First-Class Female Faculty

February 3, 2017

BBE boasts some of the best female faculty. Even with the best plan, you don’t always know where life is going to take you—and that can end up being a very good thing.

By Debbie Kuehn

Tschirner, Jacobsen, McComas

(L to R) Professor Ulrike Tschirner, Adjunct Instructor Sonia Maassel Jacobsen, and Adjunct Associate Professor Cindy McComas. Photo by Dave Hansen.

The female faculty in the Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering (BBE) each took different paths to get to their positions today as esteemed instructors in the department. And while there were a few unexpected detours through the traditionally male-dominated field of engineering, each woman’s path was marked by great successes in their respective fields and by their vision and depth of experience.


Born in Germany, Dr. Ulrike Tschirner obtained her B.S. in Chemistry, M.S. in Organic Chemistry and Ph.D. in Lignin Chemistry from the University Karlsruhe. In 1985 she took a post-doc position in Syracuse, NY, where she worked on developing an environmentally friendly hydrogen peroxide bleaching process and where she also met her husband, BBE Department Head Shri Ramaswamy. In 1986, she accepted a position in the Philadelphia research center of Scott Paper Company. After Scott Paper was sold to Kimberly Clark, Tschirner and Ramaswamy headed to the University of Minnesota in 1995 to take two open positions—her in chemistry, him in engineering. She has been in her BBE position for the last 21 years, “Even in the same office!” she says.

A native of North Dakota and BBE alum, Adjunct Instructor Sonia Maassel Jacobsen graduated with her B.S. in Agricultural Engineering with High Distinction (1978) and in less than four years. She attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on a full fellowship, receiving her M.S. in Civil Engineering (1980). She became a hydraulic engineer for the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, a position she held for 36 years. Shortly after she “retired” from that position, and at the request of BBE Department Head Ramaswamy, she joined the adjunct faculty as course coordinator for the senior capstone design course in Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering.

Adjunct Associate Professor Cindy McComas received her B.S. (1978) and M.S. (1980) in Environmental Science at Texas Christian University. While the broader environmental science field was her passion, she was also interested in the rigorous and more in-depth field of engineering so got her second M.S. in Civil Engineering, a duo of degrees she says served her well in her career. Her first job was as a project manager for the Gas Research Institute. She then served as the director of the Minnesota Technical Assistance Program (MnTAP) at the University of Minnesota for 25 years. In 2005, she joined BBE’s adjunct faculty team-teaching courses on Pollution Prevention and Renewable Energy and the Environment.


While they took different routes to get here, all three women share a love of and obvious talent for teaching––both Tschirner and McComas were winners of the student-vote based “Professor of the Year” award. Tschirner has always been interested in chemistry (“I literally decided that in fifth or sixth grade!”) but says, “I hadn’t really planned on teaching, always heading more toward research. However, I found I really enjoyed it. I never took a teaching class so being able to do a good job with that has been one of my biggest accomplishments. I love teaching! It is a lot of fun,” she says.

The opportunity to teach also came about somewhat unexpectedly for McComas when she was invited to teach BBE’s Pollution Prevention course with Sangwon Suh in 2005. “The nice thing about it was that I was able to take my practitioner experience from MnTAP and teach it to students so they could take those approaches into their own jobs in the environmental field,” McComas says. For many years, the course included the opportunity for students to gain real-world experience solving problems for companies. “We recruited companies to allow students to come in and assess parts of their plant. Students brought real data to the company and in some cases the companies implemented students’ recommendations. That was very rewarding.”


The senior design capstone class, co-taught by Sonia Maassel Jacobsen, contributed to the Danica Baloow borehole’s efforts. Because of the distance that community members must travel to fetch clean water, Maassel Jacobsen shares that, “Even the pump test discharge didn’t go to waste.”

Jacobsen has also been instrumental in helping students get real-world experience through the capstone design class she has been leading for four years. “This is a unique class where students are expected to apply everything they have learned in seven semesters to one real-world project,” she says. Co-taught with Jonathan Chaplin, the course gives students 15 weeks to work in a team with a faculty advisor on their project then present it at the end of the class to an industry advisory council that rates them. “It is a really good experience for students and the humanitarian projects are the most popular. Students have designed a water distribution system for a Somalian village, a hydroponics operation coupled with a fishpond for a community in Ghana, and many other such projects,” she says. 


While teaching has been the tie that binds, Tschirner, McComas and Jacobsen have many other achievements on their lengthy CVs. One of the accomplishments Tschirner is most proud of research wise is the Department of Energy grant she obtained, resulting in two patents being issued for improvements to the pulping process. McComas cites her 25 years as MnTAP director, which included participating in a new vision for the Environmental Protection Agency, which moved away from control (regulation) and cleanup to prevention, “Usually a much better idea anyway,” she says, and which paved the way to the development of today’s sustainability programs. 

Ulrike Tchirner with students, teaching the properties of biodiesel.

One of the achievements Jacobsen most enjoyed was being the first female international president of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE). “Our discipline is the one most likely to help feed the world and protect the environment by the end of the 21st century. I liked building partnerships with engineers in other countries to try to achieve this vision with all of us working together,” she says. “ASABE also gives women in the industry a networking forum because while the number of females in the field continues to increase, there is still plenty of room to grow.” She points out that only 13 percent of the ASABE membership is women. Even in BBE, where female students account for about 46 percent, only 11 percent of the faculty are women.

McComas agrees that the number of female students in engineering is on the rise, but she says it will take time for the high numbers of female students graduating from engineering programs to be represented in the faculty. Tschirner seconds that by saying, “We have more female students going to grad school than males, so in about six to eight years those women are going to be ready to be hired as faculty. There is still some catch-up to do.” Jacobsen says, “Obviously, those of us in the discipline need to get the message out that engineering allows women to be all they want to be. It’s also a very family friendly field.”

And that’s a good thing because all three women have extremely full family lives and even though the words “spare time” are essentially unheard of, they all manage to find time to do the things they love. Tschirner says, “I love cooking and like every chemist, I know it doesn’t matter if you’re throwing things together in the lab or in the kitchen!” McComas took the gift card that came with her Professor of the Year award and spent it on art books and supplies to fuel her passion for landscape and still life oil painting (her work is appearing in her first gallery showing). Jacobsen is a long-distance runner and has completed 41 marathons, joking that it’s a good way to escape from her family (a husband and three grown children, and all engineers as well) from time to time. 

McComas oil paintings

A selection of McComas' oil paintings.