If you’re a fourth-year engineering major or graduate student at the cusp of your professional life, Jean W. Tom is exactly who you want dishing you advice.

As the Brenton S. Halsey Distinguished Visiting Professor in Chemical Engineering at the University of Virginia for spring 2024, Tom will share knowledge and wisdom gleaned over her 36 years in pharmaceutical development with Bristol Myers Squibb and Merck. She also brings her experiences as a leader in the broader chemical engineering community who has been recognized at the highest levels as a member of the National Academy of Engineering and fellow of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.

The Halsey Professorship was endowed by the James River Corporation to honor Halsey (B.S. chemical engineering, 1951), a company founder, to bring to Grounds industry leaders in chemical engineering and related fields. The idea is to share their broad practical experience in business or government to influence the education, scholarship and professional development of students in the UVA School of Engineering and Applied Science.

The principal responsibility of the role is to develop and teach a one-semester business and technology leadership course focused on themes of human values and practices in business and industry for fourth-year undergraduate and graduate students.

“I’ve spent a lot of my career mentoring and helping engineers and scientists transition from being individual contributors to technical leaders,” Tom said. “It’s exciting to see how I can share these learnings to impact the next generation of UVA engineers.”

Jean Tom portrait

Tom will retire at the end of 2023 from her position as the executive director of development engineering in Chemistry Process Development at Bristol Myers Squibb to take on her new role in January 2024.

During her time at BMS, Tom led a group of chemical engineers who focused on the development of chemical processes to synthesize small-molecule drugs that were candidates for new therapeutics. She previously spent 19 years at Merck Research Laboratories. She had a principle role in bringing 14 pharmaceutical products from Merck and Bristol Myers Squibb to the market.

Her experience in overseeing process development, pilot plant operations and technology transfer from research to manufacturing inherently involved talent outreach and development.

At BMS, her outreach includes encouraging women to explore careers in her field. She is the lead author on a 2022 paper describing a grassroots program at the company “organized by women chemists and chemical engineers, for women studying chemistry and chemical engineering,” according to the abstract.

She is active in the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, which selected her for its AIChE Industrial Leadership Award in 2018, and the National Academy of Engineers, to which she was elected in 2019. She was a founding board member of the Enabling Technologies Consortium, a collaborative of 14 pharmaceutical companies working in the pre-competitive space for technology development.

Tom also contributes to the chemical engineering community through her service to ABET, the accreditor of college and university engineering programs, as well as external advisory committees for several academic departments, AICHE and NAE committees, and through STEM outreach programs.

Tom received B.S. degrees in chemistry and chemical engineering and a master’s in chemical engineering practice from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After several years in industry, she earned her Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Princeton University.

The Halsey Professorship offers a structured way to pass on essential understanding and to mentor tomorrow’s leaders, who are not always prepared for the responsibility, she said.

“Scientists and engineers spend years developing their technical skills and expertise, and their success in this realm often leads to opportunities for leadership and management,” Tom said. “Being an effective leader and manager is not necessarily intuitive. It requires one to be leading the science — not simply doing the science — and to draw upon skills like mentorship, motivating and inspiring others, building effective teams and removing barriers.

“Students need to know that these topics and skills are just as important to learn and practice as the engineering fundamentals and problem-solving skills learned in the technical curriculum.”

In her course, ENGR4880 – Technical and Business Leadership, she plans to focus on subject areas such as understanding communication styles, thinking strategically, setting expectations, decision-making, emotional intelligence and career management.

As a Halsey Professor, Tom will also interact with engineering faculty, undergraduate and graduate students and visitors on education, research and technical topics in a variety of settings.

Tom was first introduced to UVA’s Department of Chemical Engineering as an invited speaker in 2019, and realized she already knew several faculty members through professional connections. She also discovered the department’s research programs are strong in areas that overlap with pharmaceutical development, such as reaction engineering, crystallization and bioseparations.

“I’m looking forward to opportunities to engage with women students, both undergraduate and graduate, who do not see enough role models in engineering fields,” Tom said. “I’m also excited to contribute where an industrial perspective might be useful, such as the Bridge to Bio [workforce development] program, the fourth-year capstone design course and in making connections between academic research and industry applications.”

“The Halsey course is an excellent opportunity for our students to learn from highly successful leaders in our field,” said William S. Epling, the Ann Warrick Lacy Distinguished Professor and chair of the department. “We’re lucky to have Jean in this role given her combination of technical, management and mentorship experience and her stature in the chemical engineering profession.”