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Women in Engineering Profile: Judith Todd

November 10, 2016
Source: ASM International

This new profile series introduces leading materials scientists from around the world who happen to be females. Here we speak with Judith A. Todd, head of the engineering science and mechanics (ESM) department, P.B. Breneman Chair, and professor of engineering science and mechanics at Penn State.

What does your typical workday look like?

While there is no typical workday, they are all equally exciting. Research is the norm for all students and faculty in the department, so we are continually developing proposals and new educational initiatives to support the research. Recent examples include: additive manufacturing of metals and 3D bioprinting of cartilage, bone, and pancreas, with a new, college-wide master's degree; growth of our Center for Nanotechnology Education and Utilization, which provides education at all levels and has workforce development programs in 16 U.S. states and Puerto Rico; establishment of a Center for Neural Engineering emphasizing infant brain diseases in Uganda (our global partners) and with a new M.D./Ph.D. degree program; and development of new, biodegradable self-healing polymers based on proteomic sequencing of squid ring teeth.


What's been your biggest technical challenge?

Keeping up with my research students as my administrative load limits the time available for research.


What part of your job do you like most?

My favorite part is the people and the research. I enjoy one-on-one interactions with students at all levels, inspiring all to be the best they can be, and then escaping to conduct research with my group. What greater privilege is there than to facilitate and encourage students to accomplish at levels beyond their expectations, faculty to make breakthroughs in their research, and staff who make everything occur seamlessly.

What is your engineering background?

My B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees are in materials science from Cambridge University, England. I was fortunate to be able to define my own Ph.D. topic, which involved a year's fieldwork in the Ethiopian bush studying the 2000-year-old bloomery iron (solid state reduction) process, which was still practiced in 1972. My thesis contains one of the last ethnographic records, with metallurgical analyses, of the manufacture of iron tools and products by the bloomery process. Upon completion, I conducted post-doctoral research programs in advanced fracture mechanics, aluminum hydride, and the design of low alloy steels for coal gasification and liquefaction vessels.

What are you working on now?

My current research relates to laser-sustained nitrogen and argon plasmas and their interactions with metals, particularly titanium and its alloys. The potential for developing hard nitride coatings is being explored.

How many people do you work with?

Within the department, I work with a faculty and staff of 60 people, approximately 35 visiting scholars per year, and a student body of up to 320 undergraduates and graduate students. However, as ESM teaches all the service mechanics courses across several colleges, we teach mechanics to approximately 4400 students per year. Our research activities involve extensive collaborations with Penn State's Research Institutes and Colleges, and with numerous universities across the globe. It is becoming increasingly important for students to have international experiences that will prepare them to address the grand challenges facing our global society.

If a young person approached you for career advice about pursuing engineering, what would you tell them?

An engineering background provides a very strong foundation for whichever career you decide to pursue. Engineering is not just a pathway to industry or academia, it underpins the professions (medicine, business, law, and entrepreneurship), leadership positions in government, humanitarian organizations, entertainment, and public service. We need to see more engineering students entering the fields of politics and public policy too.


Reading, hiking, and archaeometry.

Last book read?

"The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration," by Isabel Wilkerson.

More information about ASM's Women in Materials Engineering Committee.

Subject Classifications

Industries and Applications

Materials Processing and Treatment

Materials Properties and Performance

Materials Testing and Evaluation

Metals and Alloys

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