East West

The smile that pulled me out of the swirl of tension around me at Houston last year is still etched in my mind. As I stood with our robot in queue for another challenging match, lost in the stress of upholding my team’s soaring hopes, Cathy’s well-chosen words brought me back to myself and shattered the fog clouding my mind, reminding me we were here to learn, help, grow and enjoy the experience no matter the outcome. 

Dr. Cathy Olkin has been an integral piece of the fabric holding Up-A-Creek Robotics together for the last 8 years and has brought inspiration, gracious professionalism, passion and expertise to FIRST teams at every level for over 12 years. Cathy has coached 23 FLL teams, been an FLL judge 10 times, served as our lead outreach mentor, led teamwide leadership and communication trainings, and advised teams in low income areas. Cathy “truly embraces FIRST core values,” (Matthew, a student FLL mentor) and teaches us to follow in her footsteps. Through “her patience, intelligence, and passion,” (Esther, student Director of Engineering) Cathy has not only mentored our team’s students, but she has guided us in bringing STEM inspiration to countless more students in our community. Cathy has been the driving force behind our student-mentored FLL teams, Engineering Inspiration tours at the Colorado Regional, student-taught STEM summer camps, Girl Scout STEM badge days and even mentoring an FRC team in Bolivia. 

Dedicated FIRST mentor, however, is only part of Cathy’s story. She is the Deputy Principal Investigator for NASA’s Lucy mission (launching in 2021), has a PhD in Planetary Science from MIT and is the only woman to hold the highest possible title of Institute Scientist at Southwest Research Institute. Despite having climbed so high, Cathy never forgets to look back and help anyone with questions from calculus and physics to outreach and homecoming. She will meet with us about anything and has written letters of recommendation for senior after senior. Cathy truly makes her nearly boundless knowledge accessible and brings her love of space to audiences ranging from TEDx to elementary schools to FIRST Championships, repeatedly filling the room with excited and inquisitive students. 

Cathy is a role model and an inspiration to all of us, but especially to girls pursuing STEM. Through her constant support and the incredible example she sets, she has taught us to be strong leaders, to follow our dreams and to never forget that the most powerful thing we can do is share our knowledge and support those around us. Cathy “deeply cares about everything she does, whether it’s designing a spacecraft or cleaning a kitchen” (Caileigh, 2018 Outreach Lead). 

Cathy has inspired our passions, treasured our ideas, sparked our creativity, supported our plans and ultimately taught us to be caring teammates and compassionate competitors. “If Gracious Professionalism could walk, it would be Dr. Cathy Olkin” (Noah, 2018 student Director of Operations).