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October 3, 2021

Focus on new faculty: Katherine Fu, adding a human element to engineering design

Written By: Webmanager


Popular culture often references people who are left-brained or right brained—creating somewhat of an either-or among those who are deeply analytical and methodical in their thinking and people who are creative, free-thinking and artistic.

Meet Katherine (Kate) Fu, however, and you quickly realize you don’t need to choose sides. Fu elegantly marries her love of all things science and math with her passion for art and design—a mix that how allows her to develop methods and tools that foster more effective and inspired engineering design and innovation. “I think we often overlook the human element of engineering, and being able to study it brings so much richness to our approach and practice,” she says. “Design is so universal—and the way we study and formalize it allows us to apply our methods to nearly any problem, including the major challenges facing us today, like climate change, transportation and health. This far-reaching impact is exciting and motivating to me.”

In August 2021, Fu joined the Department of Mechanical Engineering as an associate professor, coming to the UW-Madison from Georgia Tech, where she served on the faculty for seven years and earned tenure. “I’m so excited about all that is happening at the university,” she says. “The makerspace, collaborations across campus and with local industry partners, and being able to meet and work with students who are passionate about engineering design—to name a few.”

Fu cites a series of mentors who have helped not only to shape her career, but also, she says, to change her life and help her become the person she is today. Among them was Deborah Waldron, the high school physics teacher whom Fu says was influential in her decision to pursue engineering.

And while her older brother chose to study mechanical engineering at Cornell University, for her undergraduate education, Fu chose Brown University because of its innovative flexible curriculum. With no core requirements outside of its degree requirements, Brown provided Fu the flexibility to fill the rest of her schedule however she chose. “With Rhode Island School of Design right next door, I filled my electives with art and design courses—my other love. It was the perfect place for me,” she says.

In graduate school at Carnegie Mellon, she followed a similar trajectory. One of her faculty co-advisors, Jonathan Cagan, is an expert in engineering design and product development, while the other, Kenneth Kotovsky, is a psychologist. “I was able to learn how to study engineers and designers using techniques from cognitive science to better support innovation and creativity,” says Fu.

At Carnegie Mellon, through postdoctoral positions at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Singapore University of Technology and Design, and as she began her faculty career at Georgia Tech, Fu has used cognitive science tools to help her understand and improve engineering design methods and processes. In 2019, she received an NSF CAREER Award to study the role that error management cognitive bias plays in the design process, and to identify and test ways to mitigate that bias.

As she moves to UW-Madison, she’ll continue to work to help expand understanding of designers and design by applying mixed-methods approaches, paradigms and expertise, and she’ll use advanced computation—including data mining, modeling and artificial intelligence—to provide information to designers to improve their design output and innovation potential.

While Fu already has earned several honors for her research, including the 2020 ASME Design Theory and Methodology Young Investigator Award, she also cares deeply about developing people, and says her approach to mentorship is rooted in compassion, flexibility, respect and trust. “It is crucial to me that my lab group has a culture of inclusivity and equity; I seek out mentees who come from diverse backgrounds, and I work to mentor them in the ways that work best for them,” she says.

She also encourages her students to mentor each other, which helps them deepen their collaboration, communication and delegation skills. “It is my goal that my students graduate from my mentorship with a desire to pay forward the guidance and compassion they received during their time with me, with particular importance placed upon fostering an inclusive, diverse and equitable community around them,” says Fu.

In addition to mentoring the students in her own lab, Fu has been an informal mentor for many others and has served as the faculty advisor for the women’s graduate student group in mechanical engineering. She also has organized and hosted the graduate recruiting diversity reception to welcome prospective underrepresented students to the Georgia Tech campus.

At UW-Madison, Fu also will pursue initiatives to help the campus continue to improve in those areas. It’s an area she is particularly passionate about, and her contributions range from the local (working with a team of women to develop a new mechanical engineering girl scout badge) to the national (co-leading the committee for broadening participation of underrepresented groups within the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Design Engineering Division for seven years).

Not surprisingly, Fu approaches diversity, equity and inclusion as a design challenge. “I hope to be part of a network at UW-Madison that deeply cares about diversity, equity and inclusion, and actively works toward improving the climate of the university every day,” she says. “Most of my efforts have been bootstrapped, pulling together allies and like-minded collaborators to make change happen at a grassroots level. I hope to gain inspiration, connectivity, and empowerment from my colleagues, and to help mobilize and empower people throughout the university to take on these tough challenges. Wherever I am, I will continue on my trajectory, and push myself without fear or hesitation to dismantle the attitudes, practices, and policies that oppress and limit women, minorities and other underrepresented groups of people.”