MSE ChE '85, PhD ChE '88
Associate Dean for Research in Engineering
The City College of New York.
Rosemarie Wesson was the first African-American woman to receive a PhD in chemical engineering at Michigan. When she arrived in the Department in 1984, there were only two other African-American students in the graduate program. Professor Levi Thompson was one of those students, and he and Rosemarie became great friends during her time in Ann Arbor. She remembers that there was a Black Graduate Student Association when she arrived but the group didn’t really get off the ground because there were never more than a few members who attended, although they maintained a support network during their time here.
Rose was raised in Illinois and completed her undergraduate studies at MIT. After graduation, she went to work as a research engineer at Dow Chemical Company for three years before she started the doctoral program. While at Dow, she took an extension graduate course in Midland in fluids (ChE 541) with Jim Wilkes. “Rose excelled at her classwork, to the extent that I encouraged her to apply for the graduate program in Ann Arbor, which she did and I had the privilege of being her doctoral supervisor,” Jim says.
When she arrived in Ann Arbor in 1984, women were scarce in the Department’s doctoral program also. Rose quickly became friends with Liz Batesole, another student in the Wilkes’ group. They were both pleased to see that number increase steadily while they were on campus.
Rose had worked with polymers at Dow and was interested in pursuing that area for her doctoral studies with Jim and the recently hired Tasos Papanastasiou. Unfortunately Tasos had to take a medical leave in winter term of her first year, so Jim assisted her during that crucial first year.
In spite of her early challenges, Rose has always been happy with her decision to come to Michigan. She particularly enjoyed Scott Fogler’s reaction engineering course. She took the course when he was writing his textbook and remembers the binders he provided to the students filled with his notes. He would always challenge them to find errors. “This made the course even more exciting,” according to Rose, “because we had helped in the ‘creation’ of his new text, and felt as though we were part of a project that was going to be important to the future of chemical engineering education.”
She also remembers Jim Wilkes’ numerical methods course. Rose says she liked the challenges of computers and spent many hours in the CAEN lab improving her FORTRAN skills. She went one summer to the University of Minnesota to take a month-long computing course where she got to study parallel computing and worked on the world-famous Cray computer. She was one of the first students to use computers extensively in her research and her dissertation topic was the computer-aided analysis of viscoelastic flow.
While she was a student, Rose married Billy Williams, a coworker that she had met at Dow. She and her husband were honored to have Professor Wilkes play the organ at their wedding in 1986!
Rose returned to Dow for a few years after she completed her PhD in 1988, where she continued to work in the areas of polymers and polymer rheology. In the early 1990s, she spent a few years in academia at Louisiana State University and at Battelle Memorial Lab as a principal researcher. She accepted another position at Dow as senior research leader in the Corporate Materials Science Research and Development Lab, providing leadership in their polymer rheology research area.
Rose began her thirteen-year career at the Engineering Directorate of the National Science Foundation (NSF) as a visiting scientist/engineer in 2001, while on a leave from Dow. Her last position at NSF was as program director for the Chemical and Biological Separations Program in the Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental, and Transport Systems Division.
At NSF, she learned about the structure of the federal government, politics, and how the government truly operates, not only at NSF. She realized how poorly engineers and scientists are prepared for the politics of Washington. She encourages engineers today to take public policy courses and to improve their communication skills so they can more effectively make sure their message is heard and understood by politicians, bureaucrats and, most importantly, the general public. “Engineers can have great impact in shaping the policies of this country if they can avoid coming across as eggheads,” she says.
Last fall, she became the Associate Dean for Research in Engineering at the City College of New York. Rose is a Fellow of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and has served on its Board of Directors.
She returned to Ann Arbor in May to be the keynote speaker at the 2016 ChE Graduate Symposium. She has been a member of the Chemical Engineering Alumni Board for several years and will serve as 2016-2017 chair of the board.
Jim Wilkes says of Rose, “The greatest enjoyment of being an ‘academic’ is to see how your students progress both at the university and in their subsequent careers, Rose has fulfilled all that is expected of a highly gifted and motivated student.”