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Mechanical Engineering professor Katherine Kuchenbecker works in the haptics field because she is ‘fascinated by the sense of touch.’

When told that she might be nominated for Popular Science magazine’s Brilliant 10 list, School of Engineering and Applied Science professor Katherine Kuchenbecker gave an unusual response: she said she didn’t think she deserved the award.

In May, Kuchenbecker — the Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics — was contacted by Jordan Reese, then the manager of science communications for Penn. He wanted to submit her name for the ninth-annual Brilliant 10 listing, which recognizes the researchers that the magazine considers to be “America’s young science geniuses.”

“I told him, ‘I’m not sure my work is revolutionary right now,’” Kuchenbecker said.

But Popular Science disagreed. Nicknamed “The Puppet Master” in the list for her research on touch-based technology, Kuchenbecker became the second Penn faculty member to earn this recognition.

At 32, she directs the Haptics Group within Penn’s General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception lab. She has won the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development award — one of its most prestigious grants given to teacher-scholars — and is one of two women who teach undergraduates in the Mechanical Engineering department.

As a researcher, Kuchenbecker said she is “fascinated by the sense of touch,” which lies at the center of the haptics field.

The applications of her research range from surgery to stroke rehabilitation and even gaming — she and her students have developed technology to improve robotic surgery, as well as a tactile gaming vest that allows gamers to experience the sensation of being hit by a bullet while playing first-person shooting games.

Engineering senior Andrew Stanley, who works in Kuchenbecker’s lab on the development of a sleeve for stroke rehabilitation, said he appreciates the diversity of her research, as well as her positive energy.

“Her enthusiasm spreads throughout the lab,” creating an environment in which “everyone wants everyone else to succeed,” he said.

This attitude carries over to her teaching, according to Engineering junior Sarah Clark, who took Kuchenbecker’s class on dynamics last year.

“She’s probably the most enthusiastic engineering professor I’ve ever had,” said Clark, a member of the student advisory board for Penn’s Advancing Women in Engineering group — another organization to which Kuchenbecker contributes.

She serves as the MEAM representative to the AWE faculty advisory board and speaks on the panel of the group’s preorientation program, AWE Director Michelle Grab said.

Balancing these different responsibilities is manageable, Kuchenbecker said, because she has a strong passion for her work. She explained that for her, “the line between work and life” is blurry.

This is especially true given that her husband, Mechanical Engineering lecturer and director of laboratory programs Jonathan Fiene, works two doors down from her office in the Towne Building.

Stanley said that Kuchenbcker’s approach as a researcher showed him how research can have “interesting and meaningful” applications beyond the advancement of a particular field.

“Engineering is very empowering,” Kuchenbecker said. “You can solve problems, and you can pick which problems you want to solve.”

This article has been corrected from its print version to reflect that Kuchenbecker was the second Penn professor to be honored on the Brilliant 10 list.

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