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Undergraduate Experience Fueled Class of ’85 Alumna’s Successful STEM Career

By Callie Ewing, BA '03 MH '22

For electrical engineer Jennifer (Coyle) Byrne, Ph.D., BS BA ’85, perhaps the greatest benefit of her UD education was that it taught her to seek truth and answers to big questions.

“UD inspires a natural curiosity, asking Why does it work, how does it work? It helps you to form an approach to things using analogues and mental models,” she said. “I may not be a subject-matter expert in all the technical areas I’ve been responsible for, but I’m able to work across a great swath of engineering because I’m able to ask good questions, spot patterns and synthesize, which are all things UD taught me.”

The community she found at UD has also had a deep influence on Byrne’s life, recently leading her to help establish the Class of 1985 Endowed Scholarship with other members of her class. What made her proudest of the scholarship effort was how many of her fellow classmates donated.

“We all gave what we could afford, each of us generously in our own way,” she said. “The Class of 1985 Scholarship was a shared experience that we created for each other — the most important thing was the fact that we did it together, and it made us even closer as a class.” 

Journey to UD

Byrne graduated from an all-girls’ Catholic high school, Mount St. Joseph Academy, in Philadelphia, where she and other advanced placement students were invited to take a sort of admissions test, her first introduction to UD. Although she always excelled in mathematics, she also enjoyed history, mythology and reading, and was intrigued by the test questions, so she sought to find out more about this small, unheard-of school in Texas. 

When she arrived at UD as a freshman, she had hopes of ultimately becoming a medical doctor. However, during the course of labs, she realized practicing medicine probably wasn’t the right path for her.

“I just wasn’t cut out for it,” she explained. “During comparative anatomy class, my lab partner had a sandwich off to the side while we were dissecting, and I thought, that’ll never be me,” she laughed.

Byrne further appreciates that UD taught her to consider all perspectives and to have conversations with those who might hold opposing views.

“I learned the value of these four words at UD: ‘I see your point,’” she said. “We learned to understand somebody else’s perspective, we sought to understand someone else’s perspective, even if we didn’t agree. The only way to get better answers is through that kind of debate.”

This approach to dialogue and understanding is part of what made the UD community so invaluable.

“It was natural for us to talk about the things we were learning in class — over a beer or in the sunlight on the Mall,” recalled Byrne. “It was a very unique, different, supportive culture. Coming from an all-girls school, I very easily could have gone boy crazy, but we were seen as peers and colleagues. We would all go around together, hang out together, dance together; there were some couples, but it wasn’t the usual thing. It was very convivial and collegial. In retrospect I realize how unique and different that was.”

Rome Experience

Byrne deeply appreciates the grounding UD’s education provided, from learning problem-solving skills from Odysseus and acquiring a strong foundation in theoretical mathematics to the adventures and friendships of her Rome semester — including being held at gunpoint with her roommate and two other friends on Easter Eve at a pizza parlor in Sicily. This experience began a years-long tradition of meeting up with these three erstwhile classmates every year around Easter at a pizza parlor to play cards.

“That’s how traditions start,” she said.

Byrne remembers eating in the mensa in Rome, sitting at long tables with whomever, wherever there happened to be a spot. 

“Everyone was friendly, and you would talk about where you were planning to go the next weekend and team up with someone who happened to be going to the same country,” she said.

The most magical moments were experiencing actual sites while reading the books about them. 

“Like when you’re reading Oedipus and you’re right at the crossroads, or reading about Thomas Becket in Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral while visiting Canterbury,” she said.

When Byrne and her husband moved to London for her job three years ago, she felt like her life at UD, especially her Rome semester and traveling at the drop of a hat, had prepared her well for an international relocation; she didn’t feel fazed at all by it.

“And I should have,” she laughed. “Moving overseas is not the same as moving around the States. But having that optimism and can-do attitude helped us.”

Had Byrne known she would become an electrical engineer, she probably would have transferred from UD after her Rome semester. Today, UD offers an electrical engineering major as a cooperative degree program with the University of Texas at Arlington, but when Byrne was an undergraduate, no such program existed. As it was, she hadn’t yet realized that she wanted to be an engineer anyway, and double majored in mathematics and biochemistry. 

Path to Engineering

Byrne’s path to engineering was not a smooth or traditional one. After graduating from UD, she got a teaching fellowship at Temple University based on the strength of her UD transcript. She had actually learned the programming language Pascal her senior year at UD, so she got to teach Pascal at Temple, as they were transitioning from Fortran at the time. She began by teaching Intro to Computer Programming, then went on to teach Numerical Analysis, Introduction to Circuits, Digital Design and core courses in the electrical engineering curriculum.

“I really liked teaching, but when students asked me about how to apply different elements in the real world, I would postulate an application,” she said. “That’s how I ended up at Lockheed Martin: I needed real-life experience. I always meant to go back to teaching at the university level, though.”

Career Calling

Byrne progressed through her studies in electrical engineering to earn her Ph.D. from George Washington University, where she was inducted into the Engineering Hall of Fame in 2014. She worked for Lockheed Martin for 25 years, beginning as a systems engineer in 1993 and ending in 2018 as Vice President, Navigation Systems for Lockheed Martin Space. At one point her career even brought her back to the Dallas/Fort Worth area when she served as vice president of engineering and technology for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics. She is now the chief operating officer of G-Research in London.

“We do big data research on finance,” she explained. “It’s a lot of very advanced tech — machine learning, natural language processing. Top grads from Cambridge, MIT and Stanford come and do research for us. There’s a very big difference between where I am now and Lockheed Martin, but it’s very fun — I love it.”

Byrne believes that if she had gone the traditional engineering route, she wouldn’t have been as successful in her career. 

“It’s not just how to apply a formula or tool — it’s important to understand why, how does this work, what is it about mathematics that translates into this world? Some engineers are limited in terms of understanding if they just memorized things; they didn’t know why something worked, whereas exploring the why was something I naturally did because UD focused on the WHY, and the pulling apart — not so much practice and repetition, but understanding that we saw. 

“I still apply things I learned in math and biochem, as well as classes in ethics and logic,” she added. 

Giving for Good 

For others considering giving at any phase of life, Byrne recommends the book Die With Zero, which espouses the philosophy that once you’ve saved enough to fund your retirement, it’s time to think about living life to the fullest — creating deep and meaningful experiences for yourself and those you care about. Her participation in establishing the Class of 1985 Endowed Scholarship was that type of endeavor for her.

“It doesn’t matter whether someone donated $1 or $100,000,” she emphasized regarding the creation of the scholarship. “The most valuable thing was the shared experience and reconnecting with the university in a meaningful way.”

To learn more about establishing a scholarship of your own, please contact Associate Director of Development Veronica Moreno at 214-566-6048 or vmoreno@udallas.edu.

Discover more about STEM programs at UD.

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