Long road

Being the best can be as much a curse as a blessing. Laura Bartlett, MetE’08, PhD MetE’13, Robert V. Wolf Professor in Metallurgical Engineering at Missouri S&T, is living proof.

Bartlett came to S&T in the fall of 1993 as a mechanical engineering student. But she “was more interested in the social aspects than the courses,” she says, and after three years and change she left Rolla without a degree.

After leaving school, Bartlett worked for years in jobs that had nothing to do with mechanical engineering. There were jobs on a print production line, in a dog food factory, cleaning motel rooms and waitressing.

Waiting tables one day in 2005 in her husband’s hometown of Ravenden Springs, Ark., she overheard a diner mention the university in Rolla, Mo. She struck up a conversation with the man, Tom Baird, MS Math’63, a former associate professor of computer science at Missouri S&T, and in the course of that talk, she mentioned she wanted to get back to Rolla. Baird encouraged her to contact Jerry Bayless, CE’59, MS CE’62, former associate professor of civil, architectural and environmental engineering at S&T.

“That night, I couldn’t sleep,” Bartlett says. “I was very apprehensive about making the call because, frankly, I didn’t know if I could still do well after being out of school for so long.”

By that time, it wasn’t just her and husband, Chris, she had to think about. Son Christopher, now a 13-year-old middle school student, was in the picture. “I wanted something more for him,” Bartlett says.

She made the call. And when her family’s tax return came in, she said, “Let’s go.”

Bartlett returned in 2005 as a mechanical engineering student, but one day she went to Missouri S&T’s foundry to watch molten iron being poured.

“That hooked me,” she says. “I said, ‘I’ve got to do that.’”

With a bachelor’s degree in hand in 2008, she had an offer to work in a steel mill, but she was worried that she would be out of a job if the economy got worse. Looking around for something more stable, she was encouraged to apply for a Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (GAANN) fellowship that focuses on training the next generation of researchers and professors.

“It turned out to be the best thing,” Bartlett says. “I never would have thought 15 years ago that I would fall into this line, to be a professor and a teacher.”

Then she did what the GAANN program prepared her to do by accepting a job as an assistant professor at Texas State University. But when the offer came in to be Missouri S&T’s Robert V. Wolf Professor in Metallurgical Engineering, it didn’t take Bartlett long to decide that Rolla was home. Now she gets a chance to help students at her alma mater, whether it’s professionally or just life lessons she learned the hard way.

“If I see a student is struggling and going down the wrong path, I can tell them my story, that they can turn their fortunes around,” she says. “I think that’s a very powerful message.”

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