News Release

News Obituary: Professor Joanna McKittrick

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Professor Joanna McKittrick, an expert in materials science, passed away Nov. 15, 2019.

San Diego, Calif., Dec. 12, 2019 -- 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 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 and their mutual interest in materials science created a strong bond between them and led to research collaborations.

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

Research legacy

Left: McKittrick and colleagues examined how the boxfish's shell could be used for armor.
Right: Researchers led by McKittrick discovered a new phosphor material for white LEDs. 

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.

Goto FlickrMcKittrick unpacking specimens during a tour of her lab for high school students. 
Photo: courtesy Wen Yang

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. For many years, she was the faculty advisor of the UC San Diego chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers student organization. In addition, her research group always included women and minorities. She welcomed high school students from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border in her laboratory 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 2012, Graeve said. “I really truly believe that a lot of my success has to do with Joanna. 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, her former and current students say.

 “She was the ideal mentor,” said Michael Frank, who graduated from McKittrick’s research group in 2017. “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 another group in the Department of Chemistry. While in her lab, Frank and his wife had their third child, a boy (in addition to their two older daughters). 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, who graduated in 2014, 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 Ph.D. 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. The interview had gone well and the lab seemed to be a good fit. But what sealed the deal for Garner was to see one of McKittrick’s dogs quietly huddled under her desk.

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, January 31, 2020, beginning at 4 p.m. at the UC San Diego Faculty Club.

McKittrick is also preceded in death by her beloved niece, Elizabeth Boshardy nee Cleveland, and grandniece Hannah Elizabeth Boshardy.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the ACLU.

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A group photo of McKittrick (second from right) and some of her graduate students at La Jolla Shores.


Media Contacts

Ioana Patringenaru
Jacobs School of Engineering