James Madison University

first graduates logoAbout this series: This is the final installment in a series of features celebrating the first graduating class of the JMU Department of Engineering. When JMU started the school four years ago, it set out to develop a program unlike any other. Through this series, you will see how the students and faculty have done just that, concentrating their efforts on teaching and learning the four pillars of sustainability that future engineers must embrace, not only to succeed in their profession, but to make meaningful contributions in the communities they choose to work in. The series will continue each week through May, when graduates of the JMU Department of Engineering take part in the spring commencement ceremony for the first time.

PHOTO: Heather Watson

Love of Thermal Science Ignited Watson's Career Path

Dr. Heather Watson learned to solder when she was about six years old and how to read blueprints when she was about 10. Her father, an engineer, also taught her and her brother and sisters how to mix concrete at a young age and they helped him build the family stereo from parts he ordered.

Watson was never told that math and science weren't for girls and she always had a passion for them. "At the time when I grew up in Jamaica, sciences were the big thing for students," she said. "It was very different when I came to the U.S. to attend university, where it didn't seem to be the 'in' thing. It was only after arriving here that I heard phrases such as 'girls don't know math' or 'girls are bad at math.'"

Watson, an assistant professor of engineering at JMU since 2009, fell in love with thermal sciences during her first thermodynamics class as an undergraduate. And it just so happens that thermal science goes hand-in-hand with another of her passions, baking. "I love baking," she said, "especially artisan breads." Cooking, on the other hand, is not for her. "I don't like to cook, I'd rather not spend two hours concocting a stew." Baking involves all areas of thermal science: heat transfer, thermodynamics and fluid mechanics, which Watson points out to her students.

One of the reasons Watson likes thermal science is because of its applicability in a wide variety of disciplines and projects. During her eight years in industry, she worked on various projects involving aerospace and energy conservation. One of the projects she fondly remembers was working on the Hubble Space Telescope First Servicing Mission. "It was such a rewarding experience to be an engineer on that team," she said. She still has a patch she received, which was flown on the space shuttle.

PHOTO: Watson with studentsWatson worked in industry after obtaining a master's degree from Georgia Tech, but then decided to pursue a doctorate because it broadened the research areas she could undertake. Since entering academia, first at Clemson University and then at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania before coming to JMU, she has had an increasing interest in engineering education research. The challenge and exhilaration of exploring various aspects of engineering is what Watson likes about academia. The versatility offered to students in the JMU Department of Engineering is what attracted her to teach in the new program.

"After working in industry and knowing what people in industry value, you reflect on what many schools are doing and think that something new needs to be done, something a little bit more innovative," she said. "The JMU program is offering that innovative aspect for students. We're filling a niche here.  Students are given a unique curricular experience with their capstone projects. This will be something that sets them apart when they continue beyond JMU."

The program's emphasis on sustainability was also a draw for Watson, who said engineers need to be concerned not only with robust technical designs, but also with how their work effects the world we live in, who it impacts and how it will be used.

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