Kathryn J. Wahl currently heads the Surface Chemistry Branch of the Chemistry Division, part of the Materials Science and Component Technology Directorate at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL). She received her PhD degree in materials science and engineering from Northwestern University in 1992, and a BA degree in physics and mathematics from St. Olaf College in 1987. Wahl began her career at NRL as a National Research Council post-doctoral fellow before being hired by NRL in 1995. Concurrent with her work at NRL, she has served twice as interim program officer at the Office of Naval Research (ONR) in the areas of solid state and materials chemistry (2001-2002) and coatings and environmental quality (2018-2019).
Wahl has been active in MRS throughout her professional career. She has served as symposium organizer for Dynamics in Confined Systems (2002) and guest editor of the Journal of Materials Research special issue on nanoindentation (2003). She was guest editor of the MRS Bulletin special issue on In situ tribology in 2008. She served as co-chair of the 2011 MRS Fall Meeting. Most recently, she served as member of the tutorial review committee from 2015-2020. She has also been active in the American Vacuum Society (AVS), Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers (STLE) and American Chemical Society (ACS). She has served as program chair for the International Conference on Metallurgical Coatings and Thin Films (ICMC-TF) in 2009 as well as local arrangements chair for the 2003 Annual Meeting for the AVS, and as program chair of the International Joint Tribology Meeting in 2011 and chair of the Awards Committee in 2000 for STLE. She chaired the 2008 Gordon Research Conference on Tribology. She currently serves on the editorial boards of Tribology Letters and Tribology Transactions, and has served on external advisory panels for materials science departments for universities in the United States and abroad. Wahl has been awarded the Department of the Navy’s Meritorious Civilian Service Award and has been named Fellow of the AVS and STLE.
During her career at NRL, Wahl has worked on a broad range of materials problems in adhesion, friction and wear. She specializes in developing a fundamental understanding of slip and adhesion through creating instrumentation and experiments that probe the contacts in situ
. She has applied these approaches to study interfacial contact problems ranging from nanometer-scale to those in full-scale engineered systems. She works to develop highly interdisciplinary teams to address complex interfacial materials problems. Currently she leads basic research efforts to understand barnacle adhesion and marine biofouling with colleagues across NRL and Academia combining biology, chemistry and materials sciences; this team addresses the problem with approaches ranging from proteomics, biochemistry, multispectral imaging, to fracture mechanics. Other recent research efforts involve examining fundamental processes in marine tribo-corrosion of passivating alloys and model additive manufactured materials. The focus of both programs is to perform world class research in Navy relevant subject matter and enable personnel to develop superb technical skills and connections to both the DoD and global S&T communities. At NRL, Wahl has had the opportunity to work with, mentor, and be mentored by, fantastic people, as well as reinvent herself. She has been able to explore marine biology with barnacle adhesive one day and be an engineer in a hard hat analyzing and inspecting water lubricated bearings the next.