Washington People: Katharine Flores

Flores brings dedication, leadership, expertise to materials science program

Katharine Flores
Katharine Flores, the Christopher I. Byrnes Professor and director of the Institute of Materials Science & Engineering, helped launch the materials science doctoral program and now aspires to build a national research center. (Photo: Jerry Naunheim Jr/Washington University)

Metallic glass. The concept sounds like a contradiction to most lay people, but for Katharine Flores, the Christopher I. Byrnes Professor and director of the Institute of Materials Science & Engineering (IMSE) at Washington University in St. Louis, the unique material was the well-timed breakthrough that set her on her path as a leader and scholar.

Flores, who earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the School of Engineering in 1995, was first drawn to materials research during a co-op experience with McDonnell-Douglas Corp.

“I was fascinated by how you select a material for an application and how important that is to the final design,” Flores said. “You’re designing something from the atomic level up.” 

She would go on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees in materials science and engineering from Stanford University. During this time, metallic glass would make its comeback in the materials space. Originally invented in the 1960s, metallic glass is a metallic material that has a disordered atomic structure. Most metals typically have a crystalline structure — that is, one that is highly organized.

Building a new program

Flores’ first faculty position was with the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at The Ohio State University. She would remain there for 10 years before a fortuitous meeting with Kenneth Kelton, a professor of physics in Arts & Sciences at WashU, who also researches metallic glass, at a professional conference.

“In his presentation, the WashU seal was on his opening slide,” Flores said. “I was surprised because I didn’t usually see materials people from WashU. It was a weird confluence of coincidences that WashU was starting to do something serious in the materials domain when I ran into Ken.”

They kept in touch for years before Kelton asked Flores to come to WashU to present a seminar and to provide guidance on the development of the university’s new materials science and engineering division.

“At that point in my career, I was thinking about what I wanted to do next,” Flores said. “Our meetings led to a conversation about the new unit, and I knew it would be a way of moving my career forward, giving back to WashU and bringing an area I was really excited about to a new level of prominence at the university.”

In 2012, Flores joined the School of Engineering as a professor of mechanical engineering & materials science and associate director of the new IMSE. Under her leadership, the institute launched its doctoral degree program in materials science and engineering in 2013, and since then, more than two-dozen students have graduated from the program.

Read the full profile on the McKelvey School of Engineering website.

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