An engineering degree leads to innovating cars, fun on the track and an overseas assignment.
Nothing makes you feel confident and secure when driving through a snow storm than when the woman at the wheel is the one who designed the car’s all wheel drive system.
And get this: She wasn’t driving fast or furiously; she took it slow and steady, watching the road, other cars and the weather. You’d never know she was the one behind the traction system that kept safe as we drove the hilly, curvy, icy roads of western Connecticut. That day last winter, Lisa Jesme drove more like a mom who wanted to make sure her passengers arrived safely.
But she knows that just being careful isn’t always enough, and that challenging road conditions occur all year, not just in the winter. Summer rains can make hot, dry roads slick in a second; spring is often called ‘mud season’ for a good reason, and leaves on the road in fall can turn slick and dangerous under a car’s tires. Lisa thinks about all these conditions, too.
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Lisa, Driveline Performance Engineer, tests and validates driveline systems for all wheel and front wheel drive sedans and crossovers. And for those of us whose eyes glaze over when we hear about horsepower or torque, Lisa has a basic way to explain torque to a five year old: “it’s power to get the car to go.”
She also simply explained the difference between all wheel drive and 4 wheel drive: AWD sends torque (that power and thrust) to the wheels that need it when the road conditions demand it.
A not-so-interesting offer leads to an innovative career
An engineer, Lisa started her career with General Motors 17 years ago working in fuel systems, which at first didn’t sound so exciting to her; she almost didn’t even interview for the job. But taking the job “was the best decision of my life,” she says. She loved both the job and her co-workers and was particularly excited about the mechanics behind it all.
Working with fuel included working on emission requirements, and testing crash worthiness, and eventually she moved up to work on innovative new fuel systems, including hybrids and the early Chevrolet Volt.
That’s when her career got really interesting.
A promotion means moving the family to China
Lisa moved to Shanghai in 2010 with her husband children, then 5 and 3. She worked with PanAsia Technical automotive center a joint venture with GM, to improve fuel systems. Buicks are very highly regarded in China, so this was a prestigious position. While there, she completed a master’s degree at Renselear Polytechnic in New York: General Motors has a remote school option.
The experience of living in a different culture “changed all of us,” she said. She and her family loved living in the Pudong district of Shanghai where they lived among other ex-pats in a community very different from their suburban home in Michigan. “We walked everywhere,” got to know the culture and a life different from what they had known. “My kids don’t see race now,” Lisa said.
When the family returned to the states in 2013, Lisa joined a group working on driveline technology, focusing on all wheel and front wheel drive systems for GM’s sedans and crossovers. The only woman in her immediate group, her cultural experience in China surely helped: She doesn’t see men and women, but a team. In the broader department there are women engineers, though and she’s proud to be one of them. Lis and her team work on the development of cars that will be on the market in a few years; upcoming are new Regal and Lacrosse models. She also works to refine the drive systems on current sedans and crossovers, including the Cadillac STS and front wheel drive 2016 Chevy Volt.
General Motors: All in the family
That Lisa chose to work for GM was not altogether a surprise to her, and to her family, a natural choice: her father, grandfather and several uncles worked for GM. Lisa believes she got her work ethic from her father, who was a hard working union member with a line job building parts for GM. He would proudly take the family to the plant on family day, giving Lisa and her sister insight to his job. “Even when I didn’t know I wanted to be an engineer, I had this vision that I wanted to work for GM,” she says. But the engineering gene was clearly there, too; her sister is a chemical engineer for Lockheed Martin, testing nuclear reactors on submarines.
On the job driving: the thrill of the test track
Maybe the most fun Lisa gets to have at work is driving cars on the test track at GM’s Milford Proving Ground. In order to test cars, she had to take advanced driving courses at the GM facility to be able to accurately test how the cars will handle potential hazards. It’s all part of the job: to be able to work on car fuel systems, engineers have to complete an orientation in which advanced drivers teach different maneuvers for driving on slippery surfaces (often replicated by ceramic tiles on the track) so drivers can steer out of trouble without losing control. The great thing about the test track she said is that “you can safely drive like crazy to test vehicles without worrying about hitting things or people.” Which makes driving in real conditions, for untrained drivers, that much safer.
The test track isn’t all fun and games: the point is to improve the car owner’s experience
If you enjoy the quiet ride of your car (no engine noise, no kids squabbling?) you can thank engineers like Lisa. As she tests cars, she listens for every little whir, squeak and rattle. Then she works with her team to refine the parts and performance of the vehicle to reduce the noise, whether it’s tuning a part so it performs silently or tightening a gap so the wind can’t rattle it and road noise can’t make its way into the passenger cabin.
But her favorite feature in her own car has nothing to do with the engineering or technical details she works on; it’s the WeatherTech mats in her GMC Acadia. “They are awesome,” she enthuses, “you pull them out and wash them off. Totally worth the money and great in winter.” Will they keep you safe? No, but this engineer mom has already taken care of that for you.