Karen A. Thole


For her contributions as a leader in research and education in the field of heat transfer, and for being a leading voice and advocate for women in STEM fields.

Department Head and Professor, Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering, Pennsylvania State University

  • BS, 1982, Mechanical Science & Engineering, University of Illinois
  • MS, 1984, Mechanical Science & Engineering, University of Illinois
  • Ph.D., 1992, Mechanical Engineering, University of Texas, Austin

Karen A. Thole has spent her career in academia touching the lives of students, leading in the field of mechanical science and engineering, and acting as a role model for women in STEM. Thole has served as the head of the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering at Pennsylvania State University since 2006. She has founded two laboratories at Penn State: the Experimental Computational Convection Lab (ExCCL) and the Steady Thermal Aero Research Turbine (START) facility, where she is currently the director. In addition, she serves as director of the Penn State Center of Excellence for Pratt and Whitney. 

Her academic career began in 1994 as an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 1999, she accepted a position in the mechanical engineering department at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, was promoted to professor in 2003, and was recognized as the William S. Cross Professor of Mechanical Engineering in 2005. During her career, Dr. Thole has published over 200 peer-reviewed archival journal and conference papers, advised over 65 masters theses and doctoral dissertations, and garnered more than $22 million in research funding. 

Dr. Thole has received numerous awards for her roles as an educator, researcher, and mentor. The most notable awards include, being recognized by the United States White House as a Champion of Change for STEM, the Rosemary Schraer Mentoring Award, the Howard B. Palmer Faculty Mentoring Award, 2014 Society of Women Engineers’ Distinguished Engineering Educator Award, and the 2016 Edwin F. Church Medal. In September 2015, she earned the George Westinghouse Medal from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, which recognizes eminent achievement of distinguished service in the power field of mechanical engineering. She was recognized for her outstanding contributions toward better cooling of gas turbine airfoils, particularly the discovery of a leading-edge fillet to reduce vortices in airfoil passages and the development of physics-based correlations used by industry for predicting micro-channel cooling and film cooling.

She is a fellow of ASME and has served as the chair of the board of directors for the International Gas Turbine Institute. Her passion to increase the number of women in engineering motivated her to create the Engineering Ambassadors Network. This network is a collaboration of engineering students across universities who are dedicated to changing the conversation middle and high school students have about engineering. Ambassadors seek to educate students on the ways engineers are positively impacting the health, happiness, and safety of our world.