Distinguished Alumna and Academic Leader Embraces Change and Empowers Inclusivity

JoAnn Silverstein

JoAnn Silverstein '77, M.S. '80, Ph.D. '82 embraces change. Having first pursued a career with her undergraduate degree in psychology, received from Stanford University in 1967, she came to engineering later in life. Her experience at the University of California, Davis, from which she earned three degrees, was the launching point for an exceptional 40-year academic career and recognition as a 2023 Distinguished Engineering Alumni Medal recipient. 

Silverstein fondly recalls her time at UC Davis as transformative and academically enriching. 

"As a student in civil engineering, I experienced an academic culture that encouraged venturing outside disciplinary boundaries to solve interesting problems that served a public good," Silverstein said. 

Among the many inspirational figures Silverstein encountered at UC Davis, her gratitude extends to several notable faculty members, as well as fellow graduate students, her "constant allies" during her studies.  

Faculty emeriti Ed Schroeder and George Tchobanoglous, who guided her through graduate school and ignited her passion for environmental engineering, played pivotal roles in her academic journey. She also recognized Wiltraud Pfeiffer, who introduced her to microbiology and taught her to use a microscope, and Dan Chang, whose ability to explain aquatic chemistry to engineers left a lasting impact.  

When she enrolled at UC Davis in 1975, Silverstein was among the pioneering women who ventured into the male-dominated world of engineering. With her innate curiosity and desire to diversify her perspective, she reached out to women in the sciences, social sciences and humanities, forming friendships that would prove vital. 

A driving theme of Silverstein's career has been to increase the participation and leadership roles of women and underrepresented groups in engineering, a feat celebrated with a Distinguished Professorship at the University of Michigan named after her, honoring her outstanding research, curiosity and advancement of others.  

"As engineers have become more diverse, the benefits of an interdisciplinary approach to civil engineering progress are enhanced," Silverstein explained. "Thus, proactive inclusion of people from diverse backgrounds, especially those not well-represented in engineering, became a career-long driver of my work and a major source of personal fulfillment." 

Silverstein is among the first women to earn a doctoral degree in environmental engineering, with a research focus on the biological treatment of contaminants in wastewater and drinking water. In 1982, she joined the faculty at the University of Colorado, Boulder. There, she served in several academic leadership positions before retiring in 2022. She is also the first female engineering professor to join the Association of Environmental Engineering and Science Professors. 

Silverstein's message to young and aspiring engineers echoes the essence of her transformative journey. She encourages them to seek out and embrace change and to remain adaptable in an ever-evolving world to excel in their chosen life work.  

"I encourage you to consider what I learned from my change-filled years at UC Davis: Continue developing your individual and social identity and, wherever you are, foster a climate that supports both individual expression and inclusion." 

Distinguished Engineering Alumni Medal (DEAM)

Outstanding alumni are selected as Distinguished Engineering Alumni Medal, or DEAM, recipients every other year. DEAM recipients are recognized for having a record of outstanding achievement in business, academia and/or public service, making substantial contributions to the UC Davis community, and having at least 10 years of professional experience.  

The college's 2023 DEAM recipients will be recognized at an Alumni Celebration, which will take place at the Walter A. Buehler Alumni Center at UC Davis on Thursday, November 2.

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