Profile Story: Kim Hambuchen, PhD
LEADING LADIES IN STEM: An interview with Kim Hambuchen, PhD
By Ila Friedman-Schroit
It was the fear of failing the same engineering class for a second time that paved the path for Kim Hambuchen’s successful career in robotics.
Kim planned to major in bio-medical engineering, a degree that would set her on the path to apply for medical school. But after withdrawing from a prerequisite class in electrical engineering, fearing failure a second time, she was having doubts about her major. Kim began doubting her abilities to master the engineering concepts. Today, she credits an encouraging professor who recognized her abilities and insisted that she pursue an engineering degree.
After it was clear her second attempt at the prerequisite electrical engineering class wasn’t working out, Kim headed to the department’s chair to let her know that she was withdrawing again, and dropping engineering altogether.
“During my second go-around, I had a female professor who was much more encouraging than the previous professor,” says Kim, “The head of department said that not only am I going to remain in the class, I was going to add electrical engineering to my major.”
Kim continued enrolling in more engineering classes, “I realized I enjoyed the electrical engineering work by the time I was a senior, and I intended to pursue robotics as my graduate field of study,” says Kim. She ultimately went on to earn a PhD in electrical engineering.
Reaching The Last Frontier
Looking back, Kim says she always enjoyed and excelled at math, “It was so easy and fun,” she recalls. She also enjoyed physics-type science, “I had an older brother majoring in engineering so I knew about the topic and understood that since math and science were my fortes, engineering was probably the direction for me.”
Kim says she didn’t really have a role model as a child, “I knew I wanted to be a “business woman” and carry a briefcase and have a corner office with windows, but that wasn’t specific to a person, just the 80’s exerting it’s influence on me; I always imagined large shoulder pads in my business suit while sitting in that corner office.”
While in high school in a small town in Arkansas, Kim took advantage of all the AP classes her high school offered. She also attended a summer STEM high school program at Vanderbilt University. This was her first introduction to Vanderbilt University and it was an easy decision for her to attend college there. Kim would remain at Vanderbilt University for her PhD. While earning her graduate degree, she accepted a fellowship with NASA’s Johnson’s Space Center and subsequently a post-doctorate position, which led to a full-time job.
In a phone conversation from her office at JSC, Kim says she’s excited about the future of robotics and working on the development of robots we’ve seen only in Hollywood movies, “Robotics capabilities changed dramatically in the past decade with the increase of processing power, the development of sophisticated sensors, and cloud servers allowing scientists to collaborate on shared open source software.”
Kim’s shares her advice for girls and women pursuing careers in STEM:
“Failure is an option. That’s how you figure out how to do things.”
Photo: Kim with Valkyrie at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
Kim was part of the team that developed the bipedal humanoid in a 15 month time span.