Looking backward, looking forward

Honoring a friend in composites, and focusing on the leaders of the future.

Katie Thorp died on July 7. She was only 51. Katie, a Ph.D, had been in and around the composites industry for more than 25 years, most recently as a materials engineer at the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OH, US. I did not know Katie very well, but I wish I had. People I know who worked with her and knew her well have extolled her virtues as a strong composites proponent with a great sense of humor who was heavily involved in SAMPE and a dynamic industry leader and mentor.

Whenever the composites industry loses someone of Katie’s stature, knowledge and experience, I am reminded of the history we possess, and the thousands of people who have brought this industry to where it is today. I am reminded that although we talk about composites manufacturing as a massive agglomeration that fabricates composite parts and structures, it is, in fact, a community of people who work together to solve problems and meet the real needs of customers, who also are people. 

With Katie’s death, we also lost her personal history — the stories of her contributions to composites, her memories of triumphs and stumbles, tales of her first job, tales of her most memorable accomplishment. Katie left behind, of course, a web of colleagues, friends and associates, who each benefited in their own way from Katie’s work with composites, and these people now bear responsibility for carrying Katie’s legacy forward.

Katie’s passing has called to my mind that there are many, many more people like her, working in composites today, with decades of accumulated knowledge and experience, helping shape ideas and technologies. Each of these people has a story to tell as well. It is those very stories that we have been collecting for the past year via the CW Talks podcast. We are attempting, with the podcast, to preserve composites history, to understand the people who have helped composites manufacturing become what it is today, and to learn from them how they think this industry will evolve going forward.

But as much as we want to preserve and cherish memories, it’s forward that we must go. Katie’s death marks a milestone in composites history, but our professional future will be written by those she leaves behind, including the thousands of young people who are joining the composites community today. Indeed, many of you reading this have likely already developed or soon will discover the technological innovations that will propel composites onward.

What will those innovations be? Who will develop them? How will they be developed? Will they be pursued intentionally or discovered inadvertently? Will the composites industry be ready for the innovation, or will it be premature?

However it happens, it promises to be interesting, occasionally thrilling and sometimes frightening. But in the end, it will come down to people — you. Each of you — each one of us — has a story and a place in the history of composites. And if we’re willing, dedicated to working with our web of colleagues, and committed to the composite community, we, like Katie, can leave a lasting legacy.