MAE PROFESSOR EMERITUS JILL PETERSON always had a passion for math and science, and she entered college leaning toward a career path in medicine. But her first college biology class dissuaded her. “The first thing they asked was to memorize 100 parts of a nematode,” she said. “That was so not for me.” So she switched tracks and decided to earn a degree in social sciences and went on to become a social worker. However, the job didn’t fulfill her — she didn’t feel like she was really helping people. So she reconsidered her original passion for math and science along with another childhood ambition of hers. “I’d always had a dream that I wanted to teach at a university,” she said. But her road that eventually brought her to the University of Florida did not come easily. When she had the thought to return to school, she’d been married for two years, and their first child was on the way. But her husband, Bob, agreed that Peterson should quit her job and pursue her dreams. Even though there were periods of financial difculty, Bob’s work operating and expanding the seafood and Mexican restaurants he owned in Dallas supported both the growing family and Peterson’s educational aspirations.
They both studied and worked, respectively, while raising their four children, and after a 10-year journey, Peterson had earned her bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from Southern Methodist University and then her Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Rice University with a focus in heat transfer. “The more I studied it, the more I loved mechanical engineering,” Peterson said. “There’s a logic there, and once you understand that logic, there’s a pathway that leads you forward.” Following the completion of her PhD, Peterson joined the faculty of UF in 1990, becoming the first female professor in what was then the Mechanical Engineering Department and the fourth ever in the UF College of Engineering. She loved her faculty position at UF, where for the next 17 years she taught, mentored students and conducted research. “To me, engineering is so interesting that just the chance to be around the students and to share in those topics with them was my favorite part,” she said. In addition to teaching, she also served as the faculty adviser for the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) for 10 years. “The students were so much fun and interesting to be with,” Peterson said. “I enjoyed the opportunity to lead them in the direction I thought they should go, encouraging younger girls that they can do it.” As SWE adviser, Peterson mentored hundreds of female engineers toward successful careers. In 2003, Bob passed away. Peterson progressively became more involved in the Dallas restaurants while dividing her time with MAE, eventually taking a leave of absence and a reduced teaching load. When she ultimately felt it was time to make a decision between what was then two careers separated by two cities, she retired from UF. MAE Chair David Hahn, a long-time collaborator of Peterson, recalls discussing the decision with her. “She was truly torn over her love of UF engineering and carrying on the rapidly growing legacy of Bob,” he said. The restaurants had been doing really well, and when Peterson took over management, she was able to expand them even further. In the years before, she and her husband had talked business all the time and had made a lot of the major decisions together. “Of course, when he died, I felt like a fish out of water,” she said. “The first thing I did was go around and meet everyone, and I gained even more respect for his business expertise. But I learned that managing people has commonalities — it doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about a graduate student studying radiation heat transfer or how to get the food out faster.” Now she’s hired a set of managers she has full faith in to continue on the success of the restaurants. Throughout her entire career, from successful engineering professor to restauranteur, Peterson has reflected on the incredible gift her husband had given her and how she wouldn’t have been able to have her career without him. “I wanted to pass on that opportunity to other women — the opportunity he had given me,” she said. So she established The Robert and Jill Peterson Women’s Excellence Fund in April 2016, with the hope that the funding will help recipients surmount the special challenges women face in order to pursue their engineering dreams. The fund is designed to support the success and inclusion of women engineering students in the MAE department by sponsoring undergraduate scholarships and graduate fellowships, the promotion of extracurricular activities such as SWE, guest lectures with female thought leaders and more. Hahn believes that Peterson remains a role model to all engineering students, as someone that pursued her dream diligently, made a strong impact on the engineering profession through her research, teaching and mentorship, and by giving back to the next generation of female engineers. “We need to support the next generation of Jill Petersons,” Hahn said, “and I am confident that the Peterson Fund will help with that goal.” Peterson enjoyed helping female students when she was a professor, and she hopes this fund will continue in that effort. But she also has one more bit of advice: “Keep your eye on where you want to go, but all you have to do is conquer one day at a time,” she said.