Hired as an assistant professor at MIT shortly after earning her doctorate of science from the school in 1964, Dr. Sheila Widnall has spent the majority of her career balancing research, teaching, and public service.
Working her way through the academic ranks she was promoted to assistant professor, professor, department head and Director of the Fluid Dynamics Research Lab. In 1979 she was selected to a two year term a Chair of the Faculty at MIT, the first woman to fill this role. In 1992 she accepted the position of Associate Provost which she filled for a year before being asked to step into a role in public service.
Nominated by President Clinton to the office of Secretary of the Air Force and approved by the U.S. Senate in 1993, she became the first woman to be the head of any branch of the United States military. Her overarching role during this time was insuring the current and future readiness of the Air Force to accomplish its mission. She oversaw recruiting, training and equipping active duty, Air National Guard and Air Reserve members as well as logistical support, maintenance, research and development, and welfare of personnel. During this time she also co-chaired the Department of Defense Task Force on Sexual Harassment and Discrimination.
Stepping down to return to teaching in 1997, Widnall was involved with the Lean Advancement Initiative, a research consortium at the school that was active through 2012. Her teaching responsibilities include undergraduate dynamics and aerodynamics and graduate level aerodynamics of wings and bodies, and aerospace vehicle vibration. Widnall’s research in fluid dynamics has included a large variety of topics including boundary layer stability, unsteady lifting-surface theory, helicopter noise, vortex stability, aircraft-wake studies, and aerodynamics of high-speed ground transport vehicles.
Due to this expertise in aeronautics Widnall was tasked with being part of the investigative board looking into the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003. The same year she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame for serving as a role model and trailblazer for women in science and the military.
Written by Angela Goad