College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

In Memory: Distinguished Professor Pat Thiel

The obituary for Patricia Theil is found here.

Updated on Oct. 5, 2020: In recognition of Thiel’s contributions, Iowa State University will name the north and south lobbies of Hach Hall in her honor; to be referred to as Thiel North and Thiel South. Forthcoming signage will reflect the names.  

In addition, Thiel’s graduate students are working with the Iowa State University Foundation to establish a memorial fund in her honor. Memorial contributions can be directed to the Pat Thiel Memorial Fund, Iowa State University Foundation, 2505 University Boulevard, Ames, IA  50010. Gifts can also be made online at: (scroll to the bottom of the page for memorial gifts and write in Pat Thiel Memorial Fund).

The Iowa State University Department of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) is very sad to share that Distinguished Professor Patricia “Pat” Thiel passed away on Sept. 7, 2020. Thiel, a distinguished professor with ISU’s Department of Chemistry and MSE, as well as a faculty scientist with Ames Laboratory, was a faculty member at Iowa State for 37 years, including roles as Chair of the Department of Chemistry and Chief Research Officer of the Ames Laboratory.

Thiel, whose research interests were properties and control of metal surfaces and graphitic surfaces and formation and evolution of exotic nanostructures on surfaces, was a beloved professor and was very popular with students and faculty alike. She enjoyed teaching and mentoring students and was recognized with awards for her role as an educator. Thiel was incredibly successful in her field and was well known for her research into surface properties and structures of complex metallic phases known as quasicrystals.

In 2019, she was elected to a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. At that time, Iowa State President Wendy Wintersteen said, “Dr. Thiel’s election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is an extraordinary endorsement of her research and scholarly excellence. We are very proud of her achievement, and we deeply appreciate her leadership in the pursuit of excellence at Iowa State University.”

Thiel was also elected a fellow of the Materials Research Society, the American Physics Society (APS) and the American Vacuum Society (AVS). She has been an Invitation Fellow of the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science and has received a Department of Energy Award for Outstanding Scientific Accomplishment in Materials Chemistry.

In 2014, Thiel received the AVS Medard W. Welch Award, the society’s highest honor, which recognizes outstanding research in the fields of materials, interfaces and processing. She was recognized for for her “seminal contributions to the understanding of quasicrystalline surfaces and thin-film nucleation and growth.” The Welch Award was established in 1969; Thiel was the first woman to win the Welch Award in its 44-year history. An in-depth interview was done by AVS with Thiel in 2014, upon her receiving the award; the interview reflects upon various aspects of her personal and professional life, and the transcript can be read in full here.

In 2010, Thiel received the American Chemical Society (ACS) Arthur W. Adamson Award for Distinguished Service in the Advancement of Surface Chemistry, and again she was the first woman to receive that award.

Thiel received many additional awards and honors, including the National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator Award; a Sloan Foundation Fellowship; a Dreyfus Foundation Teacher Scholarship; an honorary degree from Université de Lorraine in Nancy, France; the David J. Adler Lectureship Award of the APS; and various teaching and service awards from Iowa State. She has served on numerous boards and committees for major scientific organizations and has been a member of editorial advisory boards for 10 journals. She has authored or edited more than 300 scientific publications.

Thiel, a Minnesota native, earned her B.A. in chemistry at Macalester College in 1975 and her Ph.D. in chemistry (with W. H. Weinberg) at the California Institute of Technology in 1981. After postdoctoral work at the University of Munich (with G. Ertl, who received the 2007 Nobel Prize in Chemistry) as a von Humboldt Fellow, she joined the technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories, at Livermore, then moved to Iowa State in 1983, where she stayed until her passing.

Thiel’s husband, James Evans, is an Iowa State professor of physics and astronomy and a professor of mathematics, and he is affiliated with Ames Laboratory, as well. In 2014, she said of her husband, “Another big development for me was meeting my husband, Jim Evans. We struck up a collaboration. He’s a theorist, and we’ve had a very fruitful theory/experiment collaboration almost the whole time I’ve been at Iowa State.” When asked if she met him in Ames, Thiel answered, “Yes, I did. We started dating after I’d been there for a couple of years. So we have never had to both look for jobs simultaneously, which has been a real gift, and it turned out to be a great place to raise our kids. We’ve been happy there.”

Thiel’s two daughters are both engineers, one who graduated from MIT in materials engineering, and the other from Cornell in mechanical engineering. Thiel spoke about her daughters in 2014, joking, “Not like I’m proud of them. No, not at all. Just ask me about them; I’ll tell you everything. [Laughs.]”

MSE Department Faculty Comments on the Memory of Pat Thiel

“One of our own, Pat Thiel, passed away yesterday. Pat was an extraordinary person —  brilliant, kind, and thoughtful. I enjoyed having her in the department and, more importantly, as a friend.”

—Richard LeSar, Interim Department Chair and Professor

“I always enjoyed Pat’s insightful interjections at our faculty meetings and her enthusiasm for her subject, that came over so well in her fine seminar presentations. Most memorable to me was a lunch trip when I had to ride in her rather quirky car. She was an inspiration.”

—Nicola Bowler, Professor

“I can add little beyond what has been shared, other than to say that I too will miss her. I have found that there are not many individuals who are simultaneously so kind and broadly thoughtful where both characteristics are apparent upon first meeting the individual. Pat was a rare exception.”

—Peter Collins, Professor

“What to say? There are no words.”

—Duane Johnson, Professor

“This is sad news of the passing of one of our most respected and esteemed colleagues. Pat and I joined ISU at about the same time, and she has been a friend and colleague ever since. I will deeply miss her gracious smile, kind personality, and collaborative approach to life.”

—Steve Martin, Distinguished Professor

“Pat represented excellence in science and the highest standards in human kindness. May we all keep her example in our minds to preserve her legacy.”

—Iver Anderson, Adjunct Professor and Senior Metallurgist

“Unfortunately I never had chance to interact much with Pat. We only briefly greeted each other in Sigma Xi’s reception. However, when I talked to my Ph.D. advisor few months back, he actually mentioned Pat’s work. She enjoyed a high reputation outside ISU.”

—Shan Jiang, Assistant Professor

“Pat represented the best in science, integrity, and compassion with a rare modesty. I will miss my friend of almost forty years.”

—Mufit Akinc, Professor

“It is really sad. I still remember Pat talking at a faculty meeting in May. I will miss her deeply.”

—Xiaoli Tan, Professor

“Pat was a good friend and colleague. She will be greatly missed.”
—David Jiles, Distinguished Professor

“Pat made huge contributions to our Department, Chemistry and the Ames Lab.  We have all benefited from her quiet guidance from time to time, and many of us would not be where we are but for her.  We will miss her immensely.”

—Alexander King, Professor