“I always urge students to take advantage of a key asset that is available to them — the fact that UB is a top research university. Participation can help to build up their resume and they could discover career paths that they may never have considered.”
She owns a pocket protector and a Transformers lunchbox. She watches “The Big Bang Theory” and describes AC/DC as both one of her favorite bands and types of voltage.
In some ways, Jennifer Zirnheld fits the classic profile of an engineer. Except for the fact that she didn’t even like engineering until her senior year of college.
“I absolutely, positively hated engineering for probably the first three years,” says Zirnheld, who earned her undergraduate degree from the University at Buffalo in 1993 and is now an associate professor of engineering at UB. “But at that point, I said to myself, ‘You’re this far into it. You’re going to finish the degree.’”
“It’s nice to be able to stay in touch with students and see how they’re progressing and know that we've prepared them well enough to do whatever their dreams are. It doesn’t just stop here. If they enjoy what they do, then I’m happy.”
Zirnheld did more than just finish. She stayed on to get her master’s degree and her Ph.D. in electrical engineeringthen joined the UB faculty where she has been repeatedly honored as an exceptional teacher and mentor. Zirnheld credits a simple question from a professor, Richard Dollinger, with flipping her view on engineering.
“It was my senior year and I had started interviewing. I had a few job offers, I was done,” she says. “But then he asked me, ‘Why don’t you come by the lab? We work on Saturdays at 8:00. Why don’t you come by and check it out?’ And I thought to myself, ‘8:00 on a Saturday? Are you kidding me?’”
Despite the early hour, Zirnheld went to the lab and she was enthralled by the research atmosphere. “There was just an energy in the lab,” she says. “Students were working on different projects, there were experiments going on. It was controlled chaos.” By the end of the day, she was exhausted but academically fulfilled.
“Once I saw the possibilities and once I started to do research, I enjoyed electrical engineering a lot more. And now I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she says. “But when it was just problems in a book, I could do it, but it just didn’t excite me.”
She took on a full-time job after graduation, but, at Dollinger’s suggestion, she also pursued her master’s degree. Her plan was to get her master’s and get out into the workforce, but once again, a question from him gave her pause. Knowing that she would be better situated to pursue a rewarding career—as opposed to just a series of jobs—he urged her to consider a Ph.D.
“He asked me, ‘Specifically, as a female in electrical engineering, what do you want to do with your life?’ And, really, nobody had phrased that question to me before in that way,” she says. “He literally changed my life. He passed away (in 1996) so he did not see my Ph.D. through, but he loved what he did. He absolutely loved what he did. And I love what I do.
“I find the life of a faculty member to be extremely rewarding. I’m in my office sometimes till 10:00 at night, but it’s my choice. I get caught up in a problem or writing a grant and lose track of time because I enjoy what I’m doing.”
Now Zirnheld is the one making a difference in the lives of others. She’s a popular teacher who has twice won the UB Student Association award for excellence in teaching and conducts activities in class such as electric motor boat drag racing and making biodiesel fuel. Her research centers on different aspects of controlling and managing energy, with potential applications ranging from military technology to improving the power grid to treating cancer.
And of course, she works closely with students in the classroom, in the lab and as director of the Energy Systems Institute. She was recognized for her mentoring ability in 2011 as one of five faculty members to receive the university’s inaugural award for excellence in mentoring undergraduate research and creative activity.
It’s important to Zirnheld to reach out to students and help set them on the proper path, whether they’re collaborating with her on a research project or one of 500 students in her intro to engineering class. Even if they don’t like engineering at all.
“I tell them, 'You can’t have it all. You can have everything that makes you happy, but you can’t have it all. So decide what makes you happy. Decide what is the one thing in your life that you really don’t want to live without and pursue that with everything you have. What do you want to do? Then we’ll figure out a way to get you to that point.’” Zirnheld said.
“I feel like I’ve been given an opportunity, and the only thing I can do to repay [Professor Dollinger] is to give back more than he gave me.”