Deborah Thurston retires after 34 years of service

April 26, 2021

William Gillespie

Gutsgell Professor Emerita Deborah Thurston doesn’t always like being referred to as the first female tenure-track faculty member to be hired in the department, then known as General Engineering (GE). I think she's concerned that it makes her sound much older than she is, and it does, because, despite the progress made in recent decades, women just haven't been a part of our century-old department until somewhat recently. This progress has been made because people like Deborah loved engineering enough to overcome resistance and work to create a university where women were welcome.

Deborah joined GE in the fall of 1987 as the only female faculty. She remained the only female faculty for twelve years, until Carolyn Beck was recruited in 1999. Thurston brought to the department a PhD from MIT, experience in industry, and a research program, which the department, having at that time no PhD program, could only partially accommodate. Working with her colleagues to bring a PhD program to the department is among the many efforts for which Thurston may be applauded. After over a decade of work, the efforts paid off. The first two PhDs were granted in 2006, and today ISE is welcoming its largest ever incoming class of graduate students.

Thurston's research has always been aimed at environmentally conscious design and pollution prevention. Although, as she explains, research funding for sustainability has waxed and waned with the political climate, today she is a node leader of the Reducing EMbodied-Energy And Decreasing Emissions (REMADE) Institute, funded by the Department of Energy. Her interest in sustainability was kindled by recycling soda bottles in her youth and carried through the years of work she did before graduate school at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.          

In 1989 she was awarded the NSF Presidential Young Investigator Award, the predecessor of the NSF CAREER Award. Using then state-of-the-art computer systems, she founded the Decision Systems Laboratory.

Deborah Thurston has also served as co-director of The Hoeft Technology and Management Program since 2004. In 1995, Leonard C. (BS ’47) and Mary Lou Hoeft made a generous gift to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to establish and endow an academic minor for exceptional students in The Grainger College of Engineering and The Gies College of Business. In the Hoeft Technology and Management Program, the most promising engineering and business students work together in the classroom on projects sponsored by major corporations, such as Boeing, John Deere, and Motorola. These projects are similar to ISE Senior Engineering Projects, but usually take place at a higher level in the corporations and involve strategic business management decisions. ISE Professor Harrison Kim will take over Thurston's role in the Hoeft Program.

Deborah served as interim head of the department at two particularly difficult points in our history. First, from 2005-2007 she served when ISE was created from GE and the IE program in the neighboring department now known as Mechanical Science and Engineering (MechSE). Because most IE faculty chose not to join the newly formed department, ISE administration was tasked with building an IE program more or less from scratch. And build a world-class program they did. ISE has just been ranked the 6th best undergraduate program in the U.S. in our category.

However, dealing with these early growing pains of ISE was nothing compared to the challenge that awaited Thurston when she returned to the position of interim head from November 2019-December 2020: a global pandemic that totally disrupted university activity in a way that had never before been seen or imagined. As the pandemic rolled forward, students, faculty and staff were sent home and transitioned to online education. Faculty quickly learned new methods for teaching at a distance, and courses, classrooms and laboratories were reconfigured. Everyone was kept safe while still maintaining ISE’s high standards for education.

In cleaning out her office for retirement, Thurston finds a full two-foot file drawer full of committee reports and recommendations she and others made to improve the climate at the college for female faculty and students. A lot of committee meetings with many allies yielded a large number of recommendations which were subsequently adopted to make campus a better place for women. These include, but are not limited to, the Child Development Lab lowering its age of admission from three years to infancy, converting men's rooms into women's rooms in buildings where restroom inequity (number of female restroom and their ease of access) was the most conspicuous, improving family leave practices, disallowing the use of pornography as screen savers on university computers, and improving hiring procedures. Now we enjoy and welcome a proliferation of female faculty and students.  

As we celebrate our history and future of women and engineering, it's important not to forget that as the first extremely talented women claimed their rightful place as engineering faculty, they were often made to feel unwelcome. For those pioneers who were able to make it, their perseverance should be honored. In these more enlightened times, such things as overt sexism may seem as alien as a smoking area in the Illini Union. But as Thurston says, “It is important to remember that it really wasn’t that long ago.”

The day before she officially retired, she had the opportunity to have lunch with a former student’s entire family, including their son who had just been accepted into ISE. "It was so gratifying to see everything come full circle," she says, "to have the children of your former students consider coming here. It speaks volumes to the fact that our alumni had such a great experience that they would want their children coming here as well."

In retirement, Thurston will work with Professor Molly Goldstein on some new ideas about increasing participation in STEM by under-represented groups.

"I’ve been so lucky. Together we’ve overcome many challenges. I would like to thank everyone in the department—students, staff, and faculty, for providing me with such a rewarding experience," Thurston says.

Gutsgell Professor Emerita Deborah Thurston is truly one of the heroes of ISE.

Related Links