By Jill Nuelle, Marquette University
Dr. Kristina Ropella has come a long way from sitting as one of the few women in her engineering classes as an undergraduate student at Marquette University in the 1980s.
After earning Master’s and doctoral degrees in biomedical engineering from Northwestern University, Ropella returned to Marquette as a faculty member in the Biomedical Engineering Department. She eventually became the Opus College of Engineering’s first-ever female full professor, served as a department chair from 2004 to 2013, and went on to serve as executive associate dean for the College.
In 2015, she became Marquette’s first female Opus Dean of the Opus College of Engineering. She has since spearheaded the formation of countless educational initiatives and programs that have enhanced the academic experience at Marquette.
In the following Q&A, Ropella reflects on her career as a leader thus far, as well as her goals for the future:
Jill Nuelle: Throughout your time at Marquette, you have led many initiatives. Are there any that stand out to you in terms of their impact or success?
Kristina Ropella: The one that stands out most for me at the moment is E-Lead, the Excellence in Leadership Program. We started the program for undergraduate engineering Marquette students. Responding to an industry need for engineers who are much better prepared to lead people through change and lead innovation, we raised funds and created a three-year curricular program for undergraduate engineers that fuses leadership with engineering and the Jesuit ethos to develop the innovation leaders of tomorrow. In 2019, as we continued to generate funding, we expanded the program to disciplines beyond engineering.
Did you feel increased pressure or unique expectations stepping into the role of Marquette’s first female engineering dean?
In some ways, I felt the need to do extra to prove myself. In the past, there were comments from other leaders about the engineering dean needing to be a middle-aged male and about alumni preferences for a male dean. However, I stay focused on the people I serve: our students, faculty, staff and alumni.
My role at Marquette is to provide the resources and foundation so that each person in our college can be their best and most successful selves. This drives me and my passion for my work. And, I think I have proven my value many times over in terms of my leadership, fundraising, care for others, helping others to succeed and creating an environment in which people with a leadership mindset, an innovative mindset, and an Ignatian mindset can succeed.
How would you describe your leadership style and what are some traits that you think great leaders possess?
I hope that others see me as a servant leader with great integrity. I view my role at Marquette as serving others and helping them to be successful. I am also open, honest and forthright. I do not shy away from difficult conversations, and I am not afraid to point out the “elephant in the room.” I value the contributions of everyone on my team, and I want to see each person growing as a leader, regardless of position or title.
To me, great leaders also demonstrate emotional intelligence and good relational skills. They are humble and have a vision for which others are willing to work. Great leaders inspire others: they are strategic and can think about ways to get around barriers. They also genuinely enjoy working with people, and give credit to others for their work. In addition, true leaders challenge people to be better and to think creatively and differently. They welcome diversity of thought, experience and talent.
What advice would you give women wanting to break into male-dominated fields?
Be your authentic self. Don’t change yourself or your core values to fit other’s expectations. You are successful because you have embraced your strengths and have the courage to be your true self. If an employer or organization disregards you because you are being authentic, then you probably don’t want to be part of that workplace.
But respect that others are different from you and may experience life differently. As you communicate with others, see differences as an opportunity to learn and deepen relationships and see the world a little differently.
Who are your mentors, and why?
Both of my parents were wonderful mentors, teaching me that nothing is free, life isn’t fair, and anything worth having requires hard work. They instilled in me the importance of integrity, courage, humility, and a love for God.
Dr. Steven Swiryn, one of my graduate school advisers, was also a wonderful mentor. He helped me to network with some of the world’s leading researchers in my field. He taught me the power of the word and how to be an effective technical writer and presenter. He also taught me some valuable insights about not striving for perfection and knowing when good is good enough.
Dr. John Linehan, who was the department chair when I was a new faculty member at Marquette, gave me the opportunity to have a professor position at my alma mater. He also often invited me, as a young professor, to offer new ideas in a conference room full of men much more senior than me. He also nominated me for board positions at an early stage in my career.
What are some of your goals for engineering at Marquette in the years to come?
I want to recruit a much more diverse group of students and faculty to engineering at Marquette, especially with respect to women. I also want to make important changes to the engineering curriculum so that graduates have more business acumen, are better prepared to be leaders, and have the courage to take risks, experiment, embrace failure and be different.
I would like us to have the courage to change the promotion and tenure criteria to embrace different models of faculty achievement and contributions to the university and greater community.
I also want to see us continue to grow in our research and scholarship, bridging more to the engineering industry so that new ideas and discoveries become real solutions in our world — not just ideas in publications. I would like us to greatly strengthen industry partnerships, and create innovative educational and research models that better serve our students and our world.
Jill Nuelle is an intern in the Office of Marketing and Communication at Marquette University.