NZ scientist still reaching for the stars

The talented professor and athlete hasn't given up on her dream of becoming an astronaut.

Karen Willcox is a passionate and dedicated teacher.
Karen Willcox is a passionate and dedicated teacher.

Tell us about someone who has been a mentor to you?

My very first mentors were Mr Denny and Mr Dreaver, two amazing teachers at Lincoln Heights Primary School in Massey who set me on a great path a long time ago. I've been lucky to have many amazing mentors who guided me on where my strengths lay and helped me to understand what career opportunities were possible.

What does a typical work day look like?

Teaching, both undergraduate and graduate classes, and working with my research group at MIT, which may involve one-on-one meetings with PhD students or group research discussions for some of our bigger projects. I travel widely and frequently around the world to attend conferences, to meet with sponsors such as the Department of Energy and Boeing, and to work with collaborators on various projects.

What has been a highlight of your career or leadership journey?

Watching my students graduate. Artists create art and teachers create and shape people. There's no greater pleasure than watching my students graduate with the tools and knowledge to be able to make a great contribution to the world.

And a low moment?

Just missing out on making the final eight to become a Nasa astronaut candidate. It was a double-edged sword, because I would have had to give up teaching my students at MIT, which I absolutely love, but at the same time I know that I'm running out of time, age-wise, to make this dream happen and since I was a child it has been my dream to be an astronaut. I may apply one last time but we'll see what happens.

How would your students describe you?

Busy, tough but fair and with high expectations both of them and of myself.

As a leader, what's the secret to getting people to support and share your vision?

I like to lead by consensus. Rather than being dictatorial, I prefer to engage team members in discussions where everyone can share their opinions and air their views.

Who is the most exciting or famous person you've ever met?

Perhaps not the most exciting person but the most famous person would be Buzz Aldrin, with whom I had lunch a couple of months ago.

Who is the best manager you've ever worked with and what made them great?

I've been blessed to work with so many great managers but one that stands out is Boeing's Bob Liebeck, one of the world's most incredible airplane designers. He taught me that life is so much more than just equations. He is a lot of fun and just a great guy to have a beer with.

Who is a Blake Leader that you think has the 'Blake Factor'?

I visited Wakatipu High School during Leadership Week and saw the great things Blake Leader Steve Hall is doing with the school. He has worked so hard at leadership through engagement with the school community. I could really see the effects through the pride in the students and in their interactions with Steve.

What is the best part about being a Blake Leader?

The ability to stay connected to New Zealand and the sense of the community. I love being able to come back to New Zealand and participate in activities such as Leadership Week and the Dream Team, as part of the trust network.

If you could give your 15-year-old self some advice, what would it be?

To spend more time in my Dad's garage. I grew up in a very traditional family, where gender roles were defined as they were at the time, and I wish I had been able to learn more from my father with regard to all things engineering-related.

When you look back on your life, for what are you grateful?

I'm grateful for my teachers, from primary right through to university. For their guidance and the extra time they took in helping me to succeed.

Professor Karen Willcox

Karen Willcox is Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics in the Aerospace Computational Design Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is also co-director of the MIT Centre for Computational Engineering and Associate Head of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. As a child Karen dreamed of being an astronaut and completed a Bachelor of Engineering at the University of Auckland, followed by masters and PhD degrees at MIT. Before joining the faculty at MIT she worked at Boeing Phantom Works with the Blended-Wing-Body group. Passionate about engineering and her chosen career, Karen has visited many schools around New Zealand with the aim of inspiring and nurturing an interest in mathematics and science in young women. She has represented New England and MIT in rugby and is a successful marathon, ultra-marathon and trail runner. In 2010, Karen received a Sir Peter Blake Leadership Award for her leadership and commitment to becoming New Zealand's first astronaut, as well as the significant impact she has made on a global scale through her research and teaching.

- NZ Herald

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