One Professor’s Path as a Woman in Civil Engineering

1/18/2012

Dr. Leslie Brunell, Stevens faculty member and alumna, believes that if women had more influence, the world would hopefully be a better place.

“Women respond to challenges and think differently than men, so if more women were involved in making decisions, there might be alternative solutions for many of society’s problems,” she said.

Since she transferred into Stevens as an undergraduate and become one of the few female students on campus in early 1980s, Dr. Brunell has been working to advance the role of women in one particular area – civil engineering. Today – as an Associate Teaching Professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Ocean Engineering in Stevens’ Schaefer School of Engineering & Science – she serves as a role model for female students who want to pursue a civil engineering career in either industry or academia.

Dr. Brunell originally wanted to be an architect, so she began her undergraduate studies at Hobart and William Smith. That didn’t last long.

“I was not doing well in my studio classes, so I was guided by my calculus professor toward engineering,” she admitted.

Since Hobart and William Smith didn’t have an engineering program at the time, Dr. Brunell soon transferred to Stevens, drawn not only to its courses of study but to its metropolitan location. She never left. She earned her B.E. in Civil Engineering from Stevens in 1986, followed by her M.E. in Civil and Environmental Engineering in 1990 and her Ph.D. in Civil Engineering in 1996.

Then, following a part-time teaching assistant position for Professor Emeritus Richard Hires while she was a doctoral student, Dr. Brunell became an adjunct, then assistant, and finally a full-time professor at Stevens. Today, she teaches six courses, directs the graduate-level Water Resources program, serves on several school committees and was recently elected to serve on the Alumni Affairs committee to the Board of Trustees.

According to Dr. Brunell, the faculty and administration at Stevens always supported her rise as a student and later as a professor.

“As one of the few female students in my class, we learned early on that we were going to have to be a little bit tougher than everyone else,” she said. “Luckily there were a lot of good people in front of us looking out for us and supporting us.”

Her professors and advisors were especially helpful in preparing her for job interviews.

“They never let us forget that we would be competing against men for work,” she said. “We learned how to behave, how to dress, and even how to give a strong handshake.”

The lessons paid off for Dr. Brunell. While pursuing her M.E. and Ph.D. she worked as a professional consulting engineer for various companies in New Jersey. With a client list that included the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and the New Jersey Department of Transportation, her duties included residential and industrial site plan development; storm drainage, sewage and septic system design; and shoreline protections, storm control plans and storm water management plans.

As a working professional in the field of civil engineering, Dr. Brunell encountered not so much prejudice as disbelief over her gender.

“I was always struck by how I was initially treated. People at the time didn’t expect a female engineer, and they were always surprised when I showed up or answered the phone,” she said.

She saw the same initial reaction when she joined the Stevens faculty and many of her students addressed her as “missus,” rather than “doctor” or “professor.”

“It wasn’t anything blatant or purposeful, but I made it clear right away that I expected the same respect as the male professors,” she said.

Today Dr. Brunell brings her experiences as a Stevens graduate and a working engineer into the classroom to benefit her students, something they greatly appreciate. For example, she has used her professional network and alumni contacts to make sure all of her student’s senior design projects are sponsored by industry, often by major engineering firms.

“As a budding female engineer, Dr. Brunell was inspirational and supportive, providing career advice and encouragement through my years at Stevens and after graduation,” said Kate Matos (‘08).

“Even now that I am working as a design engineer at a firm with very few female engineers, Dr. Brunell’s example has taught me to be confident in what I do,” added Nicole Ogrosso (’09). “She doesn’t just teach from the book; instead she presents real-world examples of engineering that is easy for students to understand.”

Dr. Brunell is committed to making sure all of her students – male or female – have an opportunity to succeed in the engineering profession, as she did, and she truly believes they all will.

“She began talking about the Professional Engineer exam in our first year class because she had faith we were all going to be successful in our studies,” said Matos.

According to Dr. Brunell, she’s just paying back what other inspirational women she’s met throughout her academic career have done for her.

“I’m fortunate to have followed in the footsteps of many brave women who had paved the way for me as a budding female engineer, and I’ll continue to pave the way for all those who come after me,” she said.

For full coverage of the celebration of the 40th anniversary of Stevens becoming fully coeducational, visit stevens.edu/women.