TAMEST Member Profile: TAMEST 2024 Annual Conference Co-Chair Karen E. Willcox, Ph.D. (NAE), The University of Texas at Austin

Karen Wilcox

TAMEST Member and TAMEST 2024 Annual Conference Co-Chair Karen E. Willcox, Ph.D. (NAE) is the Director of the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences, Associate Vice President for Research and Professor of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at The University of Texas at Austin. Growing up in New Zealand, Dr. Willcox says she always had an interest in space and aviation, and even dreamed of becoming an astronaut. 

She first came to the United States in 1994 to attend graduate school in Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Though the move marked her first time ever leaving New Zealand, she ended up staying in the U.S. to complete her Ph.D. and beyond. Currently, her work focuses on developing scalable computational methods for the design of next-generation engineered systems. Her group develops surrogate modeling methods that allow complex simulations to be run in minutes instead of days, enabling engineers to explore more design options in search of higher performing designs. Her uncertainty quantification methods help engineers understand technical risks, leading to safer designs and more efficient design processes.

Before moving to Texas to lead the Oden Institute in 2018, she spent 17 years as a Professor at MIT. She is a Fellow of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), a Fellow of the U.S. Association for Computational Mechanics (USACM), and in 2017 was appointed Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM) for services to aerospace engineering and education.

TAMEST connected with Dr. Willcox to learn more about her work, leadership of the Oden Institute in its 50th year and helping to shape the TAMEST 2024 Annual Conference: Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning taking place in Austin next month.

Please tell us a little about how you found your path to aerospace engineering and computational science. 

Growing up, I was passionate about aviation and space, and wanted to be an astronaut. I was fortunate to find my way to an undergraduate degree in Engineering Science at the University of Auckland.

This degree was a blend of engineering, mathematics and computing. I had little exposure to computing before my undergraduate degree, but after my first programming class as a sophomore (in Pascal!), I knew that this path at the interfaces of engineering and computing was one that I wanted to pursue.

You were born in Auckland, New Zealand, how did you end up at The University of Texas at Austin?

I first came to the United States in 1994 to graduate school in Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT. It was the first time I ever left New Zealand. After completing my Ph.D. in 2000, I spent one year working at Boeing Phantom Works, then returned to MIT to join the faculty.

After 17 years as a professor at MIT, the chance arose to move to Austin and lead the Oden Institute. This was such a wonderful and unique opportunity that I could not turn down, and so in 2018 I started a new role at UT Austin.

You are the Director of the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences at UT Austin. Talk about the institute and its mission. 

The Oden Institute advances the field of computational science and engineering and its application to address the grand challenge problems facing society. The institute has a unique interdisciplinary structure, bringing together 130+ faculty members from across five different schools/colleges (Cockrell School of Engineering, College of Natural Sciences, Jackson School of Geosciences, Dell Medical School, McCombs School of Business).

The 25 groups and centers housed within the Institute conduct research that ranges from mathematical and statistical foundations of computational science to next-generation scalable algorithms and high-performance computing, to the cutting edge of computing in applications across science, engineering and medicine.

We have just over 100 graduate students in our Computational Science, Engineering and Mathematics (CSEM) graduate program and almost 100 postdoctoral fellows and research associates. 

We all mourned the loss of cherished TAMEST Member and Founder of the Oden Institute, J. Tinsley Oden, Ph.D. (NAE) in 2023. Talk about his legacy in your field, at the Oden Institute and at UT Austin.

The Oden Institute just celebrated its 50th anniversary. J. Tinsley Oden’s vision in establishing the Texas Institute for Computational Mechanics (TICOM) in 1973 is nothing short of remarkable. In talking about the founding of TICOM, Tinsley said, “One day it hit me, this is where the world is going – concepts in computers and solving problems in physics, mathematics and mechanics. I saw the need to pull them all together into a unified approach.”

It is mind boggling to think that Tinsley saw all this back in 1973, just as the very first personal computers were beginning to emerge. Tinsley’s vision laid the groundwork for UT Austin to become an international leader in computational science and engineering and high-performance computing.

His vision also played a huge role in shaping the nation’s investments in computational science and engineering. Fifty years later, TICOM has become the Oden Institute, and we see the impact of computational science and engineering across so many aspects of society – enabling safer, more efficient engineering systems, a better understanding of the natural world around us, and better medical outcomes for each one of us as individuals. I feel very honored to be continuing Tinsley’s legacy through my leadership of the Oden Institute.

What makes you most passionate about your work? 

So many things! I am passionate about engineering and the contribution it makes to society – a contribution that we often take for granted but has made our lives better in countless ways and has enabled the human race to make superhuman achievements such as putting people on the Moon.

But I am most passionate about mentoring the next generation of engineers and computational scientists. As a first-generation college student, myself, I have experienced firsthand the life-changing impacts of education and mentorship. Every day I feel inspired to come to campus and pass that on.

You are the Engineering Co-Chair for the TAMEST 2024 Annual Conference: Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning. What excites you most about this year’s conference? 

I’ve participated in two TAMEST meetings so far and have been inspired to meet so many leaders from across Texas. It is remarkable the way that TAMEST brings together people from across sectors, and really catalyzes a sense of commitment for what we can do to advance research, innovation and business in Texas.

I’m excited that we will bring these discussions to Austin in February, and especially excited that we will be focusing on the hot topics of AI and ML. There is practically no aspect of medicine, engineering, science or technology that hasn’t been touched in some way by recent advancements in AI and ML.

It’s such an important time for the community to be taking stock and giving careful thought to the future.

You were elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2022. What does being a member of NAE and TAMEST mean to you? 

It is such an honor to be a member of the NAE and TAMEST, both organizations serve our nation and our state in such important ways.

I have the privilege of currently chairing a National Academies study on Foundational Research Gaps and Future Directions for Digital Twins (https://www.nationalacademies.org/our-work/foundational-research-gaps-and-future-directions-for-digital-twins). Chairing a study like this is such a great opportunity for me to learn about challenges and opportunities in fields outside of my own, and also an opportunity to contribute to setting national priorities for future investment in research and education.

One of the things I have enjoyed the most about this study is its broad scope that cuts across so many potential applications of digital twins in science, medicine, engineering and society. 

Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

Please watch my TED talk on digital twins – my son wants it to get to 1M views! This gives a nice glimpse of one of the ways that computational science and engineering is revolutionizing the world around us, with the Oden Institute at the forefront of many exciting developments.  https://www.ted.com/talks/karen_willcox_how_digital_twins_could_help_us_predict_the_future?language=en


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