Karen Thole

Current Position: Professor and Department Head at Pennsylvania State University
Karen Thole
Highlight Do not be intimidated to be an engineer. It is an extremely exciting career with many possibilities. Go for it!
August 3, 2007Her job: Professor and Department Head, Pennsylvania State University
Describe what you do in your current work situation? The next time you see an airplane, look at the scores of blades inside the engine. Did you know that the design of those blades determines how fast that the airplane can fly? As a Professor in the Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering Department at Penn State, I am researching ways to cool those blades so that the fuel can burn hotter which allows the planes to fly with less fuel. In addition, I serve as the leader of the department in which I work closely with our faculty, staff, and students to ensure we have top quality research and teaching programs for our students.
Why did you choose engineering? Growing up and working on our family dairy farm in southern Illinois exposed me to many mechanical devices. Also, although I didn't have many role models other than teachers, I did have an excellent high school science teacher who sparked my interest in chemistry and physics. When I started college, I planned on majoring in journalism or chemistry. Then, a female friend suggested, based on my love for calculus, that I consider engineering as a major. So, I did.
Where did you go to school and what degree(s) do you have? B.S. and M.S. in mechanical engineering from University of Illinois Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas.
What kinds of activities have typically been part of your work? Research and teaching have always been a big part of my working experience as a faculty member at a major university. More recently, at Penn State, I have also been leading a dynamic department with over 50 faculty and 200 hundred students.
What do you like best about being an engineer? What I enjoy most about engineering work are the challenges and the interaction that I've had with people at a number of universities both in the United States and in Europe. The typical stereotype of an engineer working alone at his or her desk, in many cases, is just not true. Most problems involve team efforts. So, if you're concerned that engineering may not be for you because you want to work with people (which is a comment that I often hear), your concern may not be necessary.
Which of your career accomplishments are you proudest of? I am most proud of the graduate students who have worked with me on their research. I take such pride in their accomplishments and it is such an important part of my life to see them succeed.
What challenges have you met and conquered in your pursuit of an engineering career? Sometimes it is challenging to walk in a room full of men and gain respect from them. I have found that in my research, however, the people I have worked with have come to have respect for me and my students. I take real pride in having good technical conversations with those who work in my area.
Please tell us a little about your family. I was working in California when I met my husband who encouraged me to start on my Ph.D. I'm extremely grateful that I've had such wonderful support from the man that I have now been married to for 18 years. We are also the proud parents of two very lively dogs.
What are your short-term (1-2 years) and long-term (10+ years) goals? My short-term goals are to be the best department head I can be at Penn State. I am working hard at increasing the number of women and underrepresented students in our department and my goal is to see that number increase. My long-term goals are not yet clearly defined given I just entered into administration.
What (or who) had/has the greatest influence on your life choices? My husband has the greatest influence in my life. He is my biggest supporter and, at the same time, knows when to tell me my direction may be flawed.
What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in engineering? Do not be intimidated to be an engineer. It is an extremely exciting career with many possibilities. Go for it!
Describe something about your life outside of work: your hobbies, or perhaps a favorite book. I love to hike, bike, and go running. There are some beautiful trails here in central Pennsylvania. I enjoy being outside in the summer.