Posted on Mon, Mar. 27, 2006
Cal's nuclear engineering chief powered by genius
By Matt Krupnick

BERKELEY - Jasmina Vujic had tamed the nuclear field's ingrained sexism long before she inherited the bullwhip.

The UC Berkeley professor took over the reins -- and the chair's traditional whip -- of the school's nuclear engineering department last year, becoming the first woman to chair a U.S. university's nuclear department. A native of the former Yugoslavia, Vujic also is the only woman faculty member in the Berkeley department's 47-year history.

Not bad for someone who spoke barely any English when she began her graduate work at the University of Michigan in the mid-1980s. Her early notes at Michigan spelled English words phonetically using Cyrillic letters, and yet Vujic finished her master's degree and doctorate in four years.

"I never grew up thinking I couldn't do something, that something was a male job," said Vujic, 52. "If you don't pay attention to that and just do your job, it doesn't matter."

That attitude has made an impression among her many male colleagues. Vujic, who came to Berkeley in 1992, is simply brilliant, said professor Ed Morse, who has been in the nuclear department since 1978.

"She was hired here without any urging to hire a woman," Morse said. "She was hired because she was a savant."

In Vujic, the nuclear industry has one of its most strident supporters, someone who truly believes in the relatively new idea that nuclear power is one of the cleanest, most cost-efficient energies. She speaks enthusiastically about "a renaissance of nuclear energy" through the country's new investment into atomic technology.

In the absence of a perfect energy source, nuclear power is the United States' best bet, she said.

"I'm for renewables, but in the meantime, we need to have something cheap and reliable with little greenhouse emissions," Vujic said in her office on the northern edge of the UC Berkeley campus, the whip curled safely on top of a bookcase. "If we are not going to go around the world getting other peoples' oil, we need to come up with something else."

Nuclear power first piqued Vujic's interest nearly four decades ago, even though she doesn't remember it. She said she was "shocked" recently when her mother pulled out a newspaper article about Vujic's academic prowess in which the 15-year-old high school student told the reporter she wanted to be a nuclear engineer.

She studied electrical engineering at the University of Belgrade, receiving bachelor's and master's degrees there before taking a job at a Belgrade nuclear-science institute. There, a female colleague who regretted having never received a doctorate pushed Vujic to make the decision that would guide her career.

"She saw potential in me and basically told me, 'You have to go to the United States to get your Ph.D.,'" Vujic said. "She basically forced me to apply."

A handful of university acceptance letters later, Vujic moved to Michigan with her husband and 5-year-old daughter. The family later lived in the Chicago area, where Vujic worked at Argonne National Laboratory before coming to Berkeley.

Colleagues say Vujic was a pioneer in using computer modeling in the nuclear field, a method that has become standard in atomic research. UC Berkeley shut its nuclear reactor about 20 years ago, so simulations have become that much more important for students there.

The need for trained engineers is greater than ever, Vujic said. Besides the growing power industry, nuclear engineers can find work in the medical and homeland-security fields.

That burgeoning demand makes a woman's involvement even more important for the field, said Jacquelyn Yanch, the second female nuclear-engineering professor in the history of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"It means a great deal for the students," Yanch said. "There just aren't very many senior women in the field of nuclear engineering. It's very male-dominated."

About 28 percent of the Berkeley department's students are women, Vujic said, far above the average among other engineering departments. But that percentage still leaves a noticeable gap between males and females, said one student.

"A lot of times I'll be the only girl in my classes," said Erica Ludlum, a 25-year-old doctoral student from Illinois. Ludlum said she was attracted to the department in part because of Vujic's personality and credentials, not her gender.

Considering the field's history, the dearth of women is surprising, said Cheryl Boggess, a manager and principal investigator with Westinghouse Nuclear, which operates more reactors worldwide than any other company.

"There have been many talented women in the field over the years, going back to Marie Curie," said Boggess, the U.S. representative to the Women in Nuclear organization. "(But) I still tend to be the only female in the room when I go to meetings."

Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Reach him at 925-943-8246 or [EMAIL PROTECTED]. 

UC Berkeley professor Jasmina Vujic is the first female chair of a Nuclear Engineering department in the United States.
Mark DuFrene/Times 
UC Berkeley professor Jasmina Vujic is the first female chair of a Nuclear Engineering department in the United States 

NAME: Jasmina Vujic

AGE: 52


OCCUPATION: Chairwoman of the UC Berkeley nuclear engineering department

CLAIM TO FAME: Believed to be the first female to lead a nuclear-engineering program at a U.S. university; only female professor in the Berkeley department's 47-year history.


Jasmina Vujic, Professor and Chair 4153 Etcheverry Hall

Department of Nuclear Engineering University of California

[EMAIL PROTECTED] Berkeley, CA 94720-1730

Phone: (510) 643-8085

Fax: (510) 643-9685


Annie Kalish, Chair's Assistant, [EMAIL PROTECTED]
Phone: (510) 642-4077, FAX: (510) 643-9685


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