Mary Ann Zimmerman (BSCE '66, MS '68) is the kind of person who never shies away from a challenge. Her achievements and pioneering spirit made her the first woman to receive Purdue's Distinguished Engineering Alumnae Award.
She started dreaming big while she was a student at Purdue. In 1967, as she worked on her graduate degree, she and her parents, together with the Purdue chapter of Mortar Board and engineering alumnae, created the Zimmerman Family Women in Engineering Award to recognize the achievements of a female engineering student.
Zimmerman hadn't even begun her career, and she was already thinking about a future generation of women engineers.
She remembers that the challenges faced by female students in the 1960s created new opportunities for the Purdue community to provide support.
When Zimmerman was a student, each residence hall kept files of exams from past residents for current students to use as study aids. But with few engineering alumnae — women made up less than one-half of 1 percent of undergraduate engineering students — the female residence halls had few resources. Her professors noticed the institutional obstacles and came up with a solution: They encouraged her to come to their offices to ask questions and review old exams.
From faculty to campus organizations, Purdue helped encourage the success of female engineering students. Zimmerman and her parents, Robert and Ann, wanted to bolster the effort, so they established the Zimmerman Family Award, as it is commonly called, to encourage women's leadership and achievements in academics.
Over the past 45 years, the awardees have included women who went on to become leaders in their fields, like Janice Voss (BS Eng Sci '75), who set records in the U.S. space program.
As the number of honorees has grown, the plaque displaying the names of the students recognized by the Zimmerman award has found a new home in an office in the Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering dedicated to mentorship and career development for female students — the Women in Engineering Program.
Beth Holloway (BSME '92, MS '97), director of the program, says Zimmerman's contributions helped pave the way for today's students.
"Mary Ann is the kind of person who looks at an issue and says, 'Well, why not?'" Holloway says.
It was the spirit of asking, "Well, why not?" that drove Zimmerman throughout her career to use her civil engineering degree to solve social problems.
For more than 40 years, she worked in government, nonprofit and business organizations in the United States and abroad, using engineering skills to implement new strategies and organizational systems.
Last year, she retired from her contractor position as a senior training advisor for the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations. After working in international development for more than 25 years in regions as diverse as Mongolia and Senegal, she developed an appreciation for the role of innovation in addressing social issues.
To foster innovation and cutting-edge civil engineering activities among faculty, staff and students, she created the Mary Ann Zimmerman Purdue Civil Engineering Innovation Award in 2006.
Recipients of the Innovation Award have included former Engineering staff member Becky Hull, who traveled to China in 2008 with a class of Green Building and Sustainability students. The innovation award helped Hull prepare for the trip, funding a Chicago-based course that gave her the tools necessary to coordinate a 20-person visit to China.
"The Zimmerman award helped so much with the trip," Hull says.
In China, the class met with engineers to discuss the energy-efficient and eco-friendly designs of key sites in advance of the Beijing Summer Olympics.
Hull noticed the effect of the trip on her civil engineering students: "While we were in China, I had several students come up to me and tell me it changed their lives forever."
To ensure that such programs will continue, last year Zimmerman created a will provision to support the Civil Engineering and Women in Engineering endowments.
As she strengthens her commitment to the University, Zimmerman continues to look forward and create new possibilities for students at Purdue.
To support this award, please make check payable to the Purdue Foundation and designate to the "Purdue Civil Engineering Innovation Award." Mail to the Purdue Foundation, 403 W. Wood St., West Lafayette, IN 47907-2007.