Sheila Widnall grew up in Tacoma, Washington, near McChord Air Force Base. “All the airplanes heading to McChord flew right over the house,” she says. “The sky was full of planes, and I found them captivating. I just knew I wanted to be part of this.”
Widnall earned three degrees from MIT in aeronautics and astronautics and joined the faculty in 1964. She served as Secretary of the Air Force from ’93 to ’97, the first woman ever to head a military service. She oversaw the recruiting, training, and equipping of 800,000 men and women, and was responsible for a $62 billion budget.
A world-renowned engineer, she holds three patents and is widely known for her work in fluid dynamics, most notably for studies of aerodynamic noise, turbulence, and vortex flows.
In 2003, Widnall was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She served on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, and is now vice president of the National Academy of Engineering.
“I feel very deeply about values,” says Widnall, under whose leadership the Air Force renewed its commitment to its core values — integrity, service, and excellence. “The Air Force’s values are ones that MIT also shares,” she says. “Values will elevate your life to a higher plane, give you a psychic reward, and make you more effective. These qualities bring out in people the willingness to reach for higher goals.”
In fact, she says, it was observing for decades how MIT upheld the highest standards that taught her that honoring values first always leads to right action. It is this idea that served as a north star, guiding her to make tough decisions.
“Serving the nation is a very important calling,” she says. “But I am a child of MIT. The Institute defined for me the right route. I learned about the boundaries that you just never cross. Learning good values gives you the backbone to lead.”