Sheila Widnall


Thanks to Jill Tietjen, regular contributor to Grandma got STEM for this post.

In her own words, Sheila Widnall, aeronautical engineer, faculty member at MIT, first female Secretary of the Air Force, inductee into the National Women’s Hall of Fame:

“I went into engineering because I love airplanes.  Coming from Seattle, I had my life planned out:  I would live in Seattle, build airplanes, and climb mountains.  What actually happened was far more wonderful.  I had a good time studying engineering at MIT.  The faculty were very supportive and encouraged me to continue on to graduate school.  It was certainly no bed of roses, but on balance, I received an excellent education and the support of some quite significant mentors who have stayed with me throughout my professional career.

The courses I took in college, plus the experiences I gained in summer internships in industry, turned out to be extremely valuable.  In fact I now tell students that everything they ever learn and every activity they ever volunteer for will turn out to be useful – even chemistry, not my personal favorite.  Student activities provide leadership experiences, an important part of career development.

You want to talk about fun.  Well, my career is at the outer limits of fun.  As Secretary of the Air Force, not only did I get to preside over the technology developments that the Air Force has underway, in aircraft, space systems, and information, but I got to fly every aircraft that the Air Force has in its inventory that has room for two pilots.  I pulled nine g’s with the Thunderbirds, flew at 70,000 feet in a U-2, flew at night with sophisticated night-vision systems.  What a blast!  But these experiences were just the final chapter in a career that has been extremely rewarding.  I am proud to have been an engineering educator for some 40 years.  I am proud of my students, who have gone on to successful and productive careers both in the United States and abroad.  And I’m proud of the fundamental research in fluid dynamics that bears my name.

Would I recommend a career in engineering to a young person?  You bet I would!”
— From  Tietjen’s book, “Keys to Engineering Success.”

Tietjen recalls that

when Dr. Widnall was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame (I was there, I nominated her), she said that growing up on a ranch in California and herding horses was good practice for leading the faculty at MIT!

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