MentorNet Alumna: Being a Woman in Engineering is "Fun"
Prof. Katherine Kuchenbecker, MentorNet protege and mentor
"Young people can pursue whatever career they want, regardless of gender, ethnicity, etc." Those are the words of Dr. Katherine Kuchenbecker, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics at the University of Pennsylvania, and a former MentorNet protégé.
Now a faculty advisor for Penn's Society of Women Engineers chapter, Kuchenbecker won Penn Engineering's Ford Motor Company Award for Faculty Advising in May and was named one of Popular Science's 2010 "Brilliant 10" - one of the ten most accomplished and promising scientists in the nation.
So, what's it like being a woman in a male-dominated field?
"Just because you’re a little different doesn’t mean you can’t succeed," she said. "It’s fun to help broaden the imagination of what people think about engineers, what engineers do. They work in teams and solve problems."
When Kuchenbecker signed up to be a MentorNet protégé during her fifth year of graduate school at Stanford University, she found a great mentor in Dr. Elisa Barney Smith, a Boise State professor of Electrical Engineering. Though in a different field than Kuchenbecker, Smith helped her decide that she wanted to become a professor and guided her through the job search process. “Having someone in my life who wasn’t evaluating me…was so useful," Kuchenbecker notes.
What is perhaps most encouraging to young women engineers is that Kuchenbecker very rarely encounters sexist beliefs. She has been warmly welcomed and supported by her colleagues at Penn and in the worldwide robotics research community at large. In fact, people she meets outside of academia are sometimes surprised to learn she is an engineering professor, since she doesn’t fit the common cultural stereotype, but their initial surprise is usually quickly replaced by enthusiasm.
During Kuchenbecker’s sixth year of grad school, Smith helped her through the job application process. She applied for post-doc positions and faculty positions simultaneously, and went on more than a dozen interviews. Ultimately, she chose to do a year of post-doctoral work before beginning a faculty position at Penn.
During her post-doc year, she worked with Professor Allison Okamura at Johns Hopkins University, doing work in haptics and medical robotics. Her year at Johns Hopkins gave her the time to get married, develop new research interests, plan for the start of her faculty job, and expand her horizons.
Kuchenbecker also notes that interpersonal support is an important part of grad school and life. During her time at Stanford, she participated regularly in the ME Women’s Group, comprised of female grad students and led by Professor Sheri Sheppard. The ME Women planned a yearly seminar series but also spent time talking about their experiences, sharing the struggles of their studies, and helping each other through the dissertation writing process. "I’ve benefitted from the friendship and guidance of so many different people along my academic career path," Kuchenbecker says.
As a professor, Kuchenbecker continues to value mentoring and building relationships. "My most satisfying moments as a professor are with students. Personal relationships are very satisfying. Students are so grateful that you will spend time with them to help them out."