Last week, Mary Julia “Judy” Wornat took the helm as the interim dean of the LSU College of Engineering. Wornat, who joined the Cain Department of Chemical Engineering in 2002, has served as that department’s chair since 2011.
Prior to returning to her native Louisiana and joining the LSU faculty, Wornat taught at Princeton University in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering for more than eight years. Before that, she worked as a research scientist for two years each at Sandia National Laboratories in California and at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Australia.
Wornat received her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and her master’s and doctorate in the same field at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her research interests focus on the pyrolysis and combustion of sold, liquid and gaseous fuels, with an emphasis on the chemical and physical mechanisms governing the formation of environmental pollutants.
She has been awarded several teaching and research awards, and she’s published more than 80 peer-reviewed research articles. She’s also remained active in a number of professional organizations.
But what’s Wornat like outside of the classroom and lab? Communications manager Sydni Dunn sat down and chatted with the dean to find out.
So, you joined the LSU faculty in 2002. What’s been your favorite part of working
At LSU, I’ve seen that when you do your job well, you can help a whole new generation of people have opportunities they wouldn’t have had if LSU weren’t the kind of place that it is.
I went to college at Rensselaer, then MIT, and then I worked at Princeton University for eight and a half years. I was around the cream of the crop, as they say, nationally. A lot of people who went to these universities were from affluent backgrounds, from families who had exposed them to things internationally. Most of them came from families who had multiple generations of people having gone to college or even getting advanced degrees.
In Louisiana, though, it’s very common that you meet students who are the first in their family to go to college or the first to want to study engineering, and you can see how the opportunity to come to LSU is really making a difference. They are having opportunities their parents could only dream of having.
For me, because I’m a native of Louisiana, that really means something. I can look around and think, ‘This is where I came from.’
When you’re not working, where can we find you?
I absolutely love to listen to classical music. Whatever kind of frame of mind I’m in, I can think of a piece to listen to that will be just the thing I need to hear. If I’m feeling really disturbed about something, I might want to listen to a Bartok string quartet. If I want to escape to a place in my mind where everything’s just fine, I might want to listen to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6.
Do you also like to listen to live music?
When I have years that I can take vacation, I like to spend time in Germany and Austria because the music there is just so good. Schubert grew up in Vienna, Mozart spent a lot of his time in Vienna, Beethoven spent time in Vienna, and so did Brahms and Haydn. Classical music is just pervasive in the Austrian culture.
One time I went to one of the main music halls in Vienna, called the Musikverein, and one of Brahms’ symphonies was being played, and I read in the program that that hall was the place where that symphony was first performed—and that Brahms himself was there. It was neat to realize that I was hearing that symphony of Brahms in the very hall where he first heard it.
And do you play an instrument?
I was in the school band growing up in New Orleans, and I played alto saxophone. I still have the instrument, but I haven’t played it since I was in high school. [laughs]
You played the saxophone! What’s something else about you that might surprise someone?
This isn’t scandalous or anything, but … I love tea. And I’ll tell you how that started.
Right after graduate school, I moved to Australia to work a couple of years for the CSIRO. I soon learned that tea was a big part of the Australian culture. People would serve tea at breakfast, mid-morning, lunch, afternoon, after dinner. And I thought, ‘Gosh, people really like this.’ So, I drank it there, and realized, ‘Man, this is really good. I think this is a good thing to do.’
Well, I’ve got to ask now: What’s your favorite kind of tea?
Believe it or not, it is the same tea that I first tasted and came to love in Australia—a certain Lipton tea that is very commonplace there.
Hot or cold?
And, you know, another thing I learned there: No matter how bad something might be, it will be better after a cup of tea. That’s what they would say in Australia, and I can tell you, in my life, I have often seen that the Australians were right.
That’s a good philosophy. Do you have any other guiding principles? What would you like students to know about you and your plans to lead the College of Engineering?
My advisor when I was in grad school used to say frequently, ‘I’m all the time learning from the students.’ And I have seen how true that statement is. I really love working with students. I love mentoring graduate students, undergraduate students. I love to see them learning and love to see them find opportunities because they’ve put in the work to earn that engineering degree.
There are so many things you have to do when you’re a professor or dean—meetings, decisions to make—but the whole reason we’re here is to educate students and prepare students for the world. The world has many problems to solve, and engineers are going to be the ones who solve them.
So, it’s important for me to stay focused on that mission. In the end, all of this is for the students.
For more information, contact Sydni Dunn at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 225-578-5706.