Class of 2022: Electrical engineering student sets sights on graduation, infinity, and beyond
If you asked aspiring astronaut and science lover Kathryn Robertson to describe her family dynamic, you might be surprised by her response.
“I’m the odd one out of my family.”
As the second oldest of four siblings, what makes this Dayton, Maryland, native unique? She has known that she wanted to be an engineer since she was in the third grade.
“My siblings and I have very distinct interests,” said Robertson “Nobody else in my family is interested in STEM or has a career in STEM. My parents are also successful and very supportive of my aspirations, but neither of them is an engineer.”
This week, Robertson will graduate with a degree in electrical engineering from Virginia Tech's Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
Early interest in engineering
Robertson has dreamed of going to space since she was a young child. In middle school, she developed her engineering skills in a tech club, despite being the only girl. She learned how to use various power tools to create an array of innovative devices: a small hovercraft made out of a foam takeout container, a jelly bean dispenser, and even a solar-powered Lego car.
“My mom said that at the end of tech club every week, I would come running out of the school with a smile beaming on my face and I was so excited to share what I had made,” Robertson said. “The goal of this club was to let our imaginations run wild, and it really sparked my interest in engineering.”
Although Robertson was the only girl in the club, she didn’t really focus on that fact. She was just another student interested in building cool things and learning more about where her interest in engineering could take her.
“Being one of very few females in a male-driven field has never deterred me,” Robertson said. “I always knew that this was my dream, so I wasn’t going to let that stop me.”
Robertson continued her involvement in engineering through high school. She participated in the Project Lead the Way Engineering program and completed a senior capstone through the NASA HUNCH program. Alongside two other students, Robertson developed a system for injecting low-melting point metals into a 3D-printed mold to manufacture tools aboard the International Space Station.
“My high school capstone was my first major experience with NASA, and I gained valuable experience from this project that I still use to this day,” she said.
Finding her way at Virginia Tech
When Robertson arrived at Virginia Tech and joined the Galipatia Living Learning Community, she was happy to learn that she was one of many women interested in engineering. This group helps first-year engineering students with the transition from high school to college. Robertson later paid it forward by sharing her personal experiences and design knowledge through C-Tech2, an experiential program for rising high school juniors and seniors interested in engineering.
“Being surrounded by strong female role models within my living-learning community not only helped me make connections and friendships that will last a lifetime, but it inspired me to give back by participating in programs like C-Tech2 and Peer Mentoring with the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity so I could serve in this same capacity for other young women,” Robertson said.
After her first year at Virginia Tech, Robertson continued to find support and a sense of belonging through student design teams. She has participated in NASA Micro-g NExT, under the umbrella program Archimedes Society, as well as BOLT and RockSat-X.
Students in RockSat-X design, test, build, and launch a unique payload each year from NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Through her involvement, Robertson gained experience working in teams, designing printed circuit boards, and learning about radio frequency systems.
“RockSat-X is based out of the Advanced Engineering Design Laboratory, and I initially joined because it aligned with my career goal of one day working for NASA,” said Robertson. “That’s the design team that has given me a lot of my hands-on experience.”
NASA dreams become reality
Robertson would take that experience and apply it directly to her work during co-ops at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
The aspiring astronaut had applied for several internships during her first year, and even though she wasn’t selected at that time, she didn’t give up. She applied again during her sophomore year and received multiple calls about spring co-op positions.
“I spent a lot of time contemplating the decision to take a semester off of school to work, pushing my graduation date, and moving to a place I had never been to before. But in the end, I realized that I may never have had that opportunity again,” she said.
In the summer of 2019, as part of NASA’s Multi-Center Pathways Program, Robertson was sworn in as a civil servant working for the government and rotated among the three space centers. She was the youngest of nine students selected for the program and committed to completing three tours. She started her journey at the Johnson Space Center, where she worked on the development of the ultrahigh frequency radio for the xEMU space suit.
“That internship opened my eyes to what I’d really like to do,” Robertson said.
Her subsequent tours at the Kennedy Space Center and the Marshall Space Flight Center in 2020 and the Johnson Space Center again in 2021 came up against pandemic-related challenges; however, Robertson gained invaluable experience in a remote and hybrid setting that allowed her to problem-solve and use the electronics and equipment in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
Her career takes flight
In August, Robertson will return to the Johnson Space Center (JSC) as a full-time electronics engineer. As she prepares to join more than 3,000 NASA colleagues in Houston, she feels as though she's finally answering her true career calling.
“I have formed great working relationships with other interns at JSC who will soon become my co-workers when I start full time at NASA,” Robertson said. “While my work environment has typically been male-dominated, this has not caused any challenges for me. Everyone is very accepting, and my mentors have been instrumental in helping me achieve my goals.”
Robertson will be the first of her siblings to relocate outside of Maryland after graduation, but her parents and siblings couldn’t be happier for her, she said. They know this is something she’s been working toward her entire life.
“They make jokes about how they don’t want me to become an astronaut or go to Mars, but if I get the opportunity, I am definitely going to take it,” Robertson said. “Sorry, Mom!”