When Diane Dorland, dean of the college of engineering at Rowan University, was about four, she remembers sitting on the floor with Q-tips polishing the curlicue legs on the family sofa. She also recalls her mother insisting, “Daddy doesn’t have to do this.”

That experience taught Dorland something important. “I learned early in life that there were dumb jobs and that some people didn’t have to do jobs they didn’t want.”

Another early lesson, this one from her mother, was the importance of independence. Her mother, says Dorland, pushed her and her five siblings to make sure they could take care of themselves.

These were important lessons for a girl who grew up in a rural community in western South Dakota, where prospects were limited. “If I didn’t marry a rancher, I was probably looking at being a nurse’s aide or clerking in a five and dime, if I didn’t have an education,” says Dorland. But that was not what Dorland had in mind. Because she was good at math and science, her teachers suggested she consider engineering and Dorland listened. “I was swayed by fact that engineering seemed to be a good career,” she says.

Furthermore, she adds, “I couldn’t afford to do anything else.” Although her father was an optometrist, the fact that there were six children in the house meant there were no funds available for higher education. Dorland recalls getting this bad news at an inopportune moment. “The day my mother delivered me to school,” says Dorland, “she said, ‘By the way, Diane, I don’t have any money for you.’”

Taking advantage of in-state tuition at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, getting a job on campus, and taking an extra year to complete her education, Dorland left with a bachelor’s and a master’s in chemical engineering. She completed the first degree in 1969 and the second in 1970.

Dorland is one of several speakers on a panel titled “Powerful Women, Powerful Choices” at the New Jersey Technology Council’s Women in Technology luncheon on Thursday, July 31, at 11:30 a.m. at the Forsgate Country Club in Monroe. Other speakers are Saki Dodelson, cofounder of Achieve 3000; Nina Mitchell Wells, New Jersey Secretary of State; and Susanne Svizeny, regional president for central and southern New Jersey at Wachovia Bank. The moderator is Susan Okin Goldsmith, a partner at Duane Morris. Cost: $110. Register at www.njtc.org.

For the most part Dorland has not focused on gender issues. “It’s not what I am as a chemical engineer,” she says. “I can do work as well or as poorly as anyone else, and I prefer to be judged on that and judge others on that basis.” When she does encounter people who think gender affects a person’s ability, she either ignores them or uses humor to cajole them out of their narrowness. “I think it is a stereotypical behavior they have observed or learned in their home life,” she says, “and I prefer to use a little irony or sarcasm, make a joke and move on.”

Early on, while Dorland was in college, she was denied a job solely because she was not a man. Her physics lab partner, who had been an Air Force “fly boy” at the base in Rapid City, told her she’d make a great radar technician. So she responded to a posting by the Institute for Atmospheric Sciences on campus. “When I went to apply,” she says, “I was scared to death and didn’t even know what a radar technician did.”

As she was summoning up the courage to walk in the door, she started reading the bulletin board and, it being the mid-1960s, noticed and read the equal opportunity guidelines for the first time in her life. Then she went in and told the secretary she wanted to apply for the job. “She looked at me and said, ‘We don’t hire girls for this position,’” recalls Dorland. “Immediately these words came right out of my mouth: ‘You can’t tell me that; you have to take my application.’”

The woman was so startled that she did take the application, and although the institute remained firm about its gender requirements for radar technicians, she was hired for other work and kept the job for four years, through her master’s degree. “One of the things I learned early was how to take a situation and use it to your benefit,” says Dorland. “At the time, they probably didn’t want to get into trouble, and in the end it was mutually beneficial.”

For the most part Dorland’s work related to the seeding of clouds with silver iodide to make more rain; for example, she managed data packages in airplanes collecting atmospheric data and worked with cloud chambers making artificial clouds and measuring liquid water content. Dorland’s master’s thesis was a combination of the institute’s atmospheric cloud work and chemical engineering.

Aside from that early incident, the only place Dorland ran into major discrimination was at her first job out of college — as a research engineer on butane oxidation for Union Carbide in South Charleston, West Virginia. In 1972, after a major market downturn, the company needed to lay off a sizable number of people, and among these were the eight technical wives whose husbands also worked at Union Carbide.

Although it was very upsetting for Dorland, she could not see complaining about equal opportunity issues since they were also laying off technicians with as much as 14 years of experience. Instead she maintained a professional relationship with her former boss at Union Carbide, which became valuable to her later.

Advised that she would need a doctorate to advance in an academic career, she went back to school after just a year of teaching. At the same time she and her husband went through an amicable divorce, and he agreed to take care of the children so that she could return to school. Dorland earned a Ph.D. in chemical engineering at West Virginia University in Morgantown.

Although she couldn’t afford flying lessons in college, she was able to learn flying and buy a small Cessna airplane after working for awhile. She is also a scuba diver.

In 1986 she was offered a position as assistant professor in chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota in Duluth. Within a few years, she became chair of the department. Her children joined her in Minnesota and both are graduates of the University of Minnesota and live in the state.

When Glassboro State College received $100 million from Henry Rowan in 1992, the college changed its name and created its new college of engineering. It accepted its first student in 1996, and the founding dean stepped down after the graduation of that first class. Dorland was hired in 2000.

Dorland likes to brag a little about Rowan’s success, the school having been ranked 16th among 172 peer institutions that focus on undergraduate-through-master’s education. “My focus has been on showcasing the outstanding program that Rowan has and bringing us to the national attention and reputation that we deserve,” she says.

Nationally about 20 percent of the engineering field is female. At Rowan, it is 25 percent. But Dorland is quick to say, “I hired them because they are very good, not just because were women.” She also offers a couple suggestions about how to expand the representation of women in engineering.

Communicate how engineering changes lives. “Engineering has a significant impact on the quality of life — locally, nationally, and globally,” says Dorland, “and I do believe that many women are interested not only in having a good career but in being able to affect the quality of human life.”

Dorland cites, areas where engineering affects the medical community: biomechanics; hip and joint replacements; studies on how helmets protect brains against damage; instrumentation for managing kidney dialysis; and the mechanical and physical aspects of how to design, build.

“Engineering takes scientific knowledge and applies it in areas where there are useful products,” she explains. “An exciting part of being an engineer is taking the basic laws of gravity and physics, natural laws, to create products that make life more comfortable.”

One of Dorland’s professors is a civil engineer who works in geotechnical areas, for example, the foundations on which bridges and roads get built. As an Indian, she is also very interested in applying engineering principles to help third-world countries and is now developing a grain crusher that operates with bicycle power and is readily transportable to remote areas. In an area with no access to machinery or electric, says Dorland, “it can make such a difference in the human capital needed to grind grain for daily food, which many people must do.”

Move engineering concepts into middle-school and grade-school classrooms. “If children hear some initial engineering language, I believe it will become familiar to them, not something they have to be afraid of,” says Dorland. She explains that engineering applications in daily life extend beyond just those related to “making this, creating that, doing this.” Much of cooking, for example, is an application of chemistry. Similarly, figuring out how to get something cleaned, cooked, or built, or how to get stains out of clothes all involve applying chemical and physical principles to our lives.

Accentuate the possibilities. Tell women that engineering is a great first career and can take them anywhere. Engineers have a solid basis in science and math, says Dorland, and they tend to understand systems and how things are linked to each other. As a result, engineers have had successful careers in marketing, law, medicine, business, communications, finance, and politics.

Laugh it off. “I would encourage women to deal with slights and rebuffs and negative comments with a lot of humor,” says Dorland, “and to have a solid core internally so they know where they are going and why they are going there.”

Urge women to seek out colleagues for support. Dorland urges women to find others to bounce ideas off of and to talk to about how to get where they want to go. She urges them to focus on peer mentors who offer daily encouragement rather than the “godfather type of mentor who can make all kinds of things happen for us.”

But, in the end, Dorland takes some early advice of her mother’s, “Be wary of giving advice; wise men don’t need any and fools won’t take it.” She likes instead to urge women to figure out what they enjoy, and then find a career that will satisfy them. For her, engineering is the ticket. “I have found that engineering makes jobs more enjoyable for me,” she says. “It gives me the freedom to figure things out and to think about and solve problems.”

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