Karen Thole
Dr. Karen Thole
Professor and Department Head, Pennsylvania State University
University Park, PA

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Close Up
  • What I Do
    The next time you see an airplane, look at the scores of blades inside the engine. Did you know that the design of those blades determines how fast that the airplane can fly? As a Professor in the Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering Department at Penn State, I am researching ways to cool those blades so that the fuel can burn hotter which allows the planes to fly with less fuel. In addition, I serve as the leader of the department in which I work closely with our faculty, staff, and students to ensure we have top quality research and teaching programs for our students.
  • Why Engineering?
    Growing up and working on our family dairy farm in southern Illinois exposed me to many mechanical devices. Also, although I didn't have many role models other than teachers, I did have an excellent high school science teacher who sparked my interest in chemistry and physics. When I started college, I planned on majoring in journalism or chemistry. Then, a female friend suggested, based on my love for calculus, that I consider engineering as a major. So, I did.
  • School Days
    B.S. and M.S. in mechanical engineering from University of Illinois Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas.
  • My Day At Work
    Research and teaching have always been a big part of my working experience as a faculty member at a major university. More recently, at Penn State, I have also been leading a dynamic department with over 50 faculty and 200 hundred students.
  • Best Part
    What I enjoy most about engineering work are the challenges and the interaction that I've had with people at a number of universities both in the United States and in Europe. The typical stereotype of an engineer working alone at his or her desk, in many cases, is just not true. Most problems involve team efforts. So, if you're concerned that engineering may not be for you because you want to work with people (which is a comment that I often hear), your concern may not be necessary.
  • Proud Moments
    I am most proud of the graduate students who have worked with me on their research. I take such pride in their accomplishments and it is such an important part of my life to see them succeed.
  • Challenges
    Sometimes it is challenging to walk in a room full of men and gain respect from them. I have found that in my research, however, the people I have worked with have come to have respect for me and my students. I take real pride in having good technical conversations with those who work in my area.
  • My Family
    I was working in California when I met my husband who encouraged me to start on my Ph.D. I'm extremely grateful that I've had such wonderful support from the man that I have now been married to for 18 years. We are also the proud parents of two very lively dogs.
  • Dreams and Goals
    My short-term goals are to be the best department head I can be at Penn State. I am working hard at increasing the number of women and underrepresented students in our department and my goal is to see that number increase. My long-term goals are not yet clearly defined given I just entered into administration.
  • Inspiration
    My husband has the greatest influence in my life. He is my biggest supporter and, at the same time, knows when to tell me my direction may be flawed.
  • Want to be an Engineer?
    Do not be intimidated to be an engineer. It is an extremely exciting career with many possibilities. Go for it!
  • Additional Thoughts
    Do not be intimidated to be an engineer. It is an extremely exciting career with many possibilities. Go for it!
  • Hobbies
    I love to hike, bike, and go running. There are some beautiful trails here in central Pennsylvania. I enjoy being outside in the summer.

Dr. Karen A. Thole was born in Breese, Illinois USA on July 11, 1960. She holds a Bachelors of Science and Masters of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Illinois, and a Doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin. After receiving her PhD, she spent two years as a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute for Thermal Turbomachinery at the University of Karslruhe in Germany. Her academic career began in 1994 when she became an Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 1999, she accepted a position in the Mechanical Engineering Department at Virginia Tech where she was promoted to Professor in 2003 and was recognized as the William S. Cross Professor of Mechanical Engineering in 2005. She was appointed as the Head of the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering at The Pennsylvania State University in July 2006. Dr. Thole has published over 180 peer-reviewed archival journal and conference papers and advised over 60 masters theses and doctoral dissertations.. She founded the Experimental and Computational Convection Laboratory (ExCCL) in which studies of convective heat transfer are conducted with an emphasis on cooling of gas turbine airfoils. Research accomplishments include: the development of a novel fillet design, now used in turbine designs, to reduce heat transfer arising from vortices; and guidance for microchannel cooling through the acquisition of detailed data. Over $10M in funded research has been acquired since 1995 from the Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, United Technologies, Siemens Power Generation, Solar Turbines, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Dr. Thole directs the Penn State Center of Excellence for Pratt & Whitney. She is a Fellow of ASME and serves as a member of the Board of Directors for the International Gas Turbine Institute, as the Vice Chair of the ME Department Head Executive Committee, as a member of the Vision 2030 Committee, and as the Chair of the Committee on Honors. She has been recognized by the U.S. White House Champion of Change for recruitment efforts in STEM and by Penn State’s Rosemary Schraer Mentoring Award.

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B. S. 1982 Mechanical Engineering, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign M. S. 1984 Mechanical Engineering, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign Ph.D. 1992 Mechanical Engineering, University of Texas, Austin
Volunteer Opportunities
  • I am willing to be contacted by educators for possible speaking engagements in schools or in after school programs or summer camps.
  • I am willing to host a field trip to my place of employment.
  • I am willing to be contacted about potential job shadowing by interested students.
  • I am willing to be interviewed by interested students via email.
  • I am willing to answer written interview questions to be posted on the EngineerGirl website.
Latest Questions
  • Alex, Kelowna

    Added Friday, January 8, 2016 at 11:13 AM

    So I am currently in my second year taking a bachelors in applied science. I am going into mechanical engineering but I am worried that civil engineering is better. I have searched job types for mechanical and a few sound interesting but civil there are also a few that I know I'd enjoy. I was also thinking that I would get a masters degree in arcetecture. Would it be more difficult if I take mechanical engeering as an undergrad? What are the types of mechanical engineering I know the ones ...
    Answers 1
    Karen Thole, Pennsylvania State University
    Answered Friday, January 8, 2016 at 11:13 AM

    Mechanical engineering is one of the broadest engineering disciplines because it was one of the first engineering disciplines many years ago.  Many of the other engineering disciplines, such as aero, electrical, bioengineering, and others actually ...

    Read More
  • Tierra, MD asked Karen Thole, Pennsylvania State University

    Added Friday, March 30, 2012 at 5:26 AM

    Hi, I was wondering what is mechanical engineering and what they do? I am considering becoming a mechanical engineer after I become a computer programmer. Also does computer programming help in mechanical engineering? Does taking the International Baccalaureate program help in the engineering field? Also I am entering highschool and am going to be taking the IB program.
    Related to Engineering Skills, Mechanical, Work Environment
    Answers 2
    Karen Thole, Pennsylvania State University
    Answered Friday, March 30, 2012 at 5:26 AM
    Dear Tierra from Md: It is very exciting to hear of your interest in mechanical engineering. I will attempt to address a few of your questions: It is difficult to say what mechanical engineers do not do in terms of jobs. Our Penn State ...Read More
    Marita Cheng, The University of Melbourne/ Imperial College London
    Answered Friday, March 30, 2012 at 5:26 AM
    Hi Tierra, A mechanical engineer uses physics and material science to solve real-world problems, such as working on car engines, rockets and planes; manufacturing plants, and medical devices. Doing computer programming before doing engineering will ...Read More
  • Kelly, Connecticut

    Added Thursday, March 29, 2012 at 4:32 AM

    OK - Every time I make this statement, the response I usually get from people is that they laugh! My family and I have taken several cruises and I absolutely love it. I am amazed at the ship, the design from bow to stern I love everything about it. I am interested in working on building or designing parts of the cruise ship in some way shape or form, but don't know what type of engineering that would fall under and more importantly what colleges would offer those types of studies. Can you ...
    Answers 1
    Karen Thole, Pennsylvania State University
    Answered Thursday, March 29, 2012 at 4:32 AM
    Dear Kelly, Thank you so much for your questions regarding ship design. This is certainly an exciting field and one that is looking for more engineers! My suggestion to you is to major in mechanical engineering. You cannot go wrong in choosing ...Read More
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