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Case in Point
Sophia Haas '18 & Katherine J. Kuchenbecker ’96

Sophia Haass ’18 and Katherine J. Kuchenbecker ’96 reflect on Sophia’s summer internship in Germany working with Katherine at the MPI for Intelligent Systems

Sophia Haass ’18

In the Summer of 2019, I was extremely fortunate to intern in Katherine Kuchenbecker’s department at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems located in Stuttgart, Germany. Throughout the internship, despite having a busy schedule, Katherine made time to meet with me and my project leader to check in on our progress and truly get to know me and the other interns. She included us in weekly meetings and made sure we felt involved as important members of the department. She encouraged everyone to attend seminars and learn about the research happening in other departments within the institute.

Going into the internship, I was feeling unsure about my decision to pursue a degree in engineering. I was stressed over my course load and felt a separation between my classes and what life after college would be like. After seeing this opportunity on the Brentwood website’s internship page, I knew that getting firsthand experience would help me truly know. Almost immediately after looking over the various projects, one in particular caught my attention: a robot that helps children with autism develop their social interaction skills. 

When I was a student at Brentwood, I was very involved with Best Buddies, a student organization that fosters friendships between students with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities, so it felt like a great fit. A few weeks after I submitted my application, Katherine and I had a Skype call where we discussed the project. Unlike an internship where interns observe from afar, I was even more excited to learn that I would get to do hands-on work and program the robot myself.

In addition to learning more about engineering and life as a researcher, I also had to learn how to live in a foreign country. I had to learn how to budget, navigate public transportation, and how to adapt when any challenges arose.

All in all, I highly recommend doing an internship as a way to catch a glimpse of what life after college can be like. In my case it gave me confidence in my decision and is something to work towards while I am still in school.

I am very grateful for Mr. V for running the alumni internship program and building the network of Brentwood alumni. I also want to thank Katherine for opening her department to Brentwood alumni and for making an international internship opportunity possible. Thank you so much for the opportunity.

Katherine J. Kuchenbecker ’96

My favorite leadership trick is solving one problem with another. In January of 2019, I was starting to wonder where I could find smart, hard-working, English-speaking undergraduate engineering students to become summer interns on the large interdisciplinary research team that I direct at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart, Germany.

When I was an engineering professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, dozens of great students would apply to work in my lab every summer. Moving to this German research institute in January of 2017 gave me excellent guaranteed support for my research in haptics and robotics, but it also distanced me somewhat from students and academia.

Simultaneously I remember how it felt to study engineering as an undergrad at Stanford University after graduating from Brentwood School in 1996. Especially before I chose my major of mechanical engineering, I wanted to gain real experience, but I did not know where to look for good opportunities. 

Thus, I was delighted to receive an email inviting alumni like myself to submit internship opportunities for Brentwood students and recent alumni. I am deeply grateful for the excellent academic preparation I received at Brentwood (particularly in math, chemistry, English, foreign languages, art, and volleyball), and I have wanted to find meaningful ways to give back to the school even though I live so far away.

I had the pleasure of receiving several great applications and was able to offer paid summer internships to both Sophia Haass ’18, and Ewan Seo ’16, who are pursuing their Bachelor’s degrees in engineering at the Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, Berkeley, respectively.

Sophia joined my team for eight weeks to do human-robot interaction research with my Ph.D. student Rachael, an American woman who earned her degrees in biomedical engineering at George Washington University. My team and I were delighted by the final demonstration Sophia programmed, which enabled our NAO robot to react with expressive movements and sounds when you touch its hands, feet, and head.

Beyond their personal research projects, my Brentwood interns had the chance to interact with other undergraduate interns, master’s students, Ph.D. students, postdoctoral researchers, senior researchers like myself, and our technical and administrative staff. The 41 current members of my department hail from 16 countries, have a wide range of technical backgrounds, and are approximately gender balanced.

I greatly value diversity in teams, as each individual brings their own insights and perspectives. I particularly appreciate involving undergraduate engineering interns in my team, as their participation both improves the research we are doing and gives them a chance to find out how interesting and rewarding interdisciplinary technical research can be. 

By connecting qualified young people with a palette of employment opportunities, the Brentwood Alumni Internship Program is simultaneously solving two problems in our larger community. Thus, I am hoping Mr. V will invite me to participate again in the coming years. It would be an honor to mentor more Brentwood alumni like Sophia and Ewan! 

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