Dr. Leah Newman
When Dr. Leah Newman started college, she decided to major in engineering—just in case.
The freshman from Chicago had her sights on law school with the goal of becoming a judge someday. Newman could have studied political science or history. “But I’m practical, if nothing else,” Newman said. “I thought, ‘What if I can’t go to law school? I need to find work.’”
Newman chose to major in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Then she switched to mechanical engineering. Neither one seemed like a fit.
“I thought maybe I wasn’t meant to be an engineer,” she said. Then her roommate, an industrial engineering major, talked her into taking a human factors class. Newman loved it.
“This idea that you can combine math or statistics, and some science like biology and physiology to better design systems for people … with that, I decided I’m going to major in industrial engineering,” she said.
Law school was still a consideration for Newman even after earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in industrial engineering. One of her advisors, however, kept pushing the idea of getting her doctorate.
“He started talking about this thing called community ergonomics where we would go into impoverished communities to use our skills in industrial engineering to create work systems that allow people to become productive, contributing members of society,” Newman recalled. “I said if I can do that, it could be fun, and it could be helpful.”
Newman’s area of specialty within human factors is called macro-ergonomics or sociotechnical systems. “We’re looking at design of work or design of an organization, looking at things like culture and leadership.”
When she was ready to start her career, there weren’t many opportunities for that type of work. Instead of choosing to practice traditional industrial engineering, Newman accepted a faculty position at Penn State University.
“I felt like I really shined at teaching,” she said. “I enjoyed interacting with the students. I would always have students in my office from all over the world, talking about politics and all kinds of things.”
But Newman wasn’t doing the kind of research that interested her, and she left after four years. In 2007, she accepted a position with MSOE, and is now an associate professor and program director for the industrial engineering program.
“We’re a pretty small program, so we can get to know the students very well, and the students can get to know us. I like that,” she said. Newman also enjoys advising student groups such as The Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers, serving on numerus committees, and accepting new roles like CREATE Faculty Fellow.
“Whatever I can do to help develop the students, or myself grow, or to help other people grow, that’s what I want to do,” she said. With the CREATE Institute, Newman said she would like to help develop an onboarding program for new faculty. She’d also like to see mechanisms put in place to assist faculty and staff in professional development, helping them find educational and networking opportunities.
Outside of work, Newman hopes to see more of the country someday. “Getting an RV and traveling around to the national parks, I think that would be fun.” She’s also on the hunt for a ballroom dance group to join.