Dr. Karen Willcox


Meet New ICES Director Dr. Karen Willcox

On August 1, 2018, Karen Willcox became the new director of the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences. An accomplished computational scientist and aerospace engineer and long-time member of the ICES Board of Visitors, she most recently served as co-director of the Center for Computational Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, where she was part of the faculty for the past 17 years.

In the following interview, she shares some of her plans for ICES, her interest in applying computational methods to model design and education alike, and how—after uncertainty around choosing a career path—she came to find and excel in computational science and engineering in the first place.


After a few days in your new role, how do you feel?

I’m really glad to finally get started. Moving the family across the world from Singapore, where I had been temporarily based as part of the MIT-SUTD collaboration, was a little bit daunting, but now that I’m here I’m really excited to get going.


How did you first get involved with ICES? You have been a part of the Board of Visitors for six years and Chair for three. How did it all start?

The first time I got to know about ICES was when I was invited to a workshop in 2004 where Dr. Omar Ghattas was one of the organizers. I started collaborating with Omar the year after that, right as he was moving to ICES. I also started collaborating with folks at Sandia CSRI. In 2005 I had a junior sabbatical (one semester of sabbatical when you’re pre-tenure) and I ended up spending that whole semester at Sandia National Labs and it was during that time that the collaboration, particularly with Omar, really started to strengthen.

Fast forward a little bit, and Omar and I co-led the proposal for the Department of Energy DiaMonD Center, which also involves Dr. Oden, Dr. Moser, Dr. Biros, and Dr. Dawson.  So over the years, the number of my interactions with ICES has really grown. And I think that’s certainly an indication of what an amazing place ICES is and how many amazing faculty are there.  It was really natural to form those partnerships.


Tell us more about your own research.

My research develops computational methods to support design. A lot of the focus is the design of aerospace systems, but it’s actually broader than that. It’s really thinking about design and decision-making in any sort of complex engineering system.

We focus on methods that come up with approximate models to reduce computational cost. This is important for designers who want to study many, many different options. For example, when you’re designing an airplane you might want to look at thousands of configurations early on. Our methods develop the approximate models that can make this computationally feasible.

A second aspect is we work on methods that quantify the uncertainties in a complex multidisciplinary problem. A key piece is to analyze how those uncertainties propagate through all the different pieces in the system and ultimately quantify the uncertainty that might be driving a decision that you need to make.


Let’s go back to the start. When did you become interested in computational engineering in the first place?

I grew up in New Zealand. I did all of my schooling and earned my bachelor’s degree in New Zealand, the first person in my family to attend university. And actually, my whole life I had no idea what I wanted to do other than I wanted to be an astronaut and go to space.

Through high school I had a weird mix of classes. I took math and science, but I also took Latin and French, and Latin was my favorite subject. So when it came to the end of high school, I was still in the position of not really knowing what to do.  One day, a couple of girls came to my school and were talking about engineering. That was something I had never considered because I always thought that engineers were basically mechanics, like my dad who was a mechanic.  But I began to appreciate, when I started to look into it, that engineering was so much more than that.


How did you learn more about engineering opportunities?

In particular at [The University of] Auckland there’s a program called Engineering Science, which has been around for a long time. Engineering Science is a degree at the interfaces of engineering, computation, and applied math. In fact, in content, the degree is actually quite similar to the new computational engineering degree that Clint Dawson and Noel Clemens have been leading and recently launched in UT’s Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics Department.

I feel incredibly fortunate that I stumbled into that degree program. I hadn’t done any computing before that, but I really enjoyed it. I think that was really the trigger that got me into computational engineering. When I finished my [undergraduate] degree in ’93, I applied and went to graduate school. I did my master’s and my Ph.D. at MIT.

What were your career goals after you graduated?

My life is a long story of never knowing what I wanted to do when I grew up. So when I was coming to the end of my Ph.D., I applied for a couple of jobs and interviewed, but I was actually uninspired. One of my advisors said to me “UC Davis is hiring; I think you’d be a good match. Why don’t you apply?” I actually laughed at him. I had never thought of becoming an academic. And I just couldn’t imagine that.  But he gave me really good advice and said, “Why don’t you go and interview anyway? If it’s not for you, that’s fine.”


What Changed Your Mind?

[At the UC Davis interview I realized] I had all the ability to work on the same problems with companies like Boeing and NASA, or any of the companies I would have been applying to. There was also the element of teaching and mentoring and the engagement with the external community. So I came back from that trip thinking this could actually be a career option for me. And I ended up applying to MIT, getting an offer from both of them and deciding to stay at MIT.


Your interest in teaching and education has led you to develop some educational tools. Will you tell us more about that?

In the last five years or so, there’s been so much progress in the area of educational technology and MIT has been in the forefront of that with the launch of edX with Harvard. I became interested in the kinds of opportunities there and also in recognizing the challenges that we address in engineering systems—like the design of an aircraft—have a lot of parallels with challenges and opportunities in education.

It’s that analogy that inspired the Fly-by-Wire project. A modern control system for an aircraft is an example of a human pilot working within an automated control system to achieve something that neither one could achieve alone. The goal of our Fly-by-Wire project is to use a blended learning technology to aid a human teacher, just as a fly-by-wire system aids a human pilot.  I like to think that in the classroom the human teacher is still the pivotal point of the process, just like being a pilot in the aircraft. These new educational technologies can complement the teacher and help them to do more.  


What led you to apply to the director position at ICES?

I really enjoyed all the interactions with ICES, and had a lot of respect for ICES. It was really hard thinking about leaving MIT. But then through the process of interviewing and all the interactions with the faculty and the staff and the students and the researchers, I came to the realization that ICES is such a unique place in the way that the institute is truly interdisciplinary but has a very, very strong sense of community. I think that’s something that other institutions struggle with for interdisciplinary fields like computational science.  

That combination of excellence, community, and the commitment from the UT administration, as well as the opportunity to lead ICES into the future—it’s an opportunity that I can’t pass up.


You have gotten to know Tinsley Oden, ICES’ founding director. What have you learned while working with him?

Dr. Oden has the biggest shoes to fill. He’s just an amazing man. Certainly over the years I’ve seen many things in the way that he runs ICES that I’ll try and learn from. One is I see the way he values people. He recognizes that people are the core and the heart of ICES, and I’ve seen the immense pride and care he takes to make sure he knows all of his people and their accomplishments. I’m really glad that he’ll still be around. I’m sure I’ll be knocking on his door for advice

I also want to mention Dr. Moser. He has done an amazing job as the interim director and is also invaluable in helping me in the transition.  I’m looking forward to working closely with him in his role as ICES Deputy Director.


What are your goals for ICES?

I’ve got lots of things. I have a few that rise to the top as the most important.

One is to maintain and strengthen ICES partnerships. Some of them are existing partnerships, for example our TACC partnership, which is already very strong. But I also want to look to growing and strengthening emerging partnerships, for example with Dell Medical School. I see computational medicine an area where ICES can contribute some leadership and I’m really looking forward to that partnership.

We have to look at the ICES portfolio for both research and education and think about how that evolves for the future.  We will need to keep a core focus on computational science, engineering, and math—the strong rigorous foundation that’s the hallmark of ICES, while at the same time thinking about further developing the new areas of data science, machine learning, and further strengthening our partnerships with Computer Science. How do we mold both the research programs and the educational programs to recognize the change that’s going on in the world, particularly the change going on in data, data science, and machine learning?

I’m particularly passionate about undergrad education. I’m really excited that we’ll be looking at what ICES could do and what kind of role ICES could play in undergraduate education on campus. That will take some thinking on what we’ll actually do, but I think we have a really unique opportunity to contribute to undergraduate education at the university in a way that brings the ICES hallmark of interdisciplinary, rigorous foundations that transcend fields across engineering, mathematics, science, and medicine.

And the last one to mention is I’m very committed to strengthening the diversity of the ICES community. We talk a lot about the interdisciplinary nature of ICES and how the intellectual diversity of having mathematicians and engineers and scientists and geoscientists together is what makes the community so intellectually rich. I feel very passionately that diversity in gender and ethnicity and perspective and socioeconomic status and background and training will similarly contribute to making the community richer and stronger. I hope that we can work to do a good job on that.