The term "maverick" has been tossed around to the point where it's lost almost all significance, but chemical engineer Janet Reiser (ChemEngr '77) is a true specimen of the breed. She's a Democrat who lives in Alaska and ran for public office; she's a former corporate executive who became an entrepreneur, and she's a chemical engineer trained to work with physical formulae and compounds who now creates products based on light.
Since 2006, Reiser has been owner and managing member of Jet Environmental De-Icing, LLC (JEDI). JEDI uses a patented infrared technique to de-ice airplanes as a replacement for glycol. Glycol pollution is a well-known problem at cold-climate airports across the country. At the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, glycol drains into the municipal storm water system and then flows into Cook Inlet, where it robs the water of oxygen, killing plant and animal life. Plans are under way to install a JEDI de-icing facility at the airport by 2013.
The JEDI venture is just the latest in a series of initiatives and projects to which Reiser has brought her varied background and innovative thinking. After graduating from CU-Boulder, Reiser worked as a plant engineer for DuPont in Houston, Texas. During that time Reiser married and the couple moved to the San Francisco Bay area. There she worked for Clorox as the project engineer reformulating the popular Hidden Valley Ranch salad dressing from a dry mix to a bottled dressing—a chemical engineering challenge that took two years to complete. Her husband, who worked for Standard Oil, was transferred to Alaska in 1985, and Janet, a Colorado Springs native who swore she'd never live in a snowy place again, moved with him.
"I said, ‘What the heck, let's go have an adventure,' so we moved to Alaska," says Reiser.
From 2001 to 2007, Reiser was president of NANA Pacific, a subsidiary of NANA Development Corp. She grew the company into a multimillion-dollar engineering and construction contracting enterprise. A few of the company‘s significant achievements under her leadership included dredging the Port of Umm Qasr in Iraq, and repairing the port's electrical system. Her team rehabilitated the mechanical and electrical systems at the Basra International Airport, and designed and implemented a wireless broadband system to connect several Iraqi ministries in Baghdad. After Hurricane Katrina, Reiser served as the executive-in-charge of a mobile communications team working for Northern Command and the state of Louisiana Emergency Operations Center in the impact area.
Reiser credits her education at the College of Engineering and Applied Science with enabling her to solve problems by applying basic principles.
"Engineering school gave me a well-grounded, fundamental understanding of engineering principles," she says. "The professors and engineers gave me a wonderful background in electrical and mechanical science to be able to ask, ‘Does it make sense to do it that way?' I'm all about the fundamentals."
Reiser served as chief operating officer for Sea Lion International from 2009 to 2010. She put together a technology team that competed for and won a grant for $25 million through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that will benefit 53 villages in southwest Alaska. More than 29,000 residents will receive 4G high-speed Internet service.
"The people in those villages are using satphones, which is extremely expensive and provides spotty coverage," says Reiser. "This will give them the capability for economic development, telemedicine, and distance education."
Her interest in applying the latest electronic technology to problem solving does not end there. She is vice-chair (an elected position) of the Chugach Electric Association board of directors, which is the largest electric utility in Alaska. "We're not connected to any grid up here, so we're doing a lot of interesting energy initiative projects," Reiser says. "We're truly an island system."
She is consulting on two projects to install energy-efficient LED outdoor lighting, one in rural Alaska, where the cost per kilowatt-hour is seven times higher than other locations, and the other for the military to use as security lighting.
Reiser's interest in energy issues led her to run for the Alaska State Senate. Although she lost the race, she considers the experience a win.
"I was a Democrat in a Republican state in an extremely conservative district, but I did very well," she says. "Alaska has the burden of a lot of energy generation opportunities because we have hydro, tidal, geothermal, wind, coal, oil, and gas. I watched on the sidelines as people struggled to manage these abundant resources and thought I could help out at the Legislature."
She loves finding opportunities to apply nontraditional thinking in conjunction with sound engineering practice to benefit people, solve important technical and environmental problems, and leverage the constant evolution of technology. Her de-icing breakthrough with JEDI is a prime example.
She relishes finding new means to tackle thorny problems. "I've always wanted to make the decisions and make my own rules," says Reiser. "I look for better ways to do things—that's what drives me."
Yet she knows that engineering itself and the systematic application of technology is ultimately a multidisciplinary and collaborative act.
"At this point in my life I only want to do things that help, not hurt anybody," says Reiser. "I feel like these are good solutions to many of the issues I see us facing."