Jennifer Bernhard

Current Position: Professor at University of Illinois
Jennifer Bernhard
Highlight I always advise women going into engineering to be proactive in finding the support system and mentors that they need to help them fulfill their goals.
June 10, 2009Her job: Professor, University of Illinois
Describe what you do in your current work situation? I'm a professor, so my work has many pieces. I'm a teacher, I'm an engineer, I'm a researcher, and I'm an advisor and mentor. What all of this means is that I get to do lots of different things every day and I get to think about and work on really cool engineering problems. In particular, my work and teaching is largely in electromagnetics and antennas, which are critical pieces of wireless communication and sensing systems.
Why did you choose engineering? In the beginning, I chose engineering because I was good in school in math and science and I enjoyed solving problems. The cool part about engineering that often gets missed, which I discovered later on, is that engineering is actually all about creativity and imagination in solving problems -- the math and science are just the tools we use to solve them. Engineering is fundamentally a creative endeavor that is really responsible for the advancement of mankind. Engineers are responsible for past and future innovations that provide clean water and air, seamless communication, technology-assisted health-care, and world travel and commerce, just to name a few. Engineering is one of the best ways I know of to make people's lives better, so please give it a try!
Where did you go to school and what degree(s) do you have? I went to Cornell University for my undergraduate BS degree and Duke University for my MS and PhD degrees.
What kinds of activities have typically been part of your work? My favorite activity in my work is interacting with people, especially my students. Other than that, in research and in teaching, many of my fundamental activities are the same -- figuring out creative and innovative ways to solve new problems and, in the process, making people's lives better and safer. Sometimes the problems are really difficult, but those are often the ones that give me the most satisfaction once we've solved them.
What do you like best about being an engineer? I love the creative process of engineering. Applying one's own unique experiences and knowledge to a problem necessarily results in a unique solution -- one that someone else with different experiences and knowledge might never come up with.
Which of your career accomplishments are you proudest of? I'm most proud of all of my students. They are not only great engineers, researchers, and thinkers, but they are also wonderful, well-rounded individuals.
What challenges have you met and conquered in your pursuit of an engineering career? Of course, one of the biggest challenges that any woman faces in the pursuit of an engineering career is the fact that there are not yet enough role models out there to make engineering a natural choice for intelligent, creative girls as it should be. Figuring out that I wanted to be one of those role models helped me to not worry about whether or not I was the only girl in the class.
Please tell us a little about your family. I am married to a wonderful man (who is a professor of political science) and we have two fabulous children: a daughter (age 8) and a son (age 3). One of the best things about pursuing careers as professors is that our schedules are flexible enough that we can spend a lot more time with our children and fit our work in around their activities.
What are your short-term (1-2 years) and long-term (10+ years) goals? My short term goal is to become more vocal and active in bringing women into my field of engineering. My long term goal (admittedly, a big one) is to figure out new ways to communicate to our whole society how important and creative engineering is. I pursue this in the hope that more girls and women will see engineering as a rewarding career that can have tremendous impact on people's lives.
What (or who) had/has the greatest influence on your life choices? This is a long list. My parents, my husband, my two advisers, my students, and my children all constantly influence my life choices. My parents are always supportive of my decisions and fundamentally provided a strong foundation for me. My husband is my biggest fan and knowing that always gives me strength to keep pursuing my goals. My advisers, one from Cornell and one from Duke, both encouraged me and helped me to see the beauty of engineering as both a science and an art. My students remind me that there are always new things to learn. Finally, my children remind me of how important it is to have balance in one's life.
What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in engineering? I always advise women going into engineering to be proactive in finding the support system and mentors that they need to help them fulfill their goals.
Describe something about your life outside of work: your hobbies, or perhaps a favorite book. With two small children at home, I don't have much time for hobbies at the moment, but I do love to read mysteries and historical fiction. I'm also addicted to Sudoku puzzles at the moment.