Dr. Sheila E. Widnall, associate provost and Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, said last week that she is "deeply honored" by President Bill Clinton's announced intention to nominate her as Secretary of the Air Force.
"I've had a long involvement with the Air Force and have a deep respect for the quality of Air Force people and for the importance of the mission," she said following the President's announcement on July 2.
In announcing her nomination, President Clinton praised Professor Widnall as "a woman of high achievement, a respected scientist, a skilled administrator and a dedicated citizen."
If confirmed, Dr. Widnall will become the first woman to serve as an armed services secretary.
Such precedent is not new to Dr. Widnall, a member of the MIT faculty for 28 years. She was the first MIT alumna appointed to the faculty in the School of Engineering, and the first woman to serve as chair of the entire MIT faculty, a post she held in 1979-80.
Under the authority of the Secretary of Defense, the three civilian secretaries of the military services direct the organization, activities and administration of the services, including the recruitment, training and equipping of their operating forces. They also coordinate decision making and implementation with their uniformed chiefs of staff, and correlate decisions and actions with the other military departments and elsewhere in the government in such areas as diplomacy, intelligence, national security and international economic policy. In addition, they advocate, explain and defend their services' missions, policies and budgets to the public and before Congress.
An earlier Air Force secretary from MIT was Dr. Robert C. Seamans Jr., professor emeritus of aeronautics and astronautics, senior lecturer and former dean of the School of Engineering, who served in the post from 1969 to 1973.
Dr. Widnall is internationally known for her work in fluid dynamics, specifically in the areas of aircraft turbulence and the spiraling airflows called vortices created by helicopters. Aircraft turbulence, disturbances in the flow of air around an aircraft, has an important bearing on performance and safety.
As associate provost since January 1992, Dr. Widnall has had responsibility in several academic areas, including academic integrity, federal relations, faculty retirement, promotion and tenure policies, and international educational programs. She has worked closely with MIT President Charles M. Vest and Provost Mark S. Wrighton as chair of a new Council on Federal Relations, which provides guidance on matters of interaction with the federal government and the activities of MIT's Washington Office.
She also served as chair of MIT's Committee on Academic Responsibility, which was established in 1991 to examine the policies and procedures of MIT in regard to the ethical conduct of academic research.
Dr. Widnall has served on many boards, panels and committees in government, academia and industry. She was a member of the Board of Visitors for the US Air Force Academy from 1978 to 1984 and was the board's chairman in 1980-82. She also has served on advisory committees to the Military Airlift Command and Wright Patterson Air Force Base. She served as a trustee of the Aerospace Corporation and of the Carnegie Corporation, and is a member of the Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology and Government. She is currently a trustee of the Boston Museum of Science and The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, Inc., of Cambridge.
Dr. Widnall is no stranger to Washington or to Congressional hearing rooms.
She has spent considerable time in the capital as a member of the National Academy of Sciences' Panel on Scientific Responsibility and as a past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). In 1974, she served in government as the first Director of University Research at the US Department of Transportation.
She served as the fifth woman president of AAAS, the world's leading scientific organization, in 1987-88, and chairman in 1988-89. She was only the fourth engineer to head the AAAS. She also served on the organization's board of directors and on the editorial board of its magazine, Science.
As president and chairman of the AAAS, she testified on numerous occasions to Congressional committees dealing with issues of research, science education and research facility funding. She also met with individual members of Congress to discuss issues of science policy and funding for scientific research.
Through her own career and her study of the subject, Dr. Widnall is an expert on the challenges women face in engineering, science and other non-traditional careers.
Dr. Widnall, 54, has had a long-standing interest in aircraft and in aerodynamics. She grew up in Tacoma, Wash., not far from the Boeing Aircraft Company and spent summers during college at the Boeing plant in Seattle.
Dr. Widnall received both the bachelor of science and master of science degrees in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT in 1961, and the ScD degree in 1964, the same year she joined the faculty as an assistant professor. She became an associate professor in 1970 and professor in 1974.
She headed her department's Division of Fluid Mechanics from 1975 to 1979 and Fluid Dynamics Research Laboratory from 1979 to 1990.
Her awards and honors include the Lawrence Sperry Award of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 1972, the Outstanding Achievement Award of the Society of Women Engineers in 1975, and the Washburn Award of the Boston Museum of Science in 1984.
She is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, the International Academy of Astronautics, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
She is the author of some 70 publications and has given many presentations and invited lectures at scientific meetings.
Dr. Widnall and her husband, William, also an aeronautical engineer, have two children and live in Lexington, Mass.
A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 1993 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 1).