Katherine Faber

Current Position: Walter P. Murphy Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University
August 10, 2007Her job: Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Northwestern University
Describe what you do in your current work situation? I am currently a professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern University. My research focuses on the fracture of brittle materials, primarily ceramics, which might be used in high-temperature engine applications. In my laboratory we study how and why materials fail, and study the concepts of how to make brittle materials more resistant to fracture. I teach both graduate and undergraduate students in courses on composite materials and mechanical behavior of materials. Here we explore why materials break or deform and how we can design stronger or tougher or harder materials. I have also had the opportunity to serve as President of the American Ceramic Society, a 6000-member organization of engineers, scientists and manufacturers of ceramic materials.
Why did you choose engineering? As a child growing up during Sputnik and the start of the Space Age, I was enthralled with space and took many astronomy courses at the local museum of science. One of my most prized possessions was my telescope! By high school I saw that my interests were broader than astronomy and I took a great liking to chemistry. For financial reasons, I ended up studying ceramic engineering at the New York State College of Ceramics within Alfred University, with the intention of taking all of my electives in chemistry. Instead, I found out through experience that I loved the problem-solving aspects of engineering as well as its practical significance.
Where did you go to school and what degree(s) do you have? I attended Alfred University (Alfred, NY) and earned a B.S. in ceramic engineering [1975] and a M.S. in ceramic science at Penn State. Following my masters degree, I was employed in industry as a development engineer for the Carborundum Company in Niagara Falls, NY. There I worked on the development of silicon carbide for high performance applications including engines. During my stint in industry I realized that to do the kind of work I liked best, which is, delving into problems deeply, would require a Ph.D. I then went on to the University of California, Berkeley for a Ph.D. [1982] in materials science and engineering. I have held faculty positions since then.
What do you like best about being an engineer? I enjoy my work because engineering research is often like a puzzle. You must define the problem and then figure out how best to solve it. I gain a great deal of satisfaction from problem solving. Often, what is most intriguing about the research is the unexpected outcome which forces you to delve more deeply into the problem. This is rarely solved alone - engineering is a very people-oriented career!
Which of your career accomplishments are you proudest of? I am proud of many things that I have done, but feel that my greatest accomplishments are my students! I enjoy working with them and watching them grow to be my colleagues with successful careers of their own. A recent accomplishment, which has also been particularly rewarding, is a program that I helped to establish between Northwestern University and the Art Institute of Chicago in conservation science. We are using our engineering and science techniques to study, repair and preserve objects of cultural heritage from one of the great museums of the world. Little did I imagine as a student that an engineering degree would allow me to work on priceless pieces of art!
What challenges have you met and conquered in your pursuit of an engineering career? Engineering, especially for women, does present some challenges. Perhaps the greatest challenge has been how to balance my career with raising a family. I have had to make compromises on both fronts. When my children were small I would do engineering-related activities in their classrooms. Such activities allowed me to kill two birds with one stone -- educate children about science and engineering AND spend some special time with my children. As my children grew, and when not in school, they accompanied my husband and me on our professional travels to meetings and conferences around the world. We all gained from these trips in mixing vacation with our careers.
Please tell us a little about your family. On the personal side: I live in a science/engineering household. My husband is a condensed matter physicist and university professor. Although our two sons (17 and 14) do not see themselves as scientists or engineers, they certainly have an appreciation for what we do in our careers. In earlier days we hosted science clubs in our local elementary schools to get children excited about science and engineering. Our family life now revolves around the demands of high school, our son's band, cross country, judo and get-togethers with friends.
What are your short-term (1-2 years) and long-term (10+ years) goals? My long term goals are to continue to do high quality research on ceramic materials with my students, continue to be a part of the education process of the talented young people that attend Northwestern University, and to always be open to new challenges.
What (or who) had/has the greatest influence on your life choices? My father longed to be one of the first aeronautical engineers in the nation, but his education was halted when the Great Depression hit. I was the fifth of five children and the only one of the five whom had interest in anything scientific or technical. Needless to say, he provided me with great encouragement, driving me to Saturday morning museum courses, and serving as "cheerleader" through out my entire education and career.
What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in engineering? If you are thinking about engineering as a career, there are many things you can do to 'research' your career options, but first: build as strong a background as possible in science and mathematics courses in high school. Take advantage of any after-school or summer research opportunities, like JETS or Science Olympiad. Contact your local Society of Women Engineers and find out if you call follow an engineer in her job for a day. Watch for Career Day symposia at local colleges and universities. If you would like more information about my work, you can check out my web page.
Describe something about your life outside of work: your hobbies, or perhaps a favorite book. For fun, I particularly enjoy the stage. Each year I take advantage of Chicago’s world-renown theater scene by attending a number of plays. And when things are quiet at home, a good book, particularly a biography, is always a welcome relief.