Jul 202010
Authors: Kirsten Silveira

When Sue James was a kid, she wanted to be an artist –– a writer.

Now sitting as the first-ever female chair of CSU’s Mechanical Engineering Department, James said a dedicated physics teacher and countless summer programs for women in engineering brought her to this moment.

She wouldn’t change a thing.

“My physics teacher wanted me to promise I wouldn’t get married until I got my graduate degree,” she said.

James spent her undergraduate years at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and her got her Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

MIT, she said, was a good fit for her because it was one of the first institutions to cater to females in the engineering world.

Not only is James the first female chair of Mechanical Engineering but in 1994, she was the first woman to be hired as faculty in the department.

During her time at CSU, James “beat on the door” until she was able to help form a Biomedical Engineering graduate program and served as its director until taking her new position. Biomedical Engineering, she said, changes all the time and “there are always problems for solving.”

As a faculty member, James spent a great deal of time in the lab, concentrating on human joint replacement and working with students to build a transportable incubator to help reduce infant death in rural America and in struggling countries.

While she loved teaching and working with students to enhance their love for engineering, in her position as an administrator she plans to continue teaching one class and work at a scaled back pace in the lab.

Sandra Woods, dean of the College of Engineering, has worked with James for five years and said James has a knack for getting a large number of faculty members together to work toward a common goal.

“She’s a really great collaborative leader,” Woods said, adding that James is one of 12 females in the department’s faculty and administration.

The college has seen enrollment double for freshman women and, Woods said, having females take part in all the disciplines is important for diversifying the college and plays a large role in bringing new ideas to the table.

As a professional woman in the engineering field, James said it’s been important for her to call on her mentors for advice and support –– but also to encourage young women to understand and enjoy science.

She sat as adviser for the Society of Women Engineers and held a snow sled design contest –– ending in a race to see whose could go fastest –– for girls in fourth, fifth and sixth grade and a Lotions and Potions class that taught girls the chemical engineering behind and how to produce lip balms and lotions.

“One of the things you realize when you work in a predominantly male field, sometimes you want some female companionship,” James said, adding that she’ll often call up girlfriends to meet at their favorite hangout, Cafe Vino, after work.

“Sometimes I just need to meet with someone who has the same hormones as me.”

Her goals for the department, which falls under CSU’s College of Engineering ­–– one of the top tier programs in the country –– center on helping faculty balance workloads and helping the college grow to its full potential by improving concentration and expertise areas.

“We deliver a really high quality of education, and we want to keep that up,” James said, adding that she will have the duty of “finding out how to do more with less” under current budget constraints and lead strategic planning for the entire department.

“Herd the cats in one direction … I’m the herder now, instead of one of the cats,” she said.

Assistant News Editor Kirsten Silveira can be reached at news@collegian.com.

Sue James, left, award-winning biomedical and mechanical engineering professor, was named the first female chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering this month.

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