Growing up on a small family farm in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Sarah Rajala could never have imagined herself as dean of the Bagley College of Engineering at Mississippi State University (MSU). Named to the position June 1, she is the school’s first woman dean and one of very few women engineering school deans in the country.
Seeing the opportunities
“It’s an important step,” she said. “I would like to see more women and more diversity in engineering. We need to find ways to help everyone understand and be aware of the opportunities in engineering. I don’t know if it will ever be 50/50 but the opportunities are there and engineering is flexible.”
The new dean hates to see any segment of the population not taking full advantage of the many engineering opportunities that exist. “I hope in some small way I can serve as a role model and demonstrate what women can do in engineering,” she said.
Rajala, whose name and heritage are Finnish, came to MSU a year and a half ago and has served as head of the electrical and computer engineering department. Her husband, Jim Aanstoos, is a member of MSU’s research faculty in the geo resources institute.
She began her college studies at Michigan Tech as a math major even though approximately 80% of the students there were engineering majors. “I was trying to decide what to do with a math degree and there were not a lot of options at that time,” she said. “Engineering was all around me, and some people told me I couldn’t do it and that spurred me on.”
She found similarities between electrical engineering and math. Then it was on to Rice University where she earned a Ph.D. in 1979. Her main career has been in academia with some engineering consulting and summer work. For more than two decades she was a professor and administrator at North Carolina State University. She has also authored nearly 200 scientific and research publications; holds the prestigious rank of Fellow in several engineering organizations and is the incoming president of the Society for Engineering Education.
“I’ve been very impressed with MSU,” she said. “It has an excellent academic environment — a lot going on and the people are great.”
It may be too early to know what new programs may possibly be added to the College of Engineering, but Rajala sees an opportunity that needs thinking about — engineering education — for the rapidly growing profession. Currently, the Bagley College offers 10 academic degree programs and enrolls approximately 15% of the MSU student body.
“Engineering education is emerging around the country and might be the place where we can make an impact,” she said. “We’re all recognizing it’s a need and will be more so. As engineers, we’re being creative and applying the knowledge we have to solve the world’s problems. I would like to see us be a leader in that. We also need to be a positive force for the economy in Mississippi. That’s critical for the future.”
The new dean would also like to see the Bagley College become one of the top engineering schools in the country and recognized as such, noting that in some ways it already is. It ranks nationally among the top 25 engineering colleges in graduating African-American engineers, and is among the top 15% nationally in engineering research expenditures — a ranking above most Southeastern Conference universities.
“The world’s problems are challenging and it will take more than just one discipline to solve them,” Rajala said. “Partnerships with industry are important. I want to make sure we have a positive impact. I’m looking forward to establishing relationships.”
Growing up on a farm, she was involved with the 4-H Club, an organization she feels taught her leadership and had a big influence on her life. She has also spent a lot of time at land grant colleges and at one time thought of studying horticulture.
In addition to being a busy engineering educator, Rajala is the mother of two active daughters. One is a recent graduate of Georgetown University and is off to study at King’s College in London. The youngest will be a sophomore at MSU this fall. Much of the family’s free time is spent going to horse shows and other travel. Rajala also likes to read fiction, what she calls airplane novels — suspense thrillers, science fiction and mysteries.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.