Commentary | Aug. 26, 2021

Engineering your success: Dr. Sharon Zelmanowitz

By Petty Officer 2nd Class Hunter Medley

In the past, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) has been a considered a male-dominated field. However, Dr. Sharon Zelmanowitz at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy strives to break that barrier, with a focus on diversity and inclusion across all STEM disciplines. 

As the first permanent female faculty member in Engineering who also became the first female Department Head and Dean of Engineering in 2015, Zelmanowitz is a trailblazer at the Coast Guard Academy.

Zelmanowitz didn’t expect to enter the engineering field when she started her career, stating “It was an unusual career choice for a woman at that time. However, when I arrived at Cornell University, I watched the engineers in my dorm do their homework and decided that I wanted to combine my interest in science, mathematics, and the environment. I switched into the Agricultural Engineering major (renamed Biological Engineering) and I was fortunate to have great mentors.”

Zelmanowitz took a teaching position in Civil Engineering at the Academy in August 1991 and earned the rank of full professor in 2003. An accomplished Civil Engineer and master teacher, she expanded the curriculum and developed projects to address the growing importance of environmental quality issues. 

She credits former Engineering Department Head, Dr. Howard Dunn, as one of her primary mentors saying, “Professor Dunn’s welcoming and warm leadership style was instrumental in my decision to make a lifelong career developing officers and engineers for the Coast Guard.”

Responsible for five of nine academic majors at the Academy, including the new Cyber Systems major, she has recognized that many engineering fields have been particularly slow to diversify. Zelmanowitz founded an engineering diversity initiative that received bronze status recognition from the American Society for Engineering Education, to help overcome this hurtle.

This year, she is being recognized as a 2021 Women of Color (WOC) STEM Technology All-Star. Each year the Women of Color STEM Conference gathers an audience of respected leaders in STEM to recognize the achievements of women from diverse backgrounds who create innovation and inspiration. 

Serving as an inspiration to many at the CGA for 30 years, Zelmanowitz continues to advise and mentor countless the future leaders of the Coast Guard, as well as serving as a mentor for faculty across the CGA, including several fellow department heads. 

She offers the following advice, “Don’t limit your dreams and ambitions based on lack of confidence or societal biases. Most of us have periods of self-doubt as we start out. As one of a few women engineers at Cornell, I didn’t always feel I belonged and certainly did not picture myself going to graduate school in engineering, but I gained confidence over time.”

Zelmanowitz has encouraged countless individuals to pursue a career in STEM by preparing, developing and inspiring young Coast Guard leaders to meet multi-disciplinary technical challenges aligned with the Coast Guard humanitarian missions. 

Leveraging the “healthy to innovative” framework developed by then Lieutenant Commander Kimberly Young-McLear, Zelmanowitz has cultivated a climate of psychological safety, moral courage, and cultural competence to sustain diversity, inclusion, and innovation.  

Zelmanowitz has seen firsthand the power of diversity and the impact it has on the Academy stating, “True innovation requires that we come together in teams from many perspectives and backgrounds. As CGA has diversified over my 30-year career, I have witnessed an incredible evolution. We have become a thriving community that is increasingly diverse and innovative. 

Now more than ever, a robust and culturally competent technical workforce is needed to meet the dynamic and complex needs of the Coast Guard and American public. Zelmanowitz’ dedication continues to create opportunities for the recruitment, retention and advancement of a more diverse population of Coast Guard engineering and cyber systems talent.