The daughter of an electrical engineer, Janet Callahan spent her youth watching her father build things, and followed right along in his footsteps.
When she was 13 years old, he taught her how to re-roof a house, and soon she was fielding requests from neighbors for her services. Callahan says her father’s belief in her had a huge influence on her confidence in herself.
“When you have a dad who does things like this, it makes you realize you can do anything,” she says.
Today, as chair of Boise State University’s Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering, Callahan is dedicated to lighting the same fire in her students.
“I think nearly everyone who ends up in engineering ends up there as a result of the people who have been influential on their lives who have been engineers,” she says. “What’s rewarding to me about being a professor here is being that person to other students now.”
Callahan earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, a master’s degree in metallurgy, and a Ph.D. in materials science at University of Connecticut at Storrs. She then worked as a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow in Australia for two years, and after a couple of years in the private sector, she moved into academia as an assistant and associate professor at Georgia Institute of Technology. In 2004, she came to Boise State University and in 2005, she became founding associate dean of the college of engineering. She’s served as chair of the Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering since 2016, and her passion for the field is infectious.
“I love this field,” she says. “It’s so interesting because everything is made of something. The properties of materials are so cool.”
Another passion of Callahan’s is encouraging the next generation of girls to pursue careers in science and math. A former girl scout herself, Callahan volunteers as director of the STEM taskforce for the Girl Scouts of Silver Sage and organizes outreach programs and activities to show them how much fun it can be to solve problems using science and math. One recent activity consisted of building catapults out of straws and rubber bands to shoot marshmallows across the room.
According to Callahan, it’s important to encourage girls to pursue high-tech careers for several reasons: because they are creative and interesting, because they pay well, and because the next generation needs women to balance out the male-heavy demographics of the sector in order to effectively solve significant global problems.
“We need to shift the equation in the U.S.,” she says. “The world deserves solutions to problems that have included more than a single point of view.”
As she leads her department, Callahan has initiated efforts to encourage her students’ success, including securing more than $3 million in scholarship funds. She’s also focused on continuous development for her professors to encourage them to use the most effective teaching methods possible to ensure learning and confidence in her students.
“Students are very important to me and trying to help them have what they need to be successful is critical,” she says. “Not everybody had a dad like mine.”