Karen E. Willcox SM '96, PhD '00
INTERVIEWER: Today is July 30, 2015. I'm Barbara Seidl. As part of the MIT Infinite History Project, we're talking with Doctor Karen E. Willcox. Dr. Willcox is a professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, co-director of the Center for Computational Engineering, and co-director of the DiaMonD Center. She was a two-time finalist in the NASA selections for astronauts. She joined the MIT faculty in 2001, and her research work focuses on reduced order modeling, uncertainty quantification, multidisciplinary design optimization, aircraft system design, and data to decisions in aerospace systems. She's originally from Auckland, New Zealand. She earned her Master of Science and PhD degrees here at MIT. Thank you for speaking with us, Professor Willcox.
WILLCOX: Nice to be here.
INTERVIEWER: So, I'd like to start with some questions about your childhood. What was it like growing up in New Zealand, and how has being from New Zealand shaped your path thus far?
WILLCOX: So growing up in New Zealand was a wonderful experience. New Zealand is a very special place. It's remote, it's tucked away in a corner of the world. And especially when I was growing up, the world was not as connected, not as global as it is today. And so I think in many ways life was very simple. We went to the school down the road, we walked to and from the school, played in the streets with the neighborhood, it really seemed like a simple life.
I grew up in a working class family. Neither of my parents finished high school. None of my family had ever been to university, but I grew up in a family where education was really valued. And my mother in particular really wanted me to have a very good education. So she sent me-- I went to a very exclusive and very good private girls' high school, even though the family couldn't afford it. It was partial scholarship, partial constant battle to pay the fees.
I was really fortunate to have amazing teachers through primary school and through high school, who really fostered a love for learning, and in particular, in maths and science. So I ended up going on to study at university, as I mentioned, I was the first in my family to go to university.
As I mentioned, I was the first in my family to go to university and it was kind of a scary experience. I didn't really know what I was getting myself in for, I really had no idea what I wanted to do, other than the fact that I've always wanted to be an astronaut for as long as I could remember. So that was really my main career aspiration, which is a very hard thing to plan for when you come from a small country that doesn't even have an aerospace industry at that time.
So I studied engineering. Again, I feel very fortunate to have found engineering almost by coincidence. Some girls came back to my high school and were talking about engineering, and I remember sitting and thinking, well, this is maths, this is science, it's solving real problems, working on problems are important to society, this is really the kind of thing that I think I would like to do. And so I signed up for engineering.
I went four years in undergrad at the University of Auckland, and again, a wonderful experience. Lecturers, professors, who really cared about education, who cared about development of students, who helped all of us, and especially me find my way.
And again, I didn't know what I wanted to do, other than be an astronaut. But at that point, I thought, I have a passion for things that fly, and for space, and for aircraft, so why not go on and study aerospace engineering.
So then, towards the end of my undergrad degree, I decided that graduate school would be a good option, and started looking at programs with aerospace engineering, and of course found MIT as one of the best in the world. So, I applied to a few schools, got in to several, and at this stage, I had never left New Zealand. So I was 21 years old, and the furthest from home I'd been would be to the South Island.
I didn't have the luxury to be able to come to the visit day, and so essentially, made the decision, rather blindly, to come to MIT without knowing much about Boston, or about the different trade-offs. But hopped on a plane and that was, again, my first this time out of New Zealand, hopped on a plane to come here, which was both scary but also exciting.
I really miss New Zealand. Like I said, it's a really special place. Because the population is small, it's a country that has preserved a lot of the wilderness and the environment. I think New Zealanders tend to be outdoors people, tend to participate in a lot of sports, and I do miss that kind of lifestyle.
I like Boston. I love MIT, because it's different for different reasons, but I do miss New Zealand, and I try to spend as much time as I can there going back.
INTERVIEWER: Does that sort of lifestyle in New Zealand, did that inform your interest in science and math or sports? Did it all go together?
WILLCOX: You know, often people ask me where did the love for aerospace come from, and I really don't know. I actually grew up in quite a traditional gender household. My dad is trained as a mechanic, and he's incredible. He can fix anything. He still has a garage absolutely full of tools and many wonders, but as a young girl I was never taken to his, we call it a garage in New Zealand.
Whereas my brother, who's two years younger than me, spent his childhood growing up in it, and he also ended up studying engineering, but he's a fabulous hands-on mechanic. I was more in the house with my mother, who was responsible for the housework and the cooking. Again, it was a traditional, a more traditional gender household.
So the passion certainly wasn't infused by things that happened around me, I always particularly really loved maths, and found it easy at school. The logic, the rules, I like rules, even in everyday life. So I think I always had a real love for math, but wanted to work on real problems, which is why engineering seemed to be a very good match. And where the fascination with aircraft, and with space, with aerospace, came from, it's hard to say. But ironically, my brother is now a test pilot in the Royal Air Force, so he's also ended up in aviation. And maybe somehow, it was there.
One thing I will say, and this is sort of funny, but I think it's actually true, Star Wars came out when I was five years old. I imagine it probably came to New Zealand a couple years, because we used to always get movies long after they came out in the US. And that was just, it's still my favorite movie, or many of my favorite movies. Of my top five, most of them are Star Wars movies. And I think the thought of galaxy far away, traveling through space, a lot of the excitement, the adventure, the exploration, that was in a movie like "Star Wars" really was very exciting for kids of my age. And I think that actually may have had a big influence.
INTERVIEWER: Were there teachers at the primary school level who were particularly supportive, or encouraged you to consider science and math and engineering?
WILLCOX: Absolutely. There were several teachers that stood out. So in New Zealand, we have primary school, and the school I went to also had intermediate school, which is kind of the equivalent of middle school, the two years before high school. And I had my, Form One and Form Two, my two middle school years, Mr. Dreaver was my teacher, and he was tremendously influential.
It's a long time ago, and I don't remember all the details, but I know that he challenged me in maths particularly. He again like I said, encouraged my love of learning. He had me doing some extra work, and I just remember so many things about his classroom. I can still in my mind visualize his classroom. I remember things of him reading The Old Man and the Sea to us. He was just a teacher that really seemed to be able to take a class of very different students and somehow appeal to their different interests and develop them all as people.
In the years before him, I had Mr. Denny again for two years. I remember most about Mr. Denny his printing press. He was an avid printing press fan, and I can remember us having to type set the old-fashioned way with letters.
So I think they were teachers that were really very committed that had their own passions, but I think also really helped, like I said, the individual mentoring of young students. And I feel very, very fortunate, because they made me want to learn more. And committing to undergraduate and then onto PhD, it put you in school for many, many years. And so I think to have that love of learning early on is really, really important.
INTERVIEWER: And it sounds like that was part of what was necessary for you to find MIT, find these options, find a place and a reason to leave New Zealand. And I'm so curious as to what that was like, as someone who's never left the country, what made you think of MIT as an option, as you looked it? What was it that told you I can do this? This is a possibility for me.
WILLCOX: Well, what it is that I told me I could do it actually was people around me saying you could do this. And I think that's very important, your family and your professors, your teaches the support network is important. Even from my faculty at University of Auckland to say, you should apply to MIT, to Caltech, to Stanford, to encourage me to reach for the top schools.
You know, it's almost funny to think about how different things were back then, but the way you would go is you would write away and ask them to send you information, and then this big package would arrive in the mail with a brochure that talked about the graduate program. And I can remember one school that maybe I shouldn't name sent the package sea mail, so it took months to get to New Zealand, and it actually arrived after the deadline, so I didn't apply to that school.
I think it's interesting, there's some element of planning, but it's also sort of an element of luck that goes with some of these decisions. And somehow, MIT just, it seemed like the right one. Obviously, it's a world famous university, top programs in engineering, and in aerospace engineering. But the gut feeling was it seemed to be the right one, and that was the choice I made. Of course, Boston is also about as far away from New Zealand as you can get in the US. California would've been closer to home.
INTERVIEWER: I'm curious what your student experience was like when you were here?
WILLCOX: At MIT? I have to say, the first month was really hard. The first thing that struck me when I arrived is that I thought I was leaving one English-speaking country and coming to another, but I discovered that actually American English and British English are almost two different languages. And when you come with a strong New Zealand accent, people have a very hard time understanding you. Now many people in the US think I have a New Zealand accent, but actually to a New Zealander, I sound very American. And when I first arrived, I had a great deal of trouble communicating with people, which I wasn't prepared for it. So there was kind of the culture shock, of going to the supermarket and not being able to find any of the foods that I was used to having, that aspect.
And then there was the nagging doubt of whether this was the right decision, and in fact, if MIT had made a huge mistake by admitting me, that I had gotten good grades in Auckland, but that I was not nearly good enough to be here. And those doubts get magnified when you're sitting in some of the classes.
And I remember particularly, the first class that first semester in low-speed aerodynamics was taught by Professor Landau who was at that time a faculty member in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. And I can remember the first lecture, sort of hanging on by the skin of my teeth and thinking, this is not going to be too bad, I've seen some of these things before.
By the second lecture, he used to get up there and scribble on the blackboard. The lecture would be just this blackboard, and I would frantically trying to copy everything down, and just feel like I was slipping away, and wondering how on earth I was going to get through this. And looking around and seeing everybody else copying everything down, and thinking they all looked very confident, and I was sure that they had much better backgrounds than I did. So that was actually really stressful, and after a week or two, wondering whether perhaps I should get back on the plane and go home.
And then I think that's when the bonds start to form. And I think this is one of the special things about MIT, is that hardship and stress and challenge is what often brings people together. The first problem set comes out, and you form these ad hoc study groups. And all of a sudden, you find that very confident young man sitting next to you is just as worried as you are. He would maybe not so openly admit it, but is finding things to be just as hard. And that by sitting and talking through it, you find a resource, whether it's an older graduate student, or a book in the library, or what it is, and that you work through it together.
And I think that then starts to build confidence, and to really build the friendships and the cohorts of classmates. It's interesting, I don't know if MIT does it on purpose, and I wonder now whether I do the same thing to students that come here, but it was scary at first. And then at some point, I think you begin to think, I can do this. And you start to feel settled in, and then another curve ball will come your way, and then it's time for, say, your qualifying exams to get into the PhD program.
And again, that was an incredibly stressful time for me, because it was oral exams. And up until that point, I never had an oral exam. Everything in New Zealand was traditional, written exams at the end of the semester. The classes had been all written exams. So here I am, doing an oral exam for the first time, in my qualifiers in a room up at a board with a bunch of professors sitting there, and it was an incredibly stressful experience.
Actually, so much so that I decided after that I didn't want to stay for a PhD. I passed the exams. I'm pretty sure I passed by the skin of my teeth. But I decided that I didn't want to stay for a PhD, because it just was really quite a confidence-shattering experience. But again, that's what MIT seems to do, throw you challenges, break you down, take you all the way to the point that you think you can't achieve anymore, and then you get through it. And I guess it helps to build the confidence, and you move on to the next challenge.
INTERVIEWER: Can you say a little bit more about the culture of MIT at that time? There's those components, and if there are other components?
WILLCOX: So I talked quite a lot about the culture and the department. One thing, I guess AeroAstro is the only department I've really been in at MIT. One thing I really love about AeroAstro is that there's a strong sense of community. And I've seen that community as a graduate student. Now I see it and experience it as a faculty member, and I see it very much among our undergraduate students.
I think some of that is around size, that we are sizable, but we're not enormous. And that we're also a collection of people who, for the most part, are very passionate about things that fly, and that go into space, and about exploration. And so that really brings people together, that culture.
I've seen it change a lot over the time I've been at MIT. We're a lot more diverse in terms of disciplinary interests now. When I joined the department, it was a little bit more traditionally focused on the traditional aerospace disciplines. We are more diverse, we have people now who work in robotics, and software engineering, autonomous systems. But again, I think there's this love for aerospace that binds us. And that sense of community is very strong.
But I think one of the quite magical things about MIT is that your professional community is one cohort that you form, but you make friends. You form bonds outside. It's such a vibrant campus. And so part of that are clubs.
As a graduate student, actually, I started playing rugby, which again, was sort of an eye-opener. I come from a country that is crazy about rugby. Rugby is absolutely New Zealand's top sport. The New Zealand men's rugby team, they're called the All Blacks. My husband, who's South African, might debate it, but the best rugby team in the world. So it's a rugby mad country, but I had played touch rugby, I'd never played rugby. And I'm not a very large woman, so I'd never considered playing woman's rugby.
But somehow, I got convinced, actually by some of the men in the department, in the lab, who played for the men's team. Come on Karen, come out and try, come out and try. And I kept saying no. And when I finally got out there, it was just so much fun that I really became very immersed in the women's rugby team, and playing all through my time as a graduate student.
And so then that became another sort of part of the MIT culture. There were undergrads and grad students on the women's rugby team, and getting to know other people. One of the great things about rugby is that it's not just about the game on the field, the party afterwards with the other team is a really, really big part of that. And so, again, you start to form friendships and bonds with people from all over campus. My now-husband actually I met him in the Muddy Charles Pub here at MIT. He was playing rugby for the men's team, and I was playing for the woman's team, so I can say that playing rugby at MIT obviously really has changed my life significantly. It's been a big part of it.
And then, yet another community are the living communities. I lived in Tang Hall my first year as a graduate student, and that was a lifesaver. I could not have imagined coming to the US as a 22-year-old and having to find housing. So coming into a dorm where I was sort of naturally put into another support network. I was in an apartment with three other women, and so there were instant friendships. And in fact, one of those women, Vanessa Chan, we became best friends through graduate school. She was my chief bridesmaid, I was her bridesmaid at her wedding, and saw her just a couple months ago. So those are friendships that start on day one, and persist through your life.
I think that's what's really amazing about MIT is, it may take a little bit of time, but you find these things that you're passionate about, whether it's your research in the lab, it's the classes you're taking, or it's rugby, or it's going to the Muddy Charles to have a cheap beer. There are just so many neat things to do here.
INTERVIEWER: Tell me more about the Muddy Charles, what was the Muddy Charles?
WILLCOX: So the Muddy Charles was, and is, a pub on campus. It sits in Walker Memorial building. And it was the hangout for the rugby team at that time. So we spent good evenings over there. We would go and have rugby practice and go over to the Muddy to have a beer. One of the things I really love about the Muddy is that the pub is administered by the Graduate Student Council, the GSC. So it's sort of graduate student oversight, but it also brings in many of the MIT community. So people, staff, faculty, students who work at MIT. And it's a place where you could go, and we're there in our smelly rugby gear, and many of the guys sitting at the bar are the people who work in document services, or all over campus.
And in fact, I made some very good friends through the Muddy Charles. People who work here on the staff, a lot of the Physical Plant guys, that I'm not sure I would've ever gotten the chance to interact and meet and form friendships with those people if I'd been staying in the lab the whole time.
The Muddy also is quite famous, it's had a number of articles written about it as being a place where people go and over a beer, found companies, or come up with amazing ideas. And there's actually been a couple of articles profiling some of the companies that have been started in the Muddy Charles.
So it really has I think a key role to play in that entrepreneurial culture that really exists at MIT. It's very strategically located right between the Sloan School and the science and engineering blocks there in Walker Memorial, right sort of in the middle, bringing the two together. And I think it's a really, really special place. It's a special place for me for many reasons, not least of which is I still remember the day I was sitting in the foyer in this big blonde South African walked in, in a strong South African accent, and now that's my husband Jaco.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you. I wanted to talk a little bit about sports, which has come up a few times, and that rugby was a big part of some of your experience here. How has that influenced you? I know you're also a marathon runner, and that you do some mountain climbing. What is the significance of that in your life?
WILLCOX: So sports and outdoor activities, it's a really important part of my life now. So growing up as a child, I played netball, which is the biggest women's sport in New Zealand. It's a sport a little bit like basketball, but with a lot more structure and no contact. And that was what I played I think starting at age seven, all the way through right up until the weekend before I left to come to the US. So I landed in the US, and people would say, nitball? What is nitball? And I'd say no, it's "net," like N-E-T, the vowels being all mixed up. And of course, finding that there were no opportunities.
And then also, there's the structure of sports here was a little bit different, with many of the sports being available only to undergrads. So it took a little bit of time like I mentioned, it took a little bit of time to convince me to get out on the rugby field. But then again, one of the things I liked about rugby is it really challenged me, because it was new and because it was a contact sport.
And through rugby, came going to the gym and lifting weights, which, again, was something I hadn't done before. And getting the confidence to go to the gym, and even then, to be able to go eventually on my own, I think it's something that takes confidence building.
I spent a summer in between masters and PhD, when I was going through my crisis of faith, and deciding I didn't want to stay for a PhD, I went to NASA Dryden in California, and spent a summer as an intern at NASA. And it was during that summer that actually I started to do some mountaineering and some rock climbing.
I'd always liked being outside and doing outdoors stuff. I really didn't have much of a chance to do it in New Zealand. Partly financial reasons, but also related to financial reasons, I worked at McDonald's actually for many years, all the way through undergrad. And I was working 30 hours a week when I was studying as an undergrad, so that really didn't leave time for too many commitments.
So when I was in California for the summer, I actually started dating a Californian who was a rock climber and mountaineer, and started doing some of that in the Sierra and the areas around the high desert, and I just really, really got inspired by those kinds of things.
I ended up coming back to MIT after that summer, somewhat against my wishes, because I wasn't a US citizen. And it was very hard to get a job in the aerospace industry at that point without a US citizenship. And so I was somewhat forced to come back to my PhD, which I think was a very good thing, because it would've been a mistake to not come back and finish the PhD.
And then back in the PhD, I continued to do more mountaineering locally in New England, as well as elsewhere. So that kind of persisted through grad school life.
And then I actually started running. I'd always done a little bit of running, but never really, I'm still not a big fan of running on the roads. When I run on the river around the Charles, I find I'm always looking at my watch. Got again, somewhat unwillingly, dragged into trail running, and convinced to sign up for a trail marathon. And I just discovered, again, the joy of running on trails, the best thing being, it doesn't matter how fast or slow you are, because if you run marathons and ultra marathons with lots of climbing, it's perfectly acceptable, and in fact, recommended to walk up the hills, which suits me well.
Some of the races they do have 10, 12, 13,000 feet of climbing in them. And so thinking about your pace makes no sense whatsoever. It's all about you in the mountains and finishing the race. And being out being able to do 50 miles in the mountains and spectacular scenery, surrounded by amazing people. You go through these races, you're out for 10, 15 hours, and you end up meeting people along the way and walking with them, or running with them for small amounts of time, and hearing their stories. It became a really fun hobby, so it sort of came into my life rather late on.
I still love mountaineering, I love trail running. Now that I have two young children, I don't find nearly enough time to get out there. I can't justify spending eight hours out on a Saturday on the trails, but still do as much as I can.
INTERVIEWER: Was it when you were at NASA in California that you started considering the astronaut selection process?
WILLCOX: So, I'd always wanted to be an astronaut, since I think I was five, as long as I can remember. And it was always really just a dream, not a true career aspiration. It was after I finished my PhD and I was on the faculty here at MIT, and then married to a South African who also happened to be a US citizen, with a green card. I began to think, well, once I'm a US citizen, that this is something I can try. I mean, why not? I have nothing to lose.
The timing was rather bad, because there was a long gap in astronauts-- they have astronaut selection cycles usually every few years, but there was a long gap, and obviously the space program is going through a lot of change.
So timing wasn't ideal, but in, it would've been 2007, 2008, there was a call. It's just like any job. NASA puts a call out and says, we're looking for astronauts. Please submit your resume through USA Jobs, and I thought, why not submit an application?
I say I have little to lose. The one thing I would have to lose would be having to leave MIT, where at that point, I had been on the faculty for six years, but I submitted the resume and was lucky enough to make it through to the final round. It was sort of sad, to not get selected. But then, on the other hand, I'm really glad I tried, because the experience of just going through the interview and spending the time down at NASA Johnson, of getting to meet many of the astronauts, of being put through the tests, having lots of conversations, learning a lot about myself, learning a lot about my strengths and weaknesses, and meeting a lot of the other candidates, just amazing experiences, which was really, really fun.
I still would like to believe that I might have a chance of getting into space, but I think the reality is that now, it's probably going to be my students and my children who are going to have that chance. My six-year-old tells me, after the second time I made it to the final round, and I didn't get selected, that he was going to design a rocket and take me into space himself. So I'm waiting for that to happen instead.
INTERVIEWER: That's so sweet. But MIT lucked out, in that you didn't get selected, so you did get to stay, so I'd like to talk a little bit about your research projects, since you've been here in technology and design, including the multidisciplinary design optimization, the environmentally sensitive aircraft. What is the impact of that research on the environment, and what is the environmental urgency involved in the development of aircraft design?
WILLCOX: So, I mean, I think almost every branch of engineering has got such a compelling mandate to do something about environmental impact, and aircraft are no different. I mean, aircraft are an incredibly efficient way to transport people and goods. If you look at what the aviation industry has achieved over the last decades, it's actually quite amazing how environmental impact has been reduced. But having said that, we need to think about the future, and think about doing even better, particularly as air travel is growing, and projected to continue growing, especially in regions like in Asia.
So aircraft, it's interesting, it's complicated, because aircraft affect the environment in so many different ways. Of course, one big consideration is fuel burn, that when you've burn fuel, you produce CO2 emissions, and with the clear link there to the impact on global climate. Of course, there are many other kinds of pollutants also that are tied to aircraft emissions.
So the work of my group, the focus is on computational tools. We try to develop computational tools, and computational models to help people make better decisions. And in the work for aviation environmental impact, what we're really trying to do is create the tools that would let designers explore the space of options more thoroughly, early on in the decision making process.
It takes many, many years, it takes decades for an aircraft to go from the very early concept, all the way through the design process and to finally enter into service. And so when you look at something like a 787, or the A380, the new aircraft from Boeing and Airbus, the design of those aircraft was started many, many, many years ago.
And so now let's think, what are the aircraft that we might see flying in 20 years time? How do we explore the different decisions that could be made, in terms of what are the trade-offs between burning fuel and say, flying further? Would people be willing to forgo the nonstop flight from San Francisco to Auckland, and instead, have to stop along the way on islands in the Pacific, if it meant that you could design an aircraft that burned a lot less fuel, because it wouldn't be carrying all the fuel with us? Should aircraft even look like they do today, the tube and wings? The fuselage with the wings out the side as the dominant design of aircraft?
One of the aircraft I've worked with is the Boeing Blended-Wing Body, which is a much more integrated aircraft with the fuselage and the wings blended together, and the aircraft doesn't have a tail. So there are many challenges with that kind of configuration, but also a lot of opportunities to improve the aerodynamic efficiency, and to do different things with the structures, and just to think very differently about the way the aircraft goes together.
What kinds of engines? Could you do things with the engines to help reduce noise, which is another kind of environmental impact? So we're really trying to create the tools that let people explore these options, and think about then, how do we invest in design programs, or perhaps in experiments and flight tests that would help us learn more, that will eventually get us to those aircraft of the future, keeping in mind that environmental constraints are a really, really important part of the design.
INTERVIEWER: Is this an important time in the history of the creation of these kinds of aircraft for these kinds of revisions? Is this a particularly exciting time to be working on these things?
WILLCOX: Yeah, I think it is a particularly exciting time. And some of that is the revolution that's come about with data. You mentioned one of my research interests in being data to decisions, that the sensor the technology and the computing power is now there, that we can measure. We can sense, measure, and acquire data like never before.
It's true in our everyday lives when we're browsing the internet or our smartphones as to what kind of data they can provide us. The same is true for aircraft technologies. And so I think it's really interesting, exciting to think about. What is it we could do with some of the different kinds of data that could be available?
And again, if we could think differently about the way the aircraft interacts with the environment, or the way the pilot interacts with the aircraft, interacts with the data, are there things we could do to change the way aircraft are designed, change the way they're built, and change the way they are flown, either to reduce environmental impact, or to make air travel more efficient in other ways.
So it is a very exciting time, and is it important? It's critically important, because when an aircraft goes into service, it's in service for decades. And if you start to think about that design lead-time I talked about, the aircraft that we're thinking, we the community are thinking about designing today, will be flying in 30, 40, 50 years time maybe. So it's really important to get those decisions right.
INTERVIEWER: So in researching for this interview, I recognize that you're clearly passionate about aircraft design, and then there's also a clear passion about educational design. I'm curious how you see your role as a professor, what your objectives are with your students, and where your passion, your interest in teaching and educating comes from?
WILLCOX: Often, I think about what is it that we contribute. What do we leave behind? What are the outputs of our professional activities? And for an academic, you'll ask somebody, even ask, how is it you get promoted? What are the things that get measured, and it's things like papers or patents. But if I really think about what it is that I create, it's people. It's students. To me, the students are my products. And whether we're talking about me teaching a class in controls or in computational methods, and educating students, or even if you're talking about my research program. We talked about exciting opportunities, and in aircraft design, okay, we create new computational methods, and we try to work with industry to get them used, but really, what I'm creating are graduate students who finish master's and PhD's and either go on to work in the industry, or go on to do on the other things, consulting, or maybe become professors themselves.
So I think, maybe when I first started as a professor, that wasn't so obvious to me. I think deep down, I knew it, but there is so much emphasis on academic output, things like papers. I've really come to appreciate the importance of, I think all of us collectively as faculty, of mentoring. And I know what a difference that's made in my own life.
So it's an exciting time in research. It's often an exciting time in research, but I think it's a really, really exciting time in education. There's so much change in so many ways. Change in the educational technologies, change in what the internet can do for us, changes in, again, the data, the kinds of things that we could measure of what students are doing when they interact with an online platform of a kind of analytics. What we could learn.
There are changes in neuroscience and cognitive sciences to the understanding of the brain and the functions of learning. And then there are changes in the students that are arriving on campus. Students who arrive as freshmen in September have grown up in a very different world to the world that you or I grew up in. I mean, email became available when I was an undergrad. And if you wanted to check your email, you had to go into the vax lab that was down the corridor, and I think I would get maybe one email a week.
And yet, the freshmen who are coming in September have grown up, probably had their first iPad when they were in grade school. So the students have changed. And so I think it's scary, because it challenges everything that we, the academic community, have been doing for many years.
Thinking about the structure of the lecture, the professor at the blackboard with the lecture, and how long has that been the mode of education. So it's scary to think about change but it's also an incredible opportunity to think about the rich range of resources that are available to us as faculty, the different ways we could instruct. I'll admit, I still love a blackboard and a piece of chalk. It's still my favorite way to lecture, and I don't think I'll ever lose that, and I don't think I'll ever stop doing it.
But I can do other things to complement that as well. I can connect with not just my students, but students all over the world through things like the MITx platform. And if you think about your primary mission as an educator to help educate the next generation and to change the world through people, then the reach of things like MITx is really just incredible.
So it's both scary and challenging, but it's a really exciting time in education.
INTERVIEWER: I know you were asked by the Institute actually, to look into the future of education at MIT. Not generally, but quite specifically, what were the principles of an MIT education that needed to be continued, that had to be developed? And I'm curious how you went about that process of figuring out, what is it about MIT education that makes it MIT education, and that must be continued and expanded?
WILLCOX: So that was the Task Force on the Future of MIT Education, and I was asked by President Reif to chair the working group that focused on MIT residential education. And it was rather a daunting charge, actually.
So, how do we go about things at MIT? I think the first thing is the working group that I chaired was just an incredible group of faculty from across the Institute, each with different things they were passionate about, different views, different perspectives to offer. But the working group was really a core people who signed up to help lead the conversation. And what I really liked about the task force is that it really was a conversation across the campus that we worked really hard to engage with faculty as a whole, with students, with staff, with alumni, with the Corporation.
And there was a great deal of outreach in many different ways. We received so many email inputs, inputs through the ideas bank that was on the website. So it really was more than a campus-wide conversation, it was an MIT-community wide conversation. And that was really, really neat to see. I think that's an important way that when MIT is asking itself these difficult questions, that there are many, many parts of the community that are involved in that.
And then, really starting to ask ourselves, what is it that makes an MIT education so special? What is, they call it, the "magic" of MIT? That you could read articles in newspapers at that time that said the MOOCs, the Massive Open Online Courses are going to replace the bricks and mortar, we don't need residential education anymore, it's too expensive, people are going to take online classes. And then that's going to be higher education.
And that we really had to ask ourselves, what is it that makes an MIT education so special? And I think all of us were already convinced of that, but to really try to lay it out, and to realize that an MIT education is so much more than just a collection of classes. And it's not about just the knowledge that you obtain in class X that lets you solve this equation or model this system. That is a part of it, that's an important part of what we do, but there's so much more to it.
And much of it comes back to that sense of community that I talked about earlier. There are the bonds that you form within your classes, within your living groups, within your sports teams, across the campus in whatever way. Those interactions that happen when people get together. The ideas. The creativity that arises from that. The work that goes on in the middle of the night, whether it's problem sets, or whether it's dreaming up the next big start up, or little, next small start up company. That's a part of it.
One of the things that came through very strongly from the surveys that we did of faculty and students was the commitment to hands-on education. And I knew that was important. Mens et manus is our motto. I knew it was important, but I was actually a little surprised of just how strongly it came through. It was ranked as the most important principle by students, and barely the second behind a commitment to excellence by the faculty.
So that commitment to hands-on education really came through and if I think about, for example, the curriculum in an AeroAstro, and, for example, our capstone classes, we have students who are asked to design and then build aerospace systems, and we have an external sponsor, the US Air Force. There will be generals coming in to see the students brief, and these things will actually be flown.
We have the SPHERES Project that came out of AeroAstro that created these little vehicles that are flying on the Space Station. I mean, we really do more than just teach our students the theory. We get them busy with their hands, creating. And I think that's one of the things that makes an MIT education very special.
INTERVIEWER: I noticed in that final report that you had a range of recommendations, from expanding the use of online courses, to building the freshman cohort, to taking some risks with the freshman education curriculum. And I'm curious how you came to those conclusions, and what sort of themes you were looking at, as you were making those recommendations?
WILLCOX: So we, as much as possible, we tried to look at data to help inform some of those recommendations. I mentioned before the changing environment, the changing external pressures, and then also the changing student coming in. And with regard to the changing student, I think one thing that's been observed, and there are data to support it, is that students are looking for more out of an education. And by more, I mean today's students tend to be interested in interdisciplinary topics.
We could look at data that shows, for example, the increase in enrollment in flexible engineering degrees, so this is, for example, the 2-A Flexible Mechanical Engineering degree, which is now larger than the traditional mechanical degree. That flexible degree lets you take a core of traditional mechanical engineering and complement it with a concentration of your choice that lets you bring in robotics, or environmental concerns, or economics, or management. And we now have a similar flexible degree in AeroAstro, and there are other departments at MIT who've also adopted that.
So the increased enrollment in those degrees is, I think, a sign of students coming in who don't necessarily want to just do traditional Aero, or traditional MechE. They want to do more. And in part, that's because our students want to change the world. They want to go off and found start ups, and change the world through technology. They want to get involved in outreach, in public service projects, and contribute to some of society's biggest challenges.
Here, we have some of the best and the brightest minds with this enthusiasm, so thinking about degree structures that would really help those students take all that energy and get the most out of their time at MIT, that some of where we started.
Where does that get you? That gets you maybe to more flexibility, and that was a big theme that came through in the task force report, is how do we give more flexibility in our undergraduate curriculum, but yet, maintain the principles of an MIT education? To not lose what we all hold near and dear. To make sure that we don't also lose the sense of cohesion, that community that is so special. So making it flexible without making it chaotic, or to piecemeal.
Modularity was one theme that kept occurring. There are already, and at the time were already efforts going on around campus, to try to modularize some of the curriculum, again, thinking that might offer students more flexibility. And I think there's much more that we could be doing along those lines.
The freshman year certainly came up. It's really hard. Change is hard. When you're consensus driven, sometimes the solution that comes out is to do nothing, because if you have to get everybody to agree on change, then the default ends up being to do nothing.
But I think there's certainly a realization among many of the MIT community that the world has changed, and that the GIRs, the General Institute Requirements, haven't necessarily changed along with the many changes in the world. Do we still have the right mix of requirements? I think it's a really important conversation to have. And again, maybe flexibility could offer something here.
So we really felt that tension, that tension between a desire to change and give our students more opportunities, but the desire to preserve what we feel is very core and near and dear to the heart of what is an MIT undergraduate education.
INTERVIEWER: Where does that commitment to thinking that through, and to creating something that works well for the whole Institute, where does that come from, from you? In speaking with you, it's clear that there's passion about the aeronautical design, and then there's equal passion about this. I'm just curious about the source?
WILLCOX: Where does it come from? I don't know. I said I always wanted to be an astronaut. done The only other career I did contemplate was I wanted to be a teacher at some point, when I was very young. And I remember Mr. Dreaver, my form one and form two teacher said no, you're not going to be a teacher. You're going to go to university.
I think he's speaking of that from the perspective that teachers weren't university educated in New Zealand at that time so much. But, I really, I love teaching, and I think mentors played such a big role in my life, that I just, I think it's one of the very, very important things that we do.
And again, so often when we're hiring faculty, we're so focused on research, and on research output. So much of what we do, both in research and in teaching, is impacting people's lives and thinking about how you create the institutional structure to best do that. I mean, it's an enormous responsibility, especially when you take one of the best universities in the world. I think, how do you change, but not mess things up, it's an enormous, enormous responsibility.
INTERVIEWER: You're, I'm going to take it a step back to New Zealand again, if I may. So your leadership in these areas was recognized back in 2010 from the Sir Peter Blake Leadership Award. First, can you tell us a bit about who Sir Peter Blake was, and also tell me what it means to you to have received this leadership award from New Zealand?
WILLCOX: So, Sir Peter Blake was famous yachtsman in New Zealand. I mentioned that New Zealand is a rugby-crazy country, and sailing would be also a very, very close second. It's been very popular, and many New Zealanders are extremely passionate about sailing.
So, Sir Peter Blake was a sporting hero. What really made him special was that he took on environmental challenges and really led a great deal of conversation and efforts to promote awareness of environmental challenges around the world.
And in fact, he was unfortunately murdered by pirates in the Amazon while on one of his missions. So to commemorate his life and his contributions, his leadership, the Sir Peter Blake Trust was created.
They have these leadership awards, which I was very lucky to get one in 2010. So it's been really wonderful to become a part of that community. One of the really neat things is that helps me stay connected to New Zealand. New Zealand is home, and always will be. I try to go back there when I can, over the summer, over IAP when it's piled with snow in Boston, and it's the middle of summer in January in New Zealand.
So the Sir Peter Blake Trust is a way to stay connected. They run a leadership week every year in July where there's a lot of focus on outreach, particularly in getting out into schools across New Zealand.
One of the things that I am very passionate about is promoting more women going into science and engineering. I feel very lucky that I found engineering, and I think without some encouragement, that easily could have not happened.
And I think there are many, many young women out there who could be similarly inspired, and find themselves being very happy in technical careers, but are not necessarily finding that way because they don't get the encouragement, or they don't have the confidence to do it. And so getting out there and talking about how much fun engineering can be, that you don't have to be good with your hands, I'm not necessarily somebody you'd want under the hood of your car. That as an engineer, I use my brains, my fingers, and a lot of computer skills to solve problems. Getting that message out is something I like to do, and the Sir Peter Blake Trust has been one way to try to help further those efforts.
It's a really great collection of people recognized through the Trust. Amazing stories. And so it's been real privilege to be a part of that.
INTERVIEWER: So it sounds like that allows you to be at MIT, and yet maintain your commitment and your connections in New Zealand, and have the work you're doing here support and inform what's happening in New Zealand.
WILLCOX: It has been. It's really nice. When they hold leadership week, I usually try to see if I can arrange a visit to a school that's out of Auckland, in some of the more remote parts of the country, because again, role models are so important and just seeing, there's another girl that grew up in New Zealand, and she applied to some colleges overseas and got in and went, and now she's a professor there.
You know, to think that that is possible, and what does it take, hard work and a lot of encouragement from others, and then some belief in yourself to do these things. And just to go and for kids to be able to see that I think is really important.
INTERVIEWER: So continuing this thought about the future, and the future with children who are interested in engineering, what are some of the engineering challenges and problems that are exciting you about the future, what we're looking at moving forward?
WILLCOX: I have to tell you, there's a lot that doesn't excite me, it worries me. I quite often get quite worried about the way the world seems to be heading particularly when it comes to environmental issues. We talked about the long lead time for aircraft, the same is true for infrastructure. And just the slow pace of change in tackling really critical environmental issues worries me.
So with worry, comes the excitement of the opportunity to do something. I just think this is an incredibly important issue. And I'm really pleased to see MIT starting to take some leadership in this area with the recent committee on climate change, and some of the documents that have been released. So that's one that worries me.
The excitement, a lot around education. Education is becoming more technology, more and more technology driven. And again, that's the kind of thing that tends to get us at MIT excited. I think MIT's commitment to get out in front of some of these things with edX, with MITx, really again, it was a very bold move, but it's very exciting, because we have the seeds of so many wonderful things to start this community-wide conversation about the future of MIT education. To even put on the table the possibility of some big change, I think is really exciting.
And then to just see the way that technology is revolutionizing complete industries. It's scary but exciting to think about the ways that MIT can help provide leadership in those areas.
INTERVIEWER: Are there are aspects about space travel in the future that excite you also? And might you be joining folks on that trip?
WILLCOX: You know, it's really very exciting to think about humans exploring more of our solar system. I think it's sort of sad, that human exploration struggles. Space is hard, is something that people at NASA often say. And with the space shuttle ending, and there not really being a solution in place, it's somewhat sad.
I look back at the Apollo years, back in the 1960s, and so much of that work actually was done here at MIT. There are many people here at MIT who played a critical role in Apollo, and the moon landing, and to think of what they achieved with the technology they had there is just mind-boggling. That they managed to launch, land men on the moon, get them back safely, without any of the computer power, or the knowledge or the models that we have today. It's amazing.
Then it's kind of sad that we can't do the same thing today. That it's been so long since a human set foot on the moon. That there's never been a woman on the moon, that there's never been a person of color on the moon. That there's never been a non-American on the moon. It's sort of sad that there's been such a big gap.
But again, as with all challenges, there's the opportunity. And I really hope I live to see humans, not just on the moon, but on Mars, I mean, what an amazing thing to think about, the human race exploring another planet. It's going to be a lot of hard work, both technical, but also political and social to get there. But we have some really great people.
When I see people like my colleague Professor Dava Newman going down to help take the leadership at NASA, I'm optimistic that again, MIT can contribute to help moving this thing along.
And then at the same time, without the human presence in space, the technology is just incredible in terms of exploring the solar system. We just saw the photos of Pluto like never before. To think of when that spacecraft was launched, and again, the amazing technical accomplishment to get it on track to have it flyby, take the photos, send them back. I mean, it's just amazing.
The public sometimes I think take this for granted. All that science and engineering that sits under there, the teamwork, the planning, logistics to make that happen. It's really pretty remarkable. I think aerospace is an example of an area where we, as a human race, should be incredibly proud of what we've achieved. And I really hope that that will never go away.
INTERVIEWER: Wonderful, that was my last question. Thank you so much.