News Obituary: Professor Joanna McKittrick

In Memoriam--Testimonials to the life and character of the late Dr. Joanna McKittrick

"I have known Joanna since 1998. I was new on the UCSD campus, but soon after I arrived, I began frequently meeting on campus three young professors walking together back from their lunch or coffee break: Joanna, Jan, and Karen. We soon got to know each other and developed a collegial relationship that lasted ever since, although Karen later moved to another university.

First 10 years, Joanna and I were mostly friends and colleagues in EBU II, but then we became collaborators on her research projects on biomaterials. As you know, in addition to materials science, there is a lot of solid mechanics in this topic, and Joanna came one day, perhaps in 2008 or 2009, to my office to talk with me about mechanics of composite materials and evaluation of their effective elastic properties. I don’t think I had good answers to her questions at our first meeting, but we continued to discuss this and related topics for ten years, frequently with her PhD students Katya and Frances. Our collaborations would most often take place in Perks Café within our UCSD bookstore. We would order a coffee or tea, and then discuss a research topic for at least one hour, deciding on how to proceed. This was a very productive and enjoyable collaboration. We wrote many papers together, always being thrilled by advancements that we would make about understanding and explanations of studied phenomena. It was also heartening to me to see how much Joanna trusted my opinions and suggestions about solid mechanics aspects of our work. I think she believed that I was a much better mechanicien than I actually was. I learned from Joanna a lot of materials science and its application to soft and hard biological tissues. She was a great scientist, a wonderful collaborator, and an extraordinary adviser and mentor to her students. I cried in Europe when I heard that she died, and I will always carry her in my mind and in my heart."

- Vlado Lubarda

"I was greatly saddened to hear of the recent passing of Joanna McKittrick, a person I consider myself to have been truly blessed get to know well and to love. Joanna did her PhD with me at MIT on rapid solidification of ceramics, with a particular focus on oxide superconductors. In fact, Joanna was the first PhD student I agreed to take on and it still puts a huge smile on my face to recall her initial exploratory visit to MIT to choose an advisor. Joanna, through her brilliance and initiative, had been successful in obtaining her own funding for her graduate studies, so, logically, SHE was interviewing US, to find out which one she would agree to work with. Of course, I was delighted by her self-confidence, curiosity, and, even in that first encounter, with her inimitable and biting sense of humor. Of course, most of my more senior colleagues were quite taken aback by having to answer probing questions from a potential advisee. That was Joanna, though. Courage was one of her most admirable traits, and she was not about to be intimidated by anyone. Joanna was an extraordinarily intellectually independent doctoral student; in fact, perhaps she spoiled me for life in that regard. I learned later in my career, that in fact most students really want to be told what to do step-by-step in the course of their research. Joanna was delightfully surprising, always coming up with new ideas and directions – a person with whom it was a true joy to work. Another notable characteristic of Joanna in those early professional years was her extraordinary generosity of spirit. She was always helpful in bringing others along, including undergraduate student collaborators. It greatly saddens me that I did not get a chance to get together with Joanna since I moved out of the US in 2010. I will always treasure my memories of times with her though. It cheers me a bit to reflect that, if indeed there is re-incarnation, she will be up to some wild and wonderful stuff in her next life. Otherwise, she certainly deserves a permanent place in heaven. My condolences to her sisters and other loved ones."

- Gretchen Kalonji

"I arrived at UCSD on the fall of 1998, fresh out of my PhD, at 26, with a great desire to expand both my scientific and personal horizons. I felt truly welcomed at the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. Prof. McKittrick was one of the people I remember well. Even though I was not working directly with her, I recall her welcoming attitude and I remember vividly how she combined research with sporting activities. I also remember her close friendship with Prof. Talbot and her love for her dog!. Joanna was a beautiful woman, inside out, and an excellent role model for all young female researchers starting their careers on the hard sciences and engineering. Her presence certainly paved the way to normalizing the presence of women in STEM at a time when this debate was still hardly an open issue as it is today. For my generation, finding women like Joanna along the way made it clear that the possibility of making a great contribution to engineering was out of the question! I am truly thankful to have met her!"

- Dr. María Teresa Pérez-Prado

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.