equality in engineering field

Engineering Equality — How a UB Faculty Member Advanced Her Career in a Male-Dominated Field

When Jani Pallis was 12 years old, she dreamed of earning a degree in aerospace engineering. When she arrived on her college campus in the fall of 1971, she soon found out that women were not allowed to study in some of the engineering departments.

Imagine as a young woman being told that your major excludes women. Your faculty — who are supposed to be your mentors — routinely provide drop slips because, “you’re not going to pass anyway.” An assumption they made based on your gender, not your performance. This was the situation that Jani Macari Pallis faced as a first-year undergraduate student at The Georgia Institute of Technology, one of only about 200 women at Georgia Tech in 1971.

This situation was not unique to Georgia Tech. At that time, women across the country faced similar circumstances at many institutions of higher education. “I had a great experience at Georgia Tech, but exclusion to education in certain fields is just part of the history of equity.”

Jani had hoped for a life as an astronaut. Despite her exclusion from that field, her career has been impressive nonetheless — defined in many ways by the persistent fight for opportunity and the path she cleared for herself and other women in the field.

Today, Dr. Pallis’ curriculum vitae includes accolades such as:

  • Founding and serving as CEO of an aerospace engineering company which has secured millions of dollars in grants from NASA to develop educational materials for American children.
  • Examining the Wright brothers’ artifacts in the Wright brothers’ vault at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia — she is believed to be the first mechanical engineer to examine these materials.
  • Helping to provide children with disabilities access to STEM educational materials by developing materials and bringing the internet to historic buildings when this technology was still in its infancy.
  • Analyzing the mechanics of professional athletes, including Venus Williams and Pete Sampras — offering her expertise and analysis to the United States Tennis Association and other national athletics groups.
  • Consulting with sail designers for yachts competing in the prestigious America’s Cup.
  • Working with NASA and the US Navy on research projects and bringing related educational opportunities and relationships to her students.

This partial list of her many accomplishments is impressive in its own right. Within the context of the history of gender inequality in the United States and in her chosen field, her impact on aerospace and mechanical engineering throughout her career is even more awe-inspiring.

The STEM field has made great strides in including and recruiting women — statistics show the number of women entering the sciences continues to grow, but there remains a significant gender gap. Still, it’s safe to say that Dr. Pallis is among the many women who, through perseverance in the face of adversity, made it easier for future generations of young women to choose their path and excel in their own careers. Having worked her way up in a field that largely underestimated her capabilities based on her gender alone, Dr. Pallis serves as both a torchbearer in the fields of science and engineering, as well as an inspiration for those to follow.

Recently promoted to full professor, University of Bridgeport is fortunate to have Dr. Pallis as an integral member of the School of Engineering.

Here’s her story.

Where it all began

Jani grew up in Stamford, Connecticut. She first fell in love with space and engineering while following Project Mercury, a project that launched the first human-crewed flights into space. While following the Space Race in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Jani set her sights on becoming an aerospace engineer.

Despite her growing interest in the sciences as a child, Jani faced discouragement, even from her own family. “Women didn’t go into aerospace engineering back then, and we certainly weren’t allowed to become astronauts. Opportunities were available in nursing and teaching, or we were told to stay home and raise families,” recalled Dr. Pallis. In addition to the space program, Jani was also interested in aviation. Even after being constantly reminded that she shouldn’t strive for a career in engineering or aviation, Jani pushed forward.

Going to college

“I remember looking at engineering schools and seeing that the course catalogs would say ‘no women in this department,’” Jani reflects. When she began her undergraduate studies, Title IX was still more than a year away from passing into law. Furthermore, when she chose her major in 1971, it was still legal for colleges and universities to exclude people based on their race and gender.

During her first year at Georgia Tech, Dr. Pallis was one of only about 200 women out of the more than 8,000 students attending the university. To put this into perspective, that means that there were approximately two female students for every 100 male students. At the time, most women wanting to enter the STEM fields majored in math because career opportunities restricted them from studying much of anything else. When Title IX passed, women were welcomed into certain engineering majors. Title IX is a federal law passed in June of 1972 that made it illegal to exclude people from educational programs and activities based on sex. The new laws allowed Jani and other female students to change their majors to engineering. Many of them did, including Jani. In 1975, she graduated with a degree in health systems, a concentration within the industrial engineering program.

In a world not built for them

When Jani talks about her time as a college student, it becomes evident just how important her female friendships were to her. Jani and her cohort of fellow female engineering students faced an uphill battle where they had to prove their worth against the men in their classes.

There was one sorority on campus, and Jani and her peers started a second — forming friendships that would last more than five decades. “My sorority sisters always tell me to write a book about what we all went through,” laughs Jani. “We were only 17 and 18 years old. If we wanted to stay, we had to keep quiet,” remembers Jani.

To this day, Jani and her sorority sisters stay in touch. As charter members of their sorority, Jani and her sisters had their 50th anniversary last year. “It was important for us to go back because it was also the 50th anniversary of Title IX.” Today, many of Jani’s sorority sisters have enjoyed careers as civil engineers, medical doctors, dentists, scientists, and even a mayor.

Starting her career

After graduation, Jani encountered new challenges in the workforce. While it had been three years since Title IX afforded women more educational opportunities, entering the workforce still proved difficult for many women. “I remember sitting for job interviews and being told, ‘Well, we’ve never hired a gal before, but this could be a first.’” recalled Dr. Pallis. She also remembers being told people wouldn’t hire her in the industry she dreamed of joining, aerospace engineering. “’Why do you want to go into aero,’ they would ask, ‘because no one is going to hire you.’”

Jani knew she would get that kind of reaction and was prepared for it. Given the number of deterrents she faced early on in her career, Jani Pallis made a name for herself and had a career that spanned decades, making engineering more accessible for those who came after her. In all her endeavors, an enduring theme of her career, even now as a UB faculty member, is education and research.

While working as a statistician for the state of Georgia, Jani earned her master’s degree in health systems, part of industrial engineering. Shortly after that, she left for San Francisco to work as a computer scientist for United Airlines. “I was there for twelve years, and while there, I learned to fly through a flying club. But I really wanted to go back to school,” said Jani.

While working for United Airlines, Jani earned another master’s degree in mechanical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.

Finding a mentor

While Jani is among a class of women who paved the way for countless others to pursue their passions in the STEM field, finding a mentor wasn’t as difficult as you might think — not on the west coast at least. Jani’s mentor was a woman at least 25 years her senior, who was the first female structural engineer in California. That mentor was Ruth Gordon Schnapp, a trailblazing structural engineer and Civil Rights activist who famously chained herself to a pillar outside of the San Francisco Stock Exchange — a protest in support of equal pay for women. Schnapp was known for meeting with groups of women to encourage them to pursue the careers they wanted. One of those women was Jani Pallis, who held onto those lessons throughout her career, demanding a seat at the table every chance she got. “The good news is that today, telling women they can’t choose the majors they want to is as foreign of an idea as it should be, thankfully,” chuckled Jani.

Earning her Ph.D.

Jani eventually left United Airlines to study for her doctoral degree at the University of California, Davis. Jani now holds a Ph.D. in mechanical and aeronautical engineering from UC Davis, but the path to her doctorate was once again marked with obstacles. The story of completing her Ph.D. further highlights Jani’s tenacity.

During the dissertation phase of her Ph.D., her dissertation advisor collapsed in front of her, dying two days later from a brain aneurysm. “He was writing an equation on the board, and he turned around and looked at me and said, ‘This is wrong.’ I remember thinking, ‘No, it’s right,’ and then he fell to the ground. ” Jani’s advisor was only 49 years old and had been one of her strongest advocates — always supportive of Jani’s ideas. “He told me, ‘You have a lot of ideas, and every idea you’ve ever told me, I know will work out,'” remembers Jani. They had even discussed starting a business together before he passed away.

Jani and her Ph.D. cohort had to scramble to figure out how to finish their studies. At that time, as a Ph.D. candidate, their research was closely related to that of their advisors. Jani took some time to consider her options. After hearing a woman describe a very similar situation at a Small Business Innovative Research conference, Jani decided to pick up where they had left off and launch her company, Cislunar Aerospace, Inc., with several members of her Ph.D. cohort — all while studying to finish their doctoral degrees.

Working with NASA

One month after launching her company, Jani applied for a NASA grant. Within six weeks, her company was awarded a 1.1 million dollar grant from NASA to create aeronautical educational materials for kindergarten through eighth grade children. “Each of us had a different specialty, and we did computational fluid dynamics, but the grant from NASA was an educational project,” said Jani.

Jani and her company created one of the first internet-based STEM textbooks for children in K-8 schools. They published their textbook in English, Spanish, and American Sign Language. In 1995, long before YouTube existed, they created and published videos of science experiments for students to learn about STEM. “One of our first schools was St. Joseph’s School for the Deaf in the Bronx.”

In 1995, Jani and her team brought the internet to a building that was over 100 years old. While there, Jani first proposed teaching concepts to children through topics they could relate to, such as sports and the aerodynamics of sports equipment, as well as bugs, birds, and the mechanics of wings and flight. This idea came to Jani after noticing that students were too intimidated to learn the mechanics of airplane flight. Jani and her company added the aeronautics of animals and sports equipment to the NASA project for free. Soon after that, sports management professionals began reaching out to Jani and her team, leading to a follow-up project on the aerodynamics of sports and athletes.

“People started calling us”

As her career progressed, Jani was asked to analyze the serves of professional tennis players, including Venus Williams and Pete Sampras. Jani reported her findings to the United States Tennis Association Player Development Center. Throughout her career, Jani and her company did work with USA Luge, USA Tennis, and the U.S. Olympic Committee. During this time, Jani also connected with the designers who were engineering the sails for yachts set to compete in the America’s Cup races. After being told, yet again, “they are never going to pick you because you’re a woman,” Jani and her team secured a contract to work with a boat out of Hawaii called ‘Abracadabra’ — working for a well-known sail designer named Ian Burns to provide expert computational fluid dynamics predictions.

Jani’s interest in aerodynamics resulted in a considerable professional focus on the aerodynamics of professional athletes. “It’s all related. It’s just how my career evolved,” reflected Dr. Pallis.

Involvement in the 100-year anniversary of powered flight

2003 was the 100-year anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first flight. Today, Jani is thought to be the first mechanical engineer to review and analyze the Wright brothers’ archives. “As we were working on the aerodynamics internet textbook, I received a call from The Franklin Institute (Ben Franklin’s museum in Philadelphia). The Franklin Institute asked to use part of Cislunar’s aeronautics textbook on their website. Jani’s company gave them permission — opening the door for Jani to receive an invitation to view the Wright brothers’ artifacts in the vault at The Franklin Institute.

Dr. Pallis visited the Institute and was offered to view the Wright brothers’ journals, blueprints, and other artifacts from their early research into powered flight. Jani was the first mechanical engineer to analyze the Wright brothers’ wind tunnel journal, a leather-bound notebook kept undisturbed in the vault for over 50 years. This experience evolved into an educational project called “Wright Again.” Jani’s team analyzed the day-to-day journal of the Wright brothers and explained the science behind their early experiments with powered flight.

“That was probably the best project I’ve ever done,” explained Dr. Pallis, “We were working with real artifacts. One day, I asked if we could pull some of the Wright brothers’ original airfoils from the vault and bring them to NASA Ames to wind-tunnel test them, “she exclaimed, “And they said ‘Yes!’”

Jani’s team had to get special permission for the airfoils to be transported on an airplane to NASA Ames. “What my students love most when I share my story is how it proves that you don’t really know where your career will lead you,” shares Dr. Pallis. “But all my work was united by the same scientific principles.”

Leaving California and coming to UB

After her mother fell ill, Jani and her husband decided to move back to Connecticut, returning to her home state to become the primary care giver for her mother. Dr. Pallis had learned of a faculty position at University of Bridgeport through a colleague at the Society for Women Engineers. Jani has been a UB faculty member since 2008 — first as an associate professor in Technology Management, and now serving as a full professor in the Mechanical Engineering department.

As a University of Bridgeport faculty member, she’s leveraged the NASA and marine connections fostered throughout her career to bring unique learning opportunities to UB Engineering students. Dr. Pallis has secured a Navy grant for submarine research and several underwater submersibles for students to work with and is now collaborating with NASA and UB students on a high-altitude ballooning project — preparing them to analyze a total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024, the last total solar eclipse in the United States for the next 20 years. Dr. Pallis and a group of UB students serve as one of the lead research pods in a project with six other northeastern universities — teaching students and faculty at those universities how to build and launch high-altitude balloons equipped with scientific monitoring equipment.

Dr. Pallis’ decades-long career as a mechanical engineer has been dedicated to making aerodynamics and engineering concepts more accessible for students ranging from kindergarteners to master-level engineers. As someone who faced many closed doors early on in her studies, she’s become an advocate and a role model, opening doors for diverse professionals, students, and children looking to enter the field of engineering.

Advice for future generations

Whether you’re just starting out on your college journey or facing the start of your postgraduate career, Dr. Pallis’ advice for your future remains the same: “Do as many projects as you can. This will differentiate your resumé from other candidates in the job search process. Our lab’s projects here at UB are tied to NASA and the Navy, which will set you apart from other engineers as you start your career,” says professor Pallis. “Join a professional network in your engineering field and establish professional connections early on. The people you will meet were in your position at one time. They are going to share their knowledge and mentorship with you.”

At University of Bridgeport, #UBelong. Dr. Pallis is just one of countless UB faculty members excited to join you on your journey through higher education and into your career. To learn more about UB’s career-focused programming, visit www.bridgeport.edu/learnmore.

Call: 203-576-4552

Text: 203-275-0401