Stevens Ocean Engineering Alumna Breaks Barriers at U.S. Naval Academy

1/5/2012

Dr. Jennifer Waters has jumped over many hurdles, and among the highest of all was her gender.

Dr. Waters – who earned her M. Eng. and Ph.D. in Ocean Engineering from the Charles V. Schaefer, Jr. School of Engineering and Science at Stevens Institute of Technology – made history by being voted by her peers to become the Chair of the Department of Naval Architecture and Ocean Engineering at the United States Naval Academy (USNA), becoming the first female ever to chair an engineering department at USNA. Continuing on the rise to even higher levels of challenge and leadership, she was subsequently voted by her department chair peers to become “Chair of chairs,” and is now currently a finalist in the search for the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs position at USNA.

When Dr. Waters joined USNA faculty as an Assistant Professor in 1995, she was one of only two women in her department, and today, women make up just 20 percent of the 25-person department.

“I think the world is still in transition, but what is most important is that there are strong men and women committed to supporting the growth of women in science and engineering,” she said.

Dr. Waters is used to being in the minority. The first of her immediate family to earn a four-year college degree, she attended Stevens in the early 1990s when the administration was making a concerted effort to welcome and support its female students.

“I was fortunate to be surrounded by extraordinarily strong people in leadership positions at Stevens who were dedicated to the cause and really had my back,” she said.

Dr. Waters’ interest in ocean engineering started as a teenager, when she attended a week-long summer program at Stevens focused on encouraging women to pursue engineering-related degrees and careers.

“It was eye-opening,” she said. “You grow up knowing what a doctor does; what a lawyer does. But it’s hard to understand what an engineer does until you see it first-hand.”

Drawn by her lifelong love of the of the water and desiring to pursue a field that combined various sub-disciplines of engineering, Dr. Waters enrolled at the Webb Institute of Naval Architecture in 1987 and earned her B.S. degree. Then she immediately returned to Stevens for graduate school.

“It was the perfect complement to my undergraduate education,” she said.

During her time at Stevens, Dr. Waters worked as a research assistant at Davidson Laboratory, helping the engineers on staff with all sorts of research and testing projects, including very early environmental water quality modeling. One of her major contributions was assisting Professor Thomas Herrington with establishing the university’s coastal engineering program. 

“We basically did a lot of beach surveying, site studies and other protection and monitoring projects in the very early years of what is now quite a vibrant and impactful research center,” she said.

She also held leadership positions on the Graduate Activities Board, which organized and supported student life activities on campus.

Dr. Waters initially intended only to stay at Stevens for her master’s degree, but her faculty advisors noticed the former peer tutor and youth music teacher’s potential as a professor. They encouraged her to stay on for her Ph.D., which would open up many more teaching opportunities. Professor Emeritus Richard Hires even let Dr. Waters teach a section of one of his courses for a few weeks to see how she liked being a professor.

“I was always interested in education, but after that I was hooked,” she said.

After she graduated, Dr. Waters rose quickly through the faculty ranks as a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, ultimately being selected by her peers as Department Chair two years ago. 

“It was tough at first to be a woman in charge of a male-dominated workplace, but what Stevens taught me about perseverance, high standards, hard work and integrity was instrumental in my success,” she said.

She also continued to stay engaged with Stevens, even helping to establish the Atlantic Center for the Innovative Design and Control of Small Ships (ACCeSS), a research partnership between Stevens, the U.S. Naval Academy and other academic and industry partners to advance the design and control of small vessels.

Dr. Waters lives in Maryland with her husband and two teenage daughters.

For full coverage of the celebration of the 40th anniversary of Stevens becoming fully coeducational, visit Women at Stevens.