Professor Jennifer Zirnheld recognized as one of 100 most inspiring women in STEM
When Jennifer Zirnheld was in graduate school at UB, she had to learn to cope with the heavy engineering workload and the death of her mentor. It was one of the most difficult times, she said, but her faith is what kept her going.
In September, INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine recognized Zirnheld, an engineering professor, as one of 100 most inspiring women in the STEM fields. The magazine celebrates diversity in academics and focuses on its inclusion into higher education fields. It focuses particularly on the STEM fields, which are science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Zirnheld’s research focuses on engineering innovations to fight cancer.
As Zirnheld looks back on her career, she said she knows she is “truly blessed.”
“I’m really happy to be inspiring to people, and inspire within my field,” Zirnheld said. “I never really thought about the things I did as such. You don’t really do things for praise or recognition – you do them because you want to. To be recognized for that is truly inspiring and humbling.”
In high school, Zirnheld didn’t know which path to choose. Since she excelled in math and science, she was told to try either engineering or medicine, but an aversion to sick people led her to major in electrical engineering.
When Zirnheld came to UB, she excelled in her classes but the lack of passion for engineering made the classes difficult. She had no choice but to maintain a strong work ethic. Her parents didn’t particularly like their jobs but they kept them in order to provide. She looked at them and knew she had no choice but to keep motivated.
“There was an end in sight, so I kept mind of that,” Zirnheld said.
But everything changed when she met her professor Richard Dollinger.
At the end of her undergraduate career, she formed a close bond with Dollinger. He saw her struggling and told her to come into his office on Saturdays but she quickly denied it because she refused to spend her Saturdays in school. But he was persistent and Zirnheld eventually gave in and learned the ropes of engineering.
What she experienced was truly life changing. Being able to apply her work into a research gave her the passion she felt was missing in the classroom.
She then maintained that passion even after Dollinger passed away.
“Unfortunately, he did pass at a young age and I remember that being one of the most difficult times for me,” she said.
Zirnheld wouldn’t give up. She remembers studying and getting the last bit of work done at dinner tables and over breaks. Being a woman of Christian faith was also helpful, she said. Prayer helped get her through some the difficult times.
“My faith is important to me, and in the many things I did I always felt I was blessed,” Zirnheld said. “When I was a kid, I wanted to change the world like most people did. I wanted to cure cancer and go to the moon, and I was able to work toward those things.”
Zirnheld is among the few women in the engineering field. According to U.S. News & World Report, women account for 28 percent of the field and the numbers were even lower when Zirnheld was in school.
“It was just how things were. I got used to it,” she said. “I’d notice no line for the women’s bathroom at conferences and things like that, but few women being around was the norm.”
But there have been improvements, she said, and she feels it is a step in the right direction.
When Zirnheld was in graduate school, she taught classes to help her with her own studies and for fun. Recently, she revived tenure at UB, which she said was another blessing for her.
She has taken her research experience and applied it to a larger picture.
Zirnheld is currently working on using gas to treat melanoma. Usually, the melanoma and surrounding areas are removed from the skin and chemotherapy is used. But scientists have been looking into using thermal ionized gas to treat the illness.
She also worked on a simulated planetary explorer along with other UB students and place third in a national competition. Being able to participate in these projects gave Zirnheld humility, as well as gratitude for all she’s been able to do.
Zirnheld received many teaching honors, including the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Outstanding Teaching Award and the UB Student Association Milton Plesur Excellence in Teaching Award twice.
But Zirnheld said there are times when her beliefs and work do collide with one another. She recalls praying a lot more once she received her position at UB.
“It did get difficult at times and was stressful,” she said. “There was some conflict with what I believe and what I do. Technology can at times be used for the wrong things, but I reconciled that with its capacity for good.”
Zirnheld’s work with the army is an example of her mental battle.
She works with non-lethal weapons, which try to reduce the damage that certain weapons do. She has been working on reducing toxic fumes emitted by these weapons and making ammunition more accurate and effective.
“Science can do a lot of good and bad,” she said.
Zirnheld does sometimes wonder how different things would have been if she were more passionate about engineering earlier on. She thinks back to her Saturday mornings with her mentor and how he changed her outlook on her studies.
She said now she does it for other people and it is “such an honor and very humbling.”
Looking forward, Zirnheld is very optimistic for the future of engineering. She likes to think of engineering as “constrained problem solving” and feels its concepts can be applied to many fields.
As a Buffalo native, Zirnheld admires the evolution of Buffalo. She obtained all her degrees from UB and has lived here for her entire life.
“Growing up, Buffalo was this blue collar town that really didn’t care much for the environment,” she said. “There were a lot of factories and industry. Now, I’ve heard of bidding wars for houses out here. I like the change and hope it can really bring something great out of Buffalo.”
Zirnheld hopes her story inspires students and serves as motivation. She urges everyone to find their passion and work hard at it.
Thanya Theogene is a news staff writer. News desk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org