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Janet McLeavey, first female faculty member at Coast Guard Academy, retires as math professor

New London — Janet McLeavey, who in 1974 became the first female faculty member at the Coast Guard Academy and has been the academy's longest-serving faculty member, retired at the end of July.

Colleagues credit the mathematics professor for helping the first female cadets, for developing the Operations Research and Computer Analysis major, and for her foresight in recognizing the importance of machine learning and artificial intelligence.

McLeavey joined the academy after getting her Ph.D. in mathematics from Indiana University.

"I find math to be — have always found math to be — beautiful and elegant, and there's something very attractive about seeing the development of a mathematical concept," McLeavey said. "It's logical, it's precise."

When she applied for an open position at the academy, she didn't realize she'd be the only woman on the faculty. But she gives a lot of credit to department colleagues who made her feel welcome, and she recalled their shared enjoyment of playing racquetball at lunchtime.

Susan Bibeau, associate director of admissions for marketing at the academy and a member of the first graduating class that included women, joined McLeavey for the tail end of an interview Friday.

"Your presence here, as a 17-year-old with your head down, just trying to make it through the next five minutes, was, in retrospect, deeply appreciated," Bibeau, class of 1980, told McLeavey.

Bibeau added that when she and other female cadets came to the academy in 1976, they were expected to fail, and "it was seen as a great social experiment." She said that because of people like McLeavey, the experiment didn't fail.

McLeavey left the academy for a decade, starting after she gave birth to her first child in 1979, and taught elsewhere. McLeavey said the academy didn't have a Child Development Center at the time, and the expectation was for people to work from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day.

Her second child was born in 1981, and after both were in school, she started taking courses in statistics and operations research, returning to the academy in 1989.

At the time, there was a major called mathematical sciences. But after the government went through downsizing and computer science faculty were let go in 1994, McLeavey was tasked with developing a new major: Operations Research and Computer Analysis.

McLeavey indicated the project she's most known for is having cadets collect data on the traffic light at Mohegan Avenue Parkway and Williams Street, and then create a simulation.

(It turns out traffic coming out of the academy gets last priority: The lights on Williams Street stay green unless a car on Mohegan Avenue Parkway trips the sensor, but a car arriving at Williams Street from the west — from Briggs Street — goes first.)

'She does a fantastic job of connecting with students'

McLeavey became head of the math department in 1998. Capt. Melinda McGurer was department head from 2011 to 2020, and she said of McLeavey, "She's one of those people who will always drop everything for you and listen and provide a lot of really good perspective, and so she really helped me a lot in that role as a new department head."

She described McLeavey as a strong advocate for taking care of people, and a strong advocate for incorporating artificial intelligence and machine learning into the curriculum.

Current department head Cmdr. Meghan Steinhaus had McLeavey as a professor when she was a cadet and commented, "She's very humble, but she's just incredibly smart; she does a fantastic job of connecting with students."

Dean of Academics Kurt Colella described McLeavey as "a voice of balance and reason," "unassuming and always open to going in any direction," and a consummate professional who is always thinking about the cadets first, "and how they view the importance of the subject matter and how it applies to their lives."

McLeavey has also served as a mentor for the capstone projects of first-class cadets, or students in their fourth year. The department head first solicits proposals across the Coast Guard; McLeavey said they got close to 30 requests last year, too many for them to handle.

"They're really doing consulting activities for the Coast Guard business problems," Steinhaus said.

Faculty look at which projects benefit cadets, and cadets can choose projects. Four or five cadets may be working on one project, with a professor as a mentor. The end result is a white paper explaining the objective, what cadets did, and the results, and a symposium where cadets present their work, McLeavey said.

For example, one project involved looking at detecting semi-submersibles, which are used by drug smugglers, and another looked at determining inventory requirements for helicopters during disaster response.

While she says she didn't have a favorite capstone project she worked on, McLeavey does have favorite courses: Among the 16 different classes she's taught, her two favorites are multivariable calculus — "it's probably the course I'll miss the most," she said — and simulation with risk analysis.

Steinhaus noted the latter "really brings together a lot of the mathematical content that we've taught them over the four years," and McLeavey wrote her own textbook for the course.

McLeavey, who lives in West Kingston, R.I., said she is looking forward to hiking, biking, and visiting family and friends in her retirement.

"Life with young cadets, with young people, how much richer can life be?" McLeavey said. "If some officers might look back and remember some happy times in my classroom, then it's all been worthwhile."

e.moser@theday.com

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