Friends, colleagues remember the late Denice Denton

July 25, 2007

by Adam Dylewski

When Denice Denton arrived at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the winter of 1987, she was the lone female faculty member in the College of Engineering. Nine years later, she left the university an internationally recognized researcher, teacher, mentor and, above all, champion of the underdog and on her way to becoming the first female engineering dean at a major research university.

Photo of Denton

Denton

Now, one year after Denton's tragic death, close friends and colleagues from UW-Madison and beyond will celebrate her life and fight for equity in academic science and engineering during the Denice D. Denton Memorial Symposium on July 29-30. University of Miami President and former UW-Madison Chancellor Donna Shalala will be a keynote speaker at the symposium. 

Denton, the chancellor of the University of California at Santa Cruz at the time, died last June, the victim of an apparent suicide.

"She was absolutely brilliant and really driven. She wasn't like anybody else I've met before or since," says Andrew Porter, professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt Peabody College and a close colleague of Denton's.

A Texan, Denton earned her doctorate in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before accepting an assistant professorship in the UW-Madison department of electrical and computer engineering. According to UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley, who served as associate dean for research of the college at the time, Denton faced a hostile climate.

In 1989, Denton and her graduate students were locked out of their lab by a senior faculty member in their own department. After fruitless appeals to sympathetic department chairs, Denton took her case to Bascom Hall and then to UW-Madison Chancellor Donna Shalala. Within a short time, she was back in the lab and by 1992, she was the first woman to achieve tenure in the College of Engineering.

"She was not only the first woman engineering faculty member, but maybe the youngest engineering faculty member we ever had," says Wiley. It was a milestone for her career and for female scientists and engineers all over campus.

Two years earlier, Amy Wendt was the second female faculty member to join the electrical and computer engineering department. Now a UW-Madison professor and co-chair of that department, Wendt says Denton fostered critical social networks-informal communities of female scientists, mathematicians and engineers-that survive today and continue to provide support for women scientists on the path to tenure. Since many departments only had one or two female members, Wendt says this support network was instrumental in easing climate issues for women scientists all over the university.

"One of the really amazing things about [Denton] was her ability to recognize something that she saw as not right and figure out how to get it fixed. Whatever it took, she learned who had the power to make a change or figured out some way to make a change to correct what she saw as an injustice," says Wendt.

According to Wendt, Denton's impact on women faculty on campus was far-reaching, even after she left Wisconsin to become dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Washington.

"After she left, the university received a very large (National Science Foundation) grant for the Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI)," a laboratory for studying women and their role in academic science environments, Wendt recalls. "She laid the groundwork that helped make that possible."

Many of Denton's organizational contributions to the university have had lasting effects. With Porter, she co-directed the National Institute for Science Education (NISE). The institute created valuable programs, like the System-wide Change for All Learners and Educators (SCALE); a math and science partnership project headquartered at UW-Madison's Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER); and The Why Files, a popular and critically successful Web site that seeks to make science accessible to mass audiences.

"I think of all the centers I've been affiliated with, NISE has had more of an impact than any of them," says Porter.

With the help of Denton, Susan Millar, a senior scientist at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, was able to start the Learning through Evaluation, Adaptation and Dissemination Center (LEAD). Denton and Millar formed the center in an effort to improve science, mathematics and engineering education through critical and quantifiable evaluation.

Denton also had a sterling reputation as an educator and mentor.

"Denice had a tremendously good way of connecting with undergrads as well as grad students," says Millar. According to Wendt, Denton was a phenomenally popular professor, winning numerous teaching awards. She also commanded some of the highest teaching ratings her department chair had seen in a quarter of a century.

Denton was especially noted for providing budding engineers real-world context for their studies, says Wendt. Denton spearheaded an innovative freshmen design course for engineering students in the process of completing their math, physics and chemistry prerequisites. Students enrolled in the course were matched with a client to create and execute designs such as handicap access ramps. The course was set in motion under Denton's leadership and has since enjoyed success for exposing students to hands-on engineering early on in their college experience.

Her drive to educate went far beyond the university. Stressing the importance of pre-college education, she was involved in a number of K-12 outreach programs. With her "Microfabrication Demonstration Kit," Denton introduced young learners of all ages to the inner world of computers.

As a mentor, Denton fostered close personal and professional relationships with graduate students. Wendt says that a small legion of Denton's graduate students went on to very distinguished careers themselves.

"Early on, I was impressed with her ability to take on students that had struggled with other faculty and raise them to serious success and really great achievement. She was a natural teacher and mentor," says Wiley.

In her research, Denton made strides in the science and engineering of sensors, or micro-electrical mechanical systems, as well as in the development of optical materials. Using her joint professorship in the department of chemistry, Denton tackled chemical problems through the lens of an engineer, eventually obtaining a patent for a unique type of humidity sensor.

Her work earned Denton a Presidential Young Investigator Award, a grant given to nurture future academic leaders of science and engineering, among other scholarly honors.

Despite her prolific and ambitious professional and social goals, Denton is remembered by colleagues and friends for her unique ability to disengage from her work life, as a remarkably quick learner, and especially for her dry sense of humor.

She had a tongue-in-cheek attitude about her success in securing grants. Millar recalls how she often wore buttons on her clothes-such as one that read, "Girls just like to have funds."

Denton's ability to decouple from her career won her the admiration of her friends.

"She would travel a lot and go to meetings, and then she'd call me and tell me that she was calling from a beach or a hot tub. When she was here, she would always be the first one to round up people to go to the Terrace on Friday and just hang out. She didn't always have an agenda," says Wendt.

Ultimately, Denton's colleagues agree that her favorite song best captured her intense integrity and drive to champion people who needed support.

"In the CD player in her car, she always played this country western music," laughs Millar. "Her favorite songs, the one she played at her tenure party was [Garth Brooks'] 'I Got Friends in Low Places.'"

"It was her theme song," says Wendt. "She wasn't too proud for anybody."