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NAE honors Widnall for expanding opportunities for women, minorities

Sheila WidnallOCT 4, 2009 — The National Academy of Engineering today honored MIT Institute Professor and Professor of Aeronautics Sheila E. Windall (BSc ‘60, MS ’61, PhD ’64) by presenting her with its Arthur M. Bueche Award for her leadership in expanding engineering opportunities for women and minorities.

The NAE cited numerous milestones in Windall’s career, which it referred to as “a remarkable academic career in fluid dynamics combined with the highest levels of public service, and for championing the role of women in engineering.” She will receive $2,500 and a gold medallion in recognition of her active involvement in determining U.S. science and technology policy, "especially in relation to women and minorities, and contributing to the enhancement of the relationship between government and universities."

Widnall joined the MIT AeroAstro faculty in 1964 as MIT’s first woman professor of engineering. She was named an Institute Professor in 1998, the highest honor awarded by MIT faculty and administration.

In 1988, as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Widnall delivered her influential "Voices from the Pipeline" speech, a watershed moment in equity issues for women in science and engineering. During her 1993-97 tenure as secretary of the Air Force, Widnall co-chaired the Department of Defense Task Force on Discrimination and Sexual Harassment. The task force’s report led to dramatic changes in military policy.

Her career includes dozens of prestigious awards, participation on groundbreaking panels, and profound research on aerodynamics of high-speed ground transportation vehicles, helicopter noise, aircraft-wake studies, and turbulence.

Widnall, who characterizes her life as “surfing on the edge of a wave of increased sensitivity and activity to increasing the role of women in science and engineering” said she is delighted to receive the award. She said it is particularly rewarding that a number of previous recipients were her mentors. “It was people like Norm Augustine, and MIT folks like Bob Seamans, and Guy Stever who reached out to me when I was young to help in my career, and it is wonderful to be sharing the stage with them.”

At an Irvine, California reception for new NAE inductees and honorees from MIT, School of Engineering dean Subra Suresh called Widnall "a diligent and dedicated teacher and mentor, and a brilliant researcher."

Suresh said, "I am honored to have Sheila as a member of the School's faculty."

AeroAstro Department head Professor Ian Waitz said, "Sheila is a remarkable person and a wonderful colleague. This Institute Professor, Air Force secretary, and AAAS and AIAA president is working one-on-one with students every day teaching AeroAstro's core undergraduate dynamics subject and capstone experimental projects laboratory - and she serves on many department and institute committees. She is truly one of the treasures of our department."

Widnall received the Lawrence Sperry Achievement Award in 1972 from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics; the Outstanding Achievement Award in 1975 from the Society of Women Engineers; the Washburn Award in 1987 from the Boston Museum of Science; and the NAE Distinguished Service Award in 1993. She was inducted into the Women in Aviation Pioneer Hall of Fame in 1996; was named New Englander of the Year by the New England Council in 1996; and received the Spirit of St. Louis Medal from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 2001.

Widnall continues to be active as both a leading academic and as a mentor for young women seeking careers in aerospace.

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