Celebrating 150 years of Yale women

Courtesy Sharon Walker

Courtesy Sharon Walker

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Sharon Walker

By Jenny Blair ’97, ’04MD

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, environmental engineer Sharon L. Walker ’04PhD got to work. She assembled a team of physicians, engineers, and scientists, and together they invented a shield to protect doctors during potentially infectious procedures. “This is why I love being an engineer,” she says. “You bring an interdisciplinary team and a problem, and we solve it.”

Walker, the dean of Drexel University’s College of Engineering, specializes in water quality systems. An expert on nanoparticles and bacteria in the environment, she has worked with plant pathologists, microbiologists,  food-safety professionals, and other specialists in a collaborative career. She savors translational research: “If technology doesn’t have some direct connection to a human need or an environmental need, I’m not wowed.”

A Los Angeles native, Walker comes from a family that camped and took road trips to visit Depression-era projects such as bridges and fish ladders. “I was infused with appreciation for this infrastructure for civic good,” she recalls.

As a teenager, she trained as a classical guitarist, and she intended to pursue a career in music. An Ultimate Frisbee injury derailed that plan. Then, the summer before her senior year in high school, she attended an engineering outreach program. “We were touring a wastewater treatment plant, and I was on a catwalk over a bubbling biological treatment,” Walker remembers. “It brought together all of my interests in the environment and the natural sciences and practical solutions. It clicked. I knew I was going to be an environmental engineer.”

At the University of Southern California, she earned two bachelor’s degrees, in environmental science and environmental engineering. Although an adviser had told her she wouldn’t get into graduate school, in 1999 Walker joined Yale’s first graduate environmental engineering cohort. She was the only woman in her class of five.

Housed in the chemical engineering department and cross-trained in the forestry school (now the School of the Environment), the environmental engineers were “stepchildren,” Walker says—but in a good way: “I was part of both communities.” Moreover, engineering professor Menachem (Meny) Elimelech provided “really high-quality mentoring. One of the things that’s extraordinary about the environmental engineering program at Yale is it has continued to graduate a significant number of women. That’s really due, in my opinion, to Meny.”

Upon graduating, Walker landed a faculty position at the University of California, Riverside. During 14 years there, she became a two-time Fulbright Scholar, was elected to leadership positions in national engineering and scientific societies, and became interim dean of the engineering college. She also worked to “build the pipeline,” successfully recruiting many members of underrepresented groups to UCR’s graduate school.

In 2018, drawn to Drexel’s reputation for educating working-class students and to conducting research for the common good, she joined as dean of its undergraduate engineering college. At nearly 4,000 students, it is one of the nation’s largest private engineering schools. “Deaning is an incredible job. It’s all-encompassing and intense,” Walker says. She adds: “I love the fact that I’m in a position to advocate for everyone and make change.”