Pamela Norris is Executive Dean of the University of Virginia School of Engineering and the Frederick Tracy Morse Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

She is recognized globally as a leading expert in nanoscale heat transfer, especially interfacial thermal transport with a focus on thermal management across a range of length scales. She routinely chairs and speaks during international conferences on those subjects, and has published more than 100 heavily cited refereed journal papers. She holds patents for applications of aerogels in areas ranging from biological warfare detection to lab-on-a-chip to thermal insulation, along with patents for innovative thermal management techniques for jet-blast deflectors. She has served as the principal investigator or co-principal investigator on more than 45 sponsored research projects representing well over $25M from DOD, NSF, industry and foundations. 

Pam is well-known for her mentoring skills and dedication to increasing the representation and retention of women faculty in the STEM disciplines, serving as the Director of UVA’s NSF ADVANCE Institutional Transformation program. In 2016 she was honored with the Society of Women Engineers Distinguished Engineering Educator Award “for enduring, positive influence on students’ lives as a gifted teacher, mentor and role model; and for promoting greater diversity in STEM higher education” as well as the UVA Zintl Leadership award honoring “excellence in work that makes a direct and significant impact on the core academic enterprise of the University and an unusually high degree of service to the University, within and beyond the expectations of the woman’s position description.”  

Tell us about your background

I grew up in Portsmouth, Virginia. A first-generation college graduate, I decided to become an engineer in fourth grade, after visiting a mobile lab sponsored by NASA meant to introduce young children to engineering. I was fortunate that my young, single mom, who really had no idea what engineering was, nor that it might be considered an odd choice for a young girl at that time, instilled in me the confidence that I could be whatever I set my mind to. After graduating from a local college, Old Dominion University, in 1987, my department chair suggested I think about graduate school, something that I never even considered. That opened a whole new world for me. In 1992, I became the third female ever to receive a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech. After meeting Chang Lin-Tien, then Chancellor of UC Berkeley, at his distinguished lecture entitled “Excellence through Diversity,” I decided to totally switch my research area from the rather traditional field of heat transfer in diesel engines to a new, interdisciplinary field, nanoscale heat transfer. I also accepted a post-doc position in Dr. Tien’s lab. After my post-doc, I accepted a position at the University of Virginia, the flagship university in my home state, where I’ve been very happy and highly successful, and where I established both the Nanoscale Heat Transfer Lab and the Aerogel Research Lab.    

While my scientific contributions have been numerous, I believe the most important work I have done has been through my mentoring of students, faculty and others, with a particular emphasis on increasing the sense of belonging of those typically underrepresented in the sciences and engineering.  I take every opportunity to encourage others, and to share my own experiences and lessons learned, so that everyone knows that if you believe in yourself, utilize your networks and resources, seize opportunities and work diligently, then you can achieve beyond your wildest dreams, as I believe I have done.

Why did you become a scientist?

I decided to become an engineer in fourth grade when I learned that my two favorite topics, science and math, were the fields upon which engineering is based. When I attended college orientation and was told most of what I would be learning in my engineering studies was “critical problem-solving skills” and “with these skills you can become anything you want to be,” I knew I had made the right choice. I think it’s important for kids to recognize that you don’t need superior math and science talent to become an engineer; these are just two of the important tools in an engineer’s toolkit. To succeed in engineering, you have to be creative and inquisitive, with a passion to make a positive impact on the world, and you must be armed with a solid toolkit including communication skills, creativity, teamwork, statistical skills, ethics, etc., along with strong math and science abilities.

The next time you speak with a young female researcher who shows passion for STEM, what would you most want her to know?

I’d want her to know that there are few other professions in which you can make a bigger contribution to humanity than in engineering. We design clean energy sources, provide safe infrastructure, design effective safety restraint systems, invent new types of diagnostic medical scanners, create faster microprocessors, synthesize biologically compatible materials for artificial limbs and organs – and the list of advances keeps growing. Engineers are constantly learning and adjusting to the changing world, and are helping push society forward, creating a better way of life. Our work is exciting, challenging, stimulating, and usually requires working in teams with diverse backgrounds and expertise. The world’s most challenging problems will require innovative solutions, and our best hope for addressing these challenges lies in the types of creative solutions that result when diverse teams work together.

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Pamela M. Norris

Engineering, University of Virignia