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Janice R. Rossbach, SM '51

Retired military systems engineer paved the way for other women

When Janice Rittenburg Rossbach was three, she told people she wanted to be an engineer like her dad. They laughed, she says, “but my father, thankfully, said, ‘There aren’t many women engineers, but you can be an engineer if you want to.’ ” Her father’s words made a big impression: “I never thought there were barriers,” she says. That mind-set paved the way for Rossbach’s successful career in military systems engineering.

After receiving a BS in mathematics from UMass Amherst, where she graduated summa cum laude, Rossbach earned her master’s degree in mathematics at MIT. Also in 1951, she wed Leopold Rossbach ‘50, SM ‘51. With no professional contacts, she used the Yellow Pages to make cold calls for jobs. And she landed one at Arthur D. Little, where her growing interest in applied mathematics led her to pursue a PhD at Brown University. Next she spent 28 years at GTE, working on large projects like command and control of the Minuteman and MX missile systems until her retirement in 1990. One career highlight was working as technical director in engineering on the navy’s Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) project, which provided a way to communicate with submerged submarines.

If Rossbach’s career sounds like smooth sailing, it wasn’t always. As a woman in a male-dominated field, she encountered plenty of obstacles. The navy wouldn’t allow her to visit a submarine in the 1950s, although her work involved calculating submarine torques. “They said, ‘A woman in a skirt and high heels doesn’t belong on a submarine.’ And I said, ‘Tell them I’ve got jeans and sneakers.’ But it didn’t work,” Rossbach laments. It wasn’t until the 1970s that she finally set foot in a sub, during a work-related tour. And Brown never awarded her PhD; her advisor solved her thesis problem and published the result. (Meanwhile, she had solved it, too.) “He said he thought I couldn’t do it. It’s a little bit the story of my life,” she says, chuckling.

This story is part of the January/February 2011 Issue of the MIT News Magazine
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Now 81, Rossbach lives in Lexington, Massachusetts, and enjoys traveling, working with her retirement community’s technology group, attending weekly Yiddish speaking groups, and keeping up with relatives and friends on Facebook. She’s philosophical about the resistance she experienced in her career. “These things happen,” she says. What matters is that she got the education she craved and had a rewarding work life.

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