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Katherine J. Kuchenbecker, Ph.D of Haptics Group which is part of the GRASP Lab at the University of Pennsylvania, works on one of the many projects in development at the lab.

As an assistant Engineering professor, Katherine Kuchenbecker is all about bringing science to the masses in a fun and innovative way.

“I do want to connect [the research that my students and I do] to things that matter to other people — not just scientists and engineers,” she said.

Kuchenbecker carried that perspective with her when she first began teaching at Penn in 2007. Within three years, she was nominated as one of Popular Science’s “Brilliant 10” of 2010, a competition that selects young innovators at institutions around the nation.

At the time, she had just finished developing a video-gaming vest with two graduate students. The vest allowed gamers to experience the sensation of being shot while playing a first-person shooter video game.

This summer, Kuchenbecker was selected as one of ten PopTech Fellows in the sophomore class of the Science and Public Leadership division. PopTech, an organization which hosts a community of scientists from around the world, is known for its series of talks on popular science issues. Fellows were selected from various colleges and universities from around the country for their cutting edge work in their respective fields, including subjects like biology and neurology.

“They wanted to pick people who are interested in talking to the media and being an advocate for science,” Kuchenbecker said.

In August, Kuchenbecker traveled with the other Fellows to Washington, where they met at the National Geographic headquarters to be trained in speaking with the media about science.

While there, the ten Fellows were coached by the likes of Fenton Communications’ Chief Operating Officer Lisa Witter and National Public Radio Science Desk Correspondent Joe Palca. Fellows were trained over the course of three days and asked to give 10-minute presentations and 3-minute pitches on their work. They also received feedback from their colleagues on how to improve their delivery so that it could be more widely received by the public.

The Fellows focused on eliminating jargon, which is often a problem for scientists who are passionate about their respective fields and must walk the line between accuracy and communicability, Kuchenbecker said.

In October, the ten Fellows were invited to the PopTech conference in Camden, Maine, to present their research to a crowd of nearly 700 in five minutes.

The conference drew a broad audience from Iceland President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson to members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Kuchenbecker presented her research on robotics and haptics — sense of touch — focusing on the significance of the sense of touch and its mysterious absence in the realm of computers.

“It’s kind of underrated. It’s the first sense. It’s the oldest sense, and it’s the only sense you can’t turn off,” Kuchenbecker said.

With that in mind, she introduced a list of computers she helped to develop that incorporate a sense of touch. One product was a tablet computer that could mimic an object’s texture on its surface through the use of vibrations. Another was a set of medical equipment that allowed surgeons to better experience the sensation of operating on a patient.

Fifth year Engineering doctoral candidate Joe Romano worked with Kuchenbecker in the lab to develop a robot that could fist bump and high-five.

“[Professor Kuchenbecker] is really brilliant. She works constantly, and she has really great ideas. She challenges everybody and stimulates discussion to think really hard about how to improve haptics. She makes this stuff come to a reality,” Romano said.

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