understanding why they behave the way they do. It's a continual puzzle-solving process. I also like the pleasure of working with young people, especially my grad students. They start out as students, but by the time they complete their Ph.D. work, they've become colleagues and close friends. It's also fun to meet someone at a conference overseas who says he's (it's still almost always a "he") familiar with my research and publications and admires my work. Perhaps the hardest challenge I have met was re-entering the work force after 13 years of parenting, switching fields of expertise, and starting up a research program with encouragement but no start-up funds or equipment. My prides and joys are my former students, who have gone on to careers of high achievement in engineering. Right now, my goals are to finish up my research activities on nanocrystalline metals, then live a more leisurely life. I will remain involved in professional service activities but want to spend more time on my favorite diversions: gardening, jazz, border collies, and collecting Stuff (mostly expensive and not very useful items like Japanese prints and southwestern Indian pots). Looking back, I can't imagine wanting any career other than engineering. My advice to young women who are considering engineering as a major involves the usual clichés, but they are nonetheless valid: work hard and try to be the very best, keep your sense of humor active and don't take yourself too seriously. Stick with top-notch people. And most of all, enjoy what you do. Check out the Northwestern McCormick School of Science and Engineering and the Materials Science and Engineering Department.

Answers by Julia Weertman

Dear Janae--Your idea of designing better bicycles is very topical.  Cities are creating more and more bike lanes and otherwise encouraging bike travel.  I imagine that most of the replies you have received suggest Mechanical Engineering as the most appropriate field.  I would suggest, as a less obvious choice, that you also think of majoring in Materials Science and Engineering.  Advances in bicycle performance depend on using stronger, lighter materials in the various components with the desired specialized properties demanded by design (e.g., higher Young's modulus, corrosion resistance, better fatigue properties, etc.).  MSE leads to a knowledge of such materials, and may even equip you to develop better materials yourself.
Best wishes for a successful engineering career.  I would be pleased if you let me know how you progress.--Julia Weertman  

Dear Hope: Thank you for your question, "Why do so many engineers prefer to become professors rather than work for a company in the field for which they are trained?" (Did I interpret your question correctly?)

First, there really are many more engineers working for companies than as engineering professors in universities. At least, that is the case in the US. Even so, you may wonder why someone trained in engineering might prefer to become a professor. Here are a few reasons.

We enjoy working with the students. It is a pleasure to be around bright young people who are interested in their subjects (at least most are). It is a privilege to teach them. In the case of our graduate students who are working on their PhD degrees, they start out as students but by the time they have finished their research theses they have become colleagues and often remain friends for years.

At the research universities, besides teaching we also conduct our own original research, which can be very exciting. Carrying out such research is usually impossible in industry, where one is told what to work on, projects that are important to the company. This research can be interesting too, but it is more constrained.

In many universities, some professors start their own companies, based on their research discoveries. Thus they are both professors and work in industry too.

I hope that I have given some answers to your question. Whether working in industry, in a government lab, or a university, engineering is a great career choice. Good luck and best wishes for your career!

Julia Weertman
Walter P. Murphy Professor Emerita
Department of Materials Science and Engineering Northwestern University, Evanston, IL 60208