Wendi Heinzelman

Hajim School ‘in great hands’ with first woman dean

"I am a newly minted dean, as you are newly minted students of our school, so we are going to start this journey together," Wendi Heinzelman told first-year engineering students when she welcomed them during their orientation in 2016.

Heinzelman became the first woman dean of the Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences that year amid high expectations.

“As a researcher of international distinction, as an award-winning teacher, and as a proven administrator with an extraordinary talent for leading people to achieve their very best, Wendi is ideally equipped to take the Hajim School to new heights,” said Peter Lennie, the University Provost at that time.

By all accounts, Heinzelman has fulfilled those expectations.

“The Hajim School is in great hands with Wendi at the helm,” current Provost Rob Clark said four years later when Heinzelman was reappointed dean. “Throughout the decanal review process, we uniformly heard high praise for her work. She has shown incredible leadership (in) recruiting and retaining outstanding faculty and students, introducing curricular innovations, and strategically growing the research profile. She is accelerating the momentum of the Hajim School and the University of Rochester...”

Among the highlights of her first term:

  • A healthy growth in Hajim School research awards.
  • New initiatives in data science, high energy density physics, and augmented and virtual reality.
  • Acceptance into the Grand Challenges Scholars Program.
  • Increased hiring of women faculty.
  • Relocation and/or consolidation of three departments.
  • A new recording studio for the school’s popular audio and music engineering program.

There are other ways in which Heinzelman is leaving a mark on the school.

She is a dean who insists on greeting first-year students personally. She likes to show up at poster sessions and talk at length with students – and has even been known to get down on all fours to peer at the undercarriage of a student-built off-road vehicle. She urges students to be well versed in the humanities, so that they will be well-rounded engineers. She impresses upon them the importance of gaining research, internship and global experiences beyond the classroom.

An avid sailor, who likes to vacation with her husband and two children in exotic, remote places across the globe, Heinzelman shares this quote with incoming students:

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So, throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Positive influences growing up

Heinzelman, who grew up in Berkeley Heights, NJ, likely would have set sail on a different career path altogether if not for her father and one of his remarkable creations.

Larry Rabiner, a pioneering Bell Labs researcher in digital signal and speech processing, developed the first voice-enabled video game, called mouse-in-the-maze.

Heinzelman, then barely in her teens, remembers playing the game during visits to her father’s lab with her two sisters. “You spoke into a telephone—‘left!’, ‘right!’ ‘up!’ ‘down!’—to walk a mouse through a maze on this huge computer screen,” she remembers.

“It was really cool. That was my first understanding of engineering, and the first time I realized you could actually make a computer listen to what you were saying. Back then, that was totally unheard of.”

Heinzelman enjoyed math and science in school, but the idea of pursuing engineering as a career didn’t occur to her until her father suggested it. “He also told my older sister she should be an engineer,” Heinzelman recalls. “She applied but then realized it was not the field for her. So, he tried again with me.” Heinzelman readily accepted the challenge.

She was also influenced by her mother, who taught science to sixth and seventh grade students in inner city schools in Bayonne, NJ. “She was a very dedicated teacher, doing all she could to help immigrant families and low-income students,” Heinzelman says. “So, in retrospect I kind of combined the careers of my two parents.”

She earned her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1995 from Cornell University, where she met her husband Steve, also an electrical engineering major. She completed her master’s and doctoral degrees at MIT in 1997 and 2000, respectively, and joined Rochester’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering as an assistant professor that year.

An ‘amazing team’ to work with

At Rochester, she has excelled as a researcher, teacher, and administrator.

Her research focuses on wireless communication, networking, mobile computing, and multimedia communication, in particular transforming users’ experiences with mobile ad hoc and wireless sensor networks through design of advanced protocols and architectures. Applications include communications tools for soldiers in the field, enabling conservation through the observation of remote areas, and mobile devices that support personalized health monitoring and learning about family dynamics and healthy interpersonal communication.

In 2018, she was one of three Hajim School faculty elected fellows of the Association for Computer Machinery (ACM). ACM, a society of educators, researchers, and professionals in the computing field, chooses less than one percent of its global membership to be fellows. Heinzelman’s citation was for “contributions to wireless communication systems and protocols, and leadership in broadening participation in computing.” She also is an IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) fellow. Early on, she received both a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER award as well as an Office of Naval Research (ONR) Young Investigator Award.

She has taught classes on digital signal processing and wireless communications and in 2003 received the University’s G. Graydon Curtis and Jane W. Curtis Award for Teaching Excellence.

Before becoming dean of the Hajim School, Heinzelman was dean of graduate studies in Arts, Sciences & Engineering, a position established to strengthen and grow graduate programs and provide an umbrella for graduate studies so that master’s and doctoral students are more connected to AS&E as a whole.

During her time in this role, she worked with the AS&E faculty to develop innovative specialized and interdisciplinary graduate programs, such as a graduate degree program in technical entrepreneurship and management.  She worked closely with the Goergen Institute for Data Science to develop the first master’s degree in data science.

She is quick to note that continued progress in the Hajim School is the result of a collaborative effort.

“I am incredibly lucky to have an amazing team to work with in the Hajim School, including the chairs, faculty, and staff as well as across Arts, Sciences and Engineering, including the Deans and staff,” Heinzelman says.  “Additionally, I have worked with a number of very dedicated alums and friends who provide advice, feedback and resources to help the Hajim School thrive.  It is truly a collaborative effort to bring the Hajim School to the next level and to address the challenges we face, and I am thankful to all my partners who have helped bring us to where we are today.”

That teamwork was especially critical when the coronavirus pandemic confronted the school and the University with the need to close the campus and pivot to learning, teaching, and working remotely from March to August of 2020.

An advocate for change

As a member of the Engineering Deans Council of the American Society for Engineering Education, Heinzelman has had an opportunity to advocate at the national level for changes she believes are needed to make the field of engineering more inclusive and to ensure that engineering schools are responsive to workforce needs. She attends yearly Deans Council colloquiums in Washington, D.C., networking with other engineering deans, sharing ideas with policymakers, and meeting with members of the Rochester and New York state delegation to lobby for change.

Her advocacy for women in STEM led her to co-found Networking Networking Women (N2 Women), an international organization that fosters connections among the under-represented women in computer networking and related research fields.

Today, the organization includes more than 1500 members worldwide and hosts career- and research-focused meetings and panels at major conferences, professional development workshops and mentoring opportunities.

So, it was not surprising that Heinzelman leapt at the opportunity to showcase women who have contributed to engineering and computer science at the University of Rochester as part of Celebrate 2020 observances commemorating the 200th anniversary of Susan B. Anthony’s birth, and the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment, recognizing women’s right to vote.

“I hope by the end of this year we will all have a much fuller appreciation of what women can—and have — contributed to our school, to our University, and to science and engineering,” she stated in her weekly Hajim Highlights newsletter. “That appreciation will hopefully sharpen our awareness of what we forfeit as long as women and minorities remain underrepresented in STEM fields—and will increase our determination to do something about it.”

Wendi Heinzelman talks to members of Baja SAE team

Heinzelman talks to a member of the student Baja-SAE team at the unveiling of a new off-road vehicle in 2017. The team competes against other universities at national events that test not only vehicle endurance and performance on demanding courses, but give awards for best design and other skills.