Elegant Tension

Kathleen Stebe believes that the best questions yield transformative answers. She aims to inspire "creative tension," thinking in terms not only of reality but of vision. Stebe, the Richer and Elizabeth Goodwin Professor of Engineering and Applied Science, is the first female chair of CBE at Penn. Joining Penn Engineering from Johns Hopkins University, Stebe brings a guiding principle: "To harness the talents of people to move society forward." Twenty-five years ago, Stebe nearly chose another path.

The Almost-Poet

A student so accomplished that she skipped senior year of high school to start college early, Stebe found herself drawn to the lilt of the French language and the music of poetry. "I simply knew I was going to be a poet," she says. Then, on course for a liberal arts degree at the City University of New York (CUNY), Stebe took a required economics class. The French would call what happened next le coup de foudre—the lightening bolt.

Prompted by what she calls "drawing-to experiences" with engineers as an undergraduate, Stebe then earned her M.S.E. and Ph.D. in engineering at CUNY. The daughter of a dancer and a mathematician, Stebe took particular pleasure in the creativity of applied science, approaching problems grounded in "very beautiful facts and constructs" not only to find the correct answer, but to do something new.
With the mentorship of chemical engineer Charles Maldarelli at CUNY, Stebe began her career-long interest in capillary phenomena. Stebe studies problems dominated by surface tension, from the shapes of drops and bubbles to interactions between floating objects. Her research yields results with real-world applications. Understanding how drops become elongated and break in a flow field is impor­tant in lab-on-a-chip devices. Understanding how particles assemble into structures is useful in nanomaterials assembly.

Involve Me and I Learn

In training the next generation of CBE scientists, Stebe takes a page from her own education. She draws from the teaching style of her thesis advisor, who valued curiosity and creativity and made his classroom and laboratory safe spaces to ask questions, not to know the answer and to figure it out.

Stebe calls teaching fun, and jokes that "it's like the theater where no one is allowed to leave." Yet as she talks seriously about her graduate students, Stebe says she most enjoys "reconstructing why things are the way they are. Being in the classroom keeps you grounded and honest." She also appreciates the "seriousness" of Penn students. "They are very eager to move themselves and their institution forward," says Stebe.

Students are indeed learning from a master. Stebe has set milestones in the field of physio-chemical hydrodynamics and directs her attention to cutting-edge problems at the nanoscale. Active in her lab are projects on how to organize nanoparticles on surfaces for such novel applications as coatings, energy conversion and artificial membranes.

Stebe's vision is to help the CBE department, with faculty experts using materials, processes and technologies, to better society and further leverage their expertise. "My role," says Stebe, "is to bring attention to these efforts, so the department achieves the international renown deserved for such achievements."

View the full article in Penn Engineering magazine: "Elegant Tension" by Jennifer Baldino Bonett.

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View Kathleen Stebe's faculty profile

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