When Mary Anne Wassel strode down the aisle to grasp her master’s in mechanical and aerospace engineering diploma at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) in 2007, she was the only woman in her class. Remarkably, she admits that her career path was accidental. Her first unforgettable brush with science came through a summer job as a camp counselor.
The science camp had an engineering module. “For one class, called Take Apart, campers brought in old appliances and took them apart. When I helped the six-year-olds disassembled what they brought, I found myself not wanting to hand back the screw driver.” Soon after, she visited a college engineering department whose students were building a dune buggy and a robot. “It clicked for me at that moment. I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
Wassel acknowledges that the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields could use more women, but she’s optimistic. As the first and only woman on the County College of Morris engineering faculty, she encourages other women by serving as one of the advisors for the college’s Women in STEM Club.
She advises students that diverse interests contribute to scientific creativity. When working on her bachelor’s degree in engineering at TCNJ, she minored in Medieval and Renaissance literature.
“In one semester I’d take classes on heat transfer, anthropology and fairy tales,” she recalls. “Not having a one-track mind helped me to better frame and solve problems in engineering.” That came in handy during a summer stint at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
“A friend from high school who went on to MIT asked me to participate in a summer program in which 50 undergraduate and graduate students from 13 countries built four green vehicles from scratch,” she says. “I was on the electric car team.”
Many students struggle with the material in her classes. “I can identify with that. Engineering school is hard and I didn’t have the easiest time. So, I spend a lot of one-on-one time breaking down complex concepts into information that’s easier for my students to understand.” Witnessing the moment her students “get” that information, she adds, is what makes teaching so worthwhile.