Parents usually discourage children from playing with their food, especially in public. But growing up in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, chemical and biological engineering undergraduate Jazsmin Washington was notorious for making slightly disgusting messes while going out to dinner with her family. “I couldn’t just sit there properly; I always had to play with my food. I was always taking barbecue sauce and the mustard and mixing it with ketchup and whatever was on my plate,” she remembers. “Then I’d give it to my dad, and tell him things like, ‘If you drink this, you’ll turn purple!’ or ‘This will fix your back pain!’”
At one point when she around five years old, her patient father, turning away another condiment concoction, told her that mixing things together is something people actually do as a job. “He told me they were called chemists, and they make things like medicine.”
That simple conversation set Jazsmin on the path to chemical engineering. Now, not only is she on the verge of graduation, she’s also the winner of a 2021 Alliant Energy/Erroll B. Davis, Jr. Academic Achievement Award. The awards are given each year to recognize the academic and community service of engineering and business students from traditionally underrepresented groups at UW-Madison and UW-Platteville.
The award is well-deserved. Washington, who plans to graduate in December 2021, has excelled in her coursework and is also a student leader in the College of Engineering.
Washington started her time at UW-Madison as part of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program, a residential learning community that provides support and mentorship to women in the sciences. She now is a mentor through the program.
She has also served in several leadership positions in the UW-Madison chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers. That involvement led Grainger Dean of the College of Engineering Ian Robertson to select Washington as the student representative on the college’s strategic planning committee for inclusion, equity and diversity.
“I was the only student representative on that team and we rewrote the college’s five-year plan on diversity, equity and inclusion,” she says. “It was a fun and interesting experience. My biggest takeaway is that nothing can happen overnight, but things can still happen day by day. There are small actions we can take every step of the way to work toward bigger change.”
Washington is planning for some big personal changes as well. She recently accepted a position in the research and development-focused technical rotation program with the coatings company PPG Industries in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she has interned the last three summers.
As she leaves UW-Madison behind, however, she encourages other condiment-combining kids to look into chemical engineering, too “It’s so broad. You can do absolutely anything with it,” she says. “I have classmates going into petroleum, you be in pharmacy, in food—you can do so much with it. That’s why I love chemical engineering.”
Author: Jason Daley