Janice M. Jenkins (1932-2023): In Memoriam

Janice Jenkins, the first female faculty member in EECS, was a trailblazer who left a distinguished legacy.
Janice Jenkins headshot

Janice Jenkins (August 25, 1932 – December 29, 2023), professor emeritus of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, passed away December 29, 2023, at the age of 91. Jenkins earned the distinction of being the first female faculty member in the EECS Department when she was hired in 1980, and left a distinguished legacy when she retired in 2002.

Jenkins stood out from the traditional cadre of University of Michigan faculty members in more ways than being female. Born in Flint, Michigan, she had already raised a family of five before starting college the same year as her oldest son; she began her career at Michigan at the age of 48.

“I wasn’t as worried about being discriminated against for being female, as I was worried about age discrimination!” said Jenkins in an earlier interview. She laughed when saying she received the NSF Presidential Young Investigator Award at the age of 52, as a grandmother.

Prior to joining Michigan, Jenkins was an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and of medicine, at Northwestern University, a position she held from 1979-1980. She received her PhD from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1978. Her talent and potential were obvious to George Haddad, the Robert J. Hiller Professor Emeritus of Engineering and EECS Department Chair at U-M, who was instrumental in hiring her. 

Prof. Haddad stated:

Janice did an outstanding job during her tenure at Michigan and helped attract several other female faculty members. She broke significant ground with her interdisciplinary research, graduated many Ph.D. students and made a significant contribution to the Department, the University and the Profession. She will be fondly remembered by her colleagues and students.

Janice Jenkins holding a reproduction of a human heart
Janice Jenkins in 2003. Photo and brief story.

Jenkins’ research focused on automated arrhythmia analysis using advanced signal processing and computer techniques. She was director of the medical computing research laboratory (1981-2002), and had important collaborations with cardiac implant companies such as Medtronics and Boston Science, who funded much of her work on cardiac pacemaker and defibrillator device control algorithms. Even after she retired to Chicago, Jenkins would return regularly to oversee her research, and she was still directing clinical studies at Loyola University Medical Center.

The nature of her research led Jenkins to be closely involved with the Biomedical Engineering graduate program, and later with the Biomedical Engineering (BME) Department, which was established in 1996. She held a courtesy appointment with BME until she retired.

Dave Anderson, professor emeritus of EECS, also had research that focused on medical devices and he interacted with Jenkins regularly. He said:

She was fun to be around and was never shy about sharing her views both technically and socially. It was hard to be accepted as a female at that time, but she had the right kind of personality to succeed in this environment and to be recognized.

He remembers sailing with Janice on Lake Michigan after she retired.

Jeff Fessler joined the department in 1995, and his research also bridged engineering and health with his work in medical imaging. He recalled:

I remember fondly that she provided very valuable informal mentoring to me that really helped me during that time.  One thing that stood out to me was that she had an impressively diverse research group, long before that became a UM-wide priority. I also remember the stacks of reel-to-reel tapes of cardiac signals in her office; she had amassed a lot of data to train/test algorithms before “big data” became a buzzword. She was a pioneer and she will be missed. 

Looking back on her career in 2003, Janice said that the students were the best part, adding “It’s been a wonderful and inspiring second career, like having a bunch of kids again. Except they are brilliant students, don’t sass you, always take your advice, look up to you, and best of all, I don’t have to pay their car insurance!”

Janice supported, mentored, and graduated 20 PhD students and eight MS thesis students. Her students, many of whom were biomedical engineering students, included ECE professor Cindy Finelli, the David C. Munson, Jr. Professor of Engineering. Finelli said:

Janice was such a powerhouse and an influential leader, and she is entirely the reason I pursued a PhD. When I expressed an interest in her ECG research as an undergraduate, she invited me to do a project with her group. She encouraged me to continue for a master’s degree and ultimately to complete a PhD.  I am lucky to have had her as my PhD advisor – her guidance and support has continued to influence me throughout my career.”

Faculty who earn the distinction of a named collegiate professorship are able to select the name of a former faculty member, and faculty typically search for a meaningful link with the person they select. The honor of selecting Janice Jenkins for her professorship title went to Rada Mihalcea, the Janice M. Jenkins Collegiate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering. Janice, who attended Mihalcea’s professorship event on October 1, 2021, told her family that this honor was among her biggest professional thrills. Prof. Mihalcea shared:

Janice has been a role model for me, for being an accomplished scientist with an impact across multiple disciplines, and a powerful woman who supported many throughout her career, especially those underrepresented in computing. I know her contributions will continue to inspire many for years to come. I am very proud to have Janice’s name for my collegiate professorship, and I will hope to honor the legacy she left behind.

Jenkins received the U-M Sarah Goddard Power Award for her outstanding professional achievements and contributions to the education of women (1991), and the NSF Faculty Award for Women in Science and Engineering. She was a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, and the American College of Cardiology.

Professor Jenkins is survived by four of her five children, nine grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren.

We pay tribute to this remarkable individual, and thank her for her lasting impact on the department and on the lives of her students.

Additional Information

Janice Jenkins Obituary