Katherine Kuchenbecker: Science and Sport
- by Cassidy Lichtman, '11 Political Science Stanford Women's Volleyball
When someone decides to pursue sports alongside an academic career we call them a student-athlete. We stick that little hyphen in there as if we are pushing together two things that do not mix. There are certainly times when it seems as though the one pursuit just makes the other one harder. A regular student can finish her paper without worrying about tomorrow’s big game. A professional athlete does not have to study both the scouting report and biology notes. So maybe it is true that being a student-athlete is not an entirely coherent lifestyle, particularly at a place like Stanford, where we are asked to excel in both spheres simultaneously. On the other hand, the same characteristics and skills that translate to success on the court or the field might just be the ones that help athletes succeed in the classroom and in life. There may not be a better example of this than Katherine Kuchenbecker. She would be the first to tell you that the passion, drive and discipline that is required of athletes does not vanish when they leave the court.
Katherine played volleyball for Stanford from 1996 to 1998. In her time at Stanford she got her bachelor’s, master’s and a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. And she won two national championships. This was the culmination of spending years living a life with two very different passions. Katherine was one of the millions of girls who have discovered volleyball in elementary school P.E. What eventually set her apart from those millions may be best expressed by that first experience. Getting frustrated with having to serve underhand with all the other girls, Katherine and a friend borrowed a ball and began to practice serving overhand during lunch and recess. Once confident in the skill, they went back to P.E. and shocked the boys by serving them off the court. To this day, Katherine counts serving as her favorite skill in volleyball.
Both of Katherine’s parents graduated from Stanford in 1970 so she was introduced to the Farm at a young age and it soon became the only school she wanted to attend. That goal in itself would have been a big one but after developing a love for volleyball her goal got even bigger. Katherine not only wanted to get in to Stanford, she wanted to walk on to one of the best volleyball programs in the country. For Katherine, school was the easier part of the equation but she kept working hard to make both parts of her dream come true. It paid off when she was the only freshman to make the varsity team at Brentwood. There she played with another future Cardinal, setter Sarah Neal. Katherine continued to play club and high school volleyball and won two small school state championships. Her coaches thought that playing at Stanford was a fairly lofty goal for her, but Katherine was ready to put in the work. Besides the help of her high school and club coaches, she credits much of her development as a young player to going to open gyms at UCLA in the summertime where she played on an eight foot net with mostly college boys. It is hardly surprising that, just like in elementary school, Katherine sought out opportunities to improve on her own.
In her senior year, Katherine applied early decision to Stanford and was accepted. One half of the goal was achieved. Then, Associate Head Coach Denise Corlett told her that she had a spot on the team as a walk on. She came to campus the same year as future Olympian Kerri Walsh and was greeted immediately as a teammate by two-sport standout Kristin Folkl. Her freshman year they traveled to the islands to play top-ranked Hawaii in front of thousands of fans. A few months later, the team would go on to win the national championship. Katherine was not the star of the team but she was a crucial member nonetheless. She knew that in order for the starters to get better, she had to challenge them in practice. The best way for her to do that? Serving tough of course.
Freshman year was not all about winning championships. Katherine talked to teammate Debbie Lambert about her Product Design major and thought that it sounded like a great way to combine mechanical engineering and art. She ended up loving mechanical engineering, as evidenced by the fact that she went on to get three degrees in the subject. One of her high school friends told Katherine that “you could only have two of three things: school, social life, and sleep.” She threw in sports also and admits that sometimes sleep became the low priority. All of that work shows now that she is being recognized as one of the top young talents in science. Katherine was named to Popular Science magazine’s “Brilliant 10” list for her work at the University of Pennsylvania. She works in the engineering department as the Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation, teaching engineering to undergraduate and graduate students and doing research with the Haptics Group. Haptics technology allows people to “touch” or manipulate a virtual environment. Imagine, for example, that young surgeons could watch a surgery and feel what it is like to perform it without actually practicing on a patient.
Katherine no longer plays competitive volleyball but that does not mean her athletic career has stopped influencing her life. She just works with a different kind of team now. Katherine attributes some of her success in the scientific realm to her competitive nature and says teaching is quite comparable to coaching a sport. She talks about her colleagues and students with the same happy tone she uses to reminisce about her former teammates. One of her favorite parts of her job is working with top level students. Some of them Katherine can relate to on multiple levels as they are also athletes. There are some things that seemed to have changed very little since college. Sometimes sleep is still a low priority.
In talking to Katherine it is quite clear that she has a passion for what she does, whether it is on the volleyball court or in the research lab. While she has had a variety of different experiences, her life cannot be split up neatly into academics and athletics. The same characteristics that got her into the gym at Stanford also got her into the “Brilliant 10”. Starting at recess in elementary school she has constantly tried to improve herself to reach her goals. Because of that, and the skills she has learned along the way, she has achieved many of those goals, whether it was as a student, an athlete or some mixture of both. Katherine has never needed the hyphen to keep them apart. She has always managed to mesh academics and athletics together into a formula for success.
Cassidy Lichtman, ’11, is a outside hitter and setter on the Stanford women’s volleyball team. She is a first team All-American on the court and an outstanding student in the classroom. Cassidy will complete her bachelor’s degree in Political Science and a master’s degree in History in four years.