Trailblazer Zella Kahn-Jetter, PhD, Defies Conventions

Trailblazer Zella Kahn-Jetter, PhD, Defies Conventions

Zella Kahn-Jetter

Zella Kahn-Jetter, PhD, PE, has shattered glass ceilings throughout her distinguished career in mechanical engineering. Despite facing challenges and stereotypes, she has amassed an impressive collection of “firsts,” paving the way for future engineers. Her accomplishments demonstrate that with perseverance and a relentless pursuit of knowledge, any barrier can be overcome. 

Kahn-Jetter’s father, a successful engineer, had an enormous influence on her trajectory. He instilled in her the belief that intellectual capabilities, not gender, determine success. With this mindset, she pursued degrees from elite schools, including The Cooper Union, MIT, and Polytechnic University (Polytechnic Institute of NYU), becoming the first female to receive a PhD in Mechanical Engineering at NYU in 1988.

After working at AT&T Bell Laboratories, Kahn-Jetter made the bold decision to pursue an academic path during the economic turmoil of the mid-1980s. She joined Manhattan College, teaching undergraduate and graduate courses for over 22 years. She particularly enjoyed teaching the senior design class. 

“I led community-based projects, working with a nursing home to help severely physically challenged individuals with limited mobility,” she recalls. “One team designed a watering tank so these individuals could water the plants by pushing the pump with their chin. It helped people feel independent. Projects like this were the most professionally rewarding.”

Kahn-Jetter’s area of research at Manhattan College focused on the relationships between plant structures and their biological characteristics, resulting in numerous peer-reviewed peer journals. “I conducted the research to climb the ladder — it was necessary to get ahead. I could have retired as associate professor, but I never stopped to look back.”

She rose through the ranks, becoming chair of mechanical engineering and later the inaugural Dean of the Hal and Inge Marcus School of Engineering at Saint Martin's University.

“Engineering was merely a department at St. Martin’s,” she explains. “As the first full-time dean, we built a brand-new School of Engineering, including the highest rated LEED non-residential building in the western hemisphere at the time.” She brought in $9 million and started a graduate program under her auspices. “I felt I could make a difference for students, empowering them with the decisions I made. I always strived to make students’ educational experience better.”

After retiring from St. Martin’s in 2014, she taught part-time as an adjunct professor at the University of Portland, a sister school of the Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering at the University of San Diego (USD). Because of her unique background, she became friends with Dean Sharon Jones, PhD. “She always treated me like a peer and understood where I was coming from.”

In 2017, Kahn-Jetter and her husband, Gary, vacationed in the sun-drenched city of San Diego. After years of enduring harsh winters of colder regions, this trip proved to be a turning point. She retired a second time, and they moved to San Diego.

At the time, Jones introduced Kahn-Jetter to Chell Roberts, PhD, dean of the University of San Diego’s Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering. Once again, she returned to academia and started working as a part-time faculty member at USD. Over the course of seven remarkable years, Kahn-Jetter's dedication and expertise paved the way for her transition into a full-time role as a professor of practice. Her invaluable contributions have culminated in her current, and final, position as the interim chair of the mechanical engineering department.

“When people realized I was formerly a dean, they started asking me to do more. My opinion counted… I had 30 years of experience on both sides, from an untenured professor to dean. This gave me a way of looking at things that most people don’t see. Most people go in one direction and I have gone in so many.”

As her retirement on May 31, 2024 approaches, Kahn-Jetter reflects on her career, imparting wisdom to her students: "They don't have to be a genius to be successful at this… There is no free lunch. Anything worthwhile, you have to work for."

Kahn-Jetter’s journey is a testament to the power of her determination and resilience. She has made significant contributions through her research, teaching and leadership. She has mentored countless students, providing supportive and equitable environments for both men and women in engineering. “Many students have looked to me as a role model and I feel as if I’ve made an impact on their lives. It goes beyond the classroom and when you feel that connection, there’s nothing better!” 

— Michelle Sztupkay