News Obituary: Professor Joanna McKittrick

Joanna McKittrick, a pioneering engineer at the University of California San Diego and a renowned expert in materials science passed away Nov. 15, 2019. She was 65.

McKittrick was one of the first women to join the engineering faculty at UC San Diego in 1988, in what is now the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and was then Applied Mechanics and Engineering Sciences (AMES). She is remembered by her colleagues as a generous collaborator and by students and alumni as an inspiring and caring mentor. McKittrick was a great advocate for under-represented students in science and engineering and served as a research advisor for many undergraduate students through the years.

“She will be deeply missed by her family, her colleagues and friends, and the UC San Diego community,” said the current chair of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at UC San Diego, Carlos Coimbra.

McKittrick worked closely for 31 years with Jan Talbot, the first woman to join the AMES faculty in 1986. Being the first two female faculty in AMES created a strong bond between them and naturally led to research collaborations, Talbot said.

“We worked so well together,” she said. “I was a big-picture person and she was a details-oriented person. She was brilliant.”

Research legacy

Talbot remembers coming back from a conference and telling McKittrick about a talk on making oxides via combustion. “Let’s do it,” McKittrick said.  The two rushed to the lab right then and there. They were able to make a zinc oxide powder that luminesced.  In the decades that followed, Talbot and McKittrick worked together to develop luminescent materials for heads-up displays, flat panel displays and for drug delivery systems. More recently, McKittrick’s work focused on the synthesis and development of materials for LED-based solid-state lighting.

In later years, McKittrick also turned her attention to biomaterials. She worked closely with Marc Meyers, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering who had also joined UC San Diego in 1988 as part of the university’s first materials science group.  “She loved nature and she fell in love with biomaterials,” Meyers said.

Their work on biological and bioinspired materials received many research accolades. Their papers on materials inspired by seahorses, sea urchins and other animals were widely covered in mainstream news outlets, including ABC News, Popular Science and the Smithsonian magazine.

An advocate for under-represented students in STEM

During her 31-year career, McKittrick encouraged women and minority students to pursue science careers, working with high school, undergraduate and graduate students. Her research group always included women and minorities. She welcomed high school students from both sides of the border in her lab over the summer as part of the Enlace program, which is run by Olivia Graeve, a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at UC San Diego. Graeve was one of McKittrick’s mentees as an undergraduate student, starting in 1993.

McKittrick encouraged Graeve to apply to graduate school and wrote her letters of recommendation, continuing to act as a mentor for the subsequent 20 years. “She was instrumental in me coming back to UC San Diego as a professor,” in 2013, Graeve said.

Recently, McKittrick congratulated Graeve on her successful career. Graeve replied that it was all because of McKittrick. “She said: ‘No, it’s not. It’s because of you’,” Graeve recalls. “But I really truly believe that a lot of my success has to do with her. From my point of view, she was like a second mom.”

Keeping in touch with alumni

McKittrick was a very supportive mentor and wanted her students to succeed, said Frances Su, who graduated with a PhD from the McKittrick Lab in December 2018. “She taught me how to treat other people with respect,” Su said. “She also taught me not to be afraid of being critiqued. It’s part of the scientific process.”  Su landed a job at SigRay, an X-ray systems company in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was planning to meet with McKittrick here in San Diego during Thanksgiving break.  

“She was the ideal mentor,” said Michael Frank, who graduated from McKittrick’s research group in 2014. “She knew the maturity level of the people who joined her group. She would trust us. And if you were struggling, she would help.”

McKittrick welcomed Frank into her lab without hesitation after he left the Department of Chemistry. While in her lab, Frank and his wife had two children (in addition to an older daughter). McKittrick always asked him how his family was doing, Frank recalled. “She knew that quality of life was important,” he said.

McKittrick was always thoughtful when it came to current and former students. She and Michael Porter met at a materials science conference in Hawaii about two years later. She had brought him a glass sponge, an invertebrate that lives deep in the ocean and is exquisitely fragile. Porter was touched that McKittrick had flown the animal more than 2,500 miles to bring it to him. “It meant a lot to me.”  He and McKittrick had become friends since he earned his PhD in her lab. They both shared a battle with chronic health issues. McKittrick became a role model for him, he said.

A thoughtful mentor

McKittrick believed in her students, said Keisuke Matsushita, who has been working in her lab as a Ph.D. student for four years. She was always encouraging—even through the 17 drafts of his first paper as first author. During his Ph.D. qualifying exam, one of the committee members pointed out that Matsushita had a lot of work to do in the last year of his Ph.D. “He can do it,” McKittrick said without hesitation.

McKittrick had high expectations of her students but she also gave them a lot of freedom. One of her Ph.D. students, Isaac Cabrera, for example, supervises a team of 20 undergraduate students as part of an effort to develop a process to make prostheses in developing countries without patients needing to go to a clinic. The name of the McKittrick lab is printed in bold, large font on project members’ T-shirts. “McKittrick gave me the freedom to pursue the project, no other PI would have done that,” Cabrera said.

Students also remember fondly how McKittrick cared for her dogs, two rescue Chihuahuas. Sean Garner was interviewing for a spot in her lab when he noticed that one of the dogs was tucked under her desk. “That’s what made me decide to work with her,” he said.

McKittrick is survived by her sisters Lisa Cleveland and Marcia Hodulik, her niece and nephews Spencer Cleveland, Nichelle Hodulik, Reid Cleveland, and Evan Hodulik, and beloved cousins. A celebration of life will be held on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, beginning at 4 p.m. at the UC San Diego Faculty Club.