April 16, 2024

Karen Willcox speaking at AIAA conference
Karen Willcox; Credit: The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA)

Karen Willcox, professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics and the director of the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin, has won the 2024 Theodore von Kármán Prize from the Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM).

Willcox was selected for “important contributions to computational science and engineering. Professor Willcox has pioneered the development and use of model reduction methods for optimal design, optimal control, uncertainty quantification, decision-making, and digital twins. Her fundamental work has had broad impact in many application areas including inverse problems, optimal design, aerospace engineering and precision medicine.” 

In addition to her role as Oden Institute director, she leads the Willcox Research Group, and is professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics. Willcox is also an external faculty member at the Santa Fe Institute. She was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2022 and is a Fellow of SIAM.

“How fitting it is for Karen, whose main work is at the interfaces of aerospace engineering and applied math, to receive a prize named for Theodore von Kármán. Karen richly deserves this prestigious prize. Her pioneering work in model reduction methods and their use in optimal control, optimal design, uncertainty quantification, and inverse problems has had a significant impact on aerospace engineering and, more broadly, computational science and engineering,” said Omar Ghattas, director of the OPTIMUS Center at the Oden Institute and professor of mechanical engineering at UT.

Citing examples, Ghattas said Willcox’s reduced order modeling and multifidelity methods have been adopted by Boeing for Blended-Wing-Body Aircraft design, Lockheed Martin for aerostructural analysis in support of vehicle design processes, the Air Force Research Laboratory to accelerate their combustion simulations in support of rocket engine design, and the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center for design of the James Webb space telescope. 

“Moreover, her work has opened up new opportunities to realize practical digital twins for large scale systems,” said Ghattas. Willcox recently chaired a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine study examining the future of digital twins. The study consensus report, “Foundational Research Gaps and Future Directions for Digital Twins,” highlighted the need for an integrated agenda across sectors and how to tackle responsible development of digital twin technology.

“Karen joins an illustrious list of prior awardees, including such notable figures as Geoffrey Taylor, George Carrier, Julian Cole, and our own Mary Wheeler,” added Ghattas, saying that the prize has been awarded just 11 times since its inception.

Established in 1968 the prize is awarded every five years for a notable application of mathematics to mechanics or mechanics or engineering in the five to ten years preceding the award and commemorates Theodore von Kármán’s work in aerodynamics. A Hungarian American mathematician, von Kármán was an aerospace engineer and physicist who was responsible for crucial advances in aerodynamics characterizing supersonic and hypersonic airflow. The human-defined threshold of outer space is named the "Kármán line" in recognition of his work. 

The prize will be awarded at the SIAM Annual Meeting taking place July 8 – 12, 2024, in Spokane Washington, where Willcox will deliver the prize lecture. SIAM fosters the development of applied mathematical and computational methodologies needed in various application areas. The mission of SIAM is to build cooperation between mathematics and the worlds of science and technology.