Geek of the Week

Geek of the Week: Air Power and Blue Origin vet Katherine Pratt goals excessive as a PhD candidate with a watch on information privateness

Katherine Pratt in the National Science Foundation booth at D.C. ComicCon in 2017 where attendees could talk to scientists and engineers. (Photo courtesy of Katherine Pratt)

Katherine Pratt has a degree from MIT, she interned at Blue Origin, worked on fighter jets in the Air Force, interned for a congresswoman, and is chasing her PhD at the University of Washington. It seems there’s no slowing down our extra geeky Geek of the Week.

Oh, did we mention that she’s been featured in a Marvel comic?

Pratt’s exceptional journey began with a B.S. in aerospace engineering from MIT in 2008, where she received the MIT Women’s League Laya Weisner Award for public service to the university, and the MIT Aero/Astro James Means Memorial Award for Space Systems Engineering. After several internships with Jeff Bezos’s private space venture, working in systems and propulsion engineering, she served four years in the Air Force, where she worked primarily as an operational flight test engineer on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Now at the UW, she’s a PhD candidate in the BioRobotics Lab in the Electrical Engineering department. Her work focuses on the privacy, ethics, and policy of neural data. A recipient of a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, Pratt has interned with the ACLU of Washington through the Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. She also just completed a six month internship as a Congressional Innovation Fellow through Tech Congress, where she worked in the office of Rep. Suzan DelBene to advise and craft technology policy and legislation.

Pratt is passionate about emerging technology and the connection to data privacy protection. That’s evident in this response to a question in which we asked her to tell the tech giants what she really thinks …

“I really do believe that consumerism is driving much of the technology we develop, oftentimes at the expense of proper control of information and who owns it.

“For some reason I got a bunch of targeted ads from CES in January, and one of them was for a smart oven that can show everyone’s schedules and when to have dinner and when to start cooking (I think it even could recommend dinner based on how much time you had). I’m not comfortable with my oven company having access to all of my calendars, and those of children in a family. Does it need to connect to my refrigerator to see what’s in there when it recommends what to cook? Are our lives so chaotic now that we need our oven to tell us what’s for dinner? I also think about technologies that we didn’t know that we needed but somehow we can’t live without.

“Google Glass didn’t work because no one could figure out what to do with it. But, everyone originally thought the Apple Watch was unnecessary and now I see them everywhere. Just because you can update something and add WiFi or the word ‘smart’ doesn’t mean it actually makes the product any better. Also, who’s to know that the oven company actually has proper privacy and security measures in place to handle the influx of personal information it’s receiving. What’s preventing them from recording that you only cook frozen meals for dinner, and then selling that information back to your insurance company?

“We’re entering a world where consumers overlook data privacy issues because of the convenience a device is selling.”

In addition to research, Pratt balances several extracurricular activities, with a focus on getting younger students, especially girls and minorities, interested in science and technology. She has served as treasurer, vice-president, and president of the University of Washington’s Husky Veterans student organization (a chapter of Student Veterans of America); she is also the co-founder and executive vice president of external relations of the nonprofit Minority Veterans of America. She also competes in triathlons as a member of the Husky Triathlon Club and iracelikeagirl teams.

As for the comic, a spot on a DC ComicCon panel led to an introduction to comic writer Jeremy Whitley, who thought she’d be a good fit for an Agents of G.I.R.L. profile in the “The Unstoppable Wasp.”

“Being the massive nerd that I am, I was incredibly humbled by the opportunity and am super grateful they decided to feature me in Issue #4,” Pratt said. “I love my comic headshot and have been blown away by the responses I’ve gotten from friends, family, and the internet. I hope that my story and experiences will motivate and encourage anyone reading the comic to pursue STEM.”

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Katherine Pratt:

What do you do, and why do you do it? My dissertation research covers the specific topic of elicitation of private information using neural signals and a brain-computer interface. This is a multi-disciplinary project that includes neuroethics and discussions about policy. I’m interested in how technologists can approach emerging technologies and examine their work beyond just the hardware and software: who is using their device, why are they creating it, what will the impact be, and who is it leaving behind? I’m passionate about data privacy protection and the disparate impacts of technology on minority and vulnerable groups; this is why I’ve worked for the ACLU and in Congress. I’m hoping to use my research to spark further conversation and encourage everyone to think across disciplines.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? The field of electrical engineering is incredibly vast and includes so many disciplines… we’re not just sitting in a lab soldering and building circuits (but I can do that!) There are so many ways that you can study electrical engineering: nanofabrication, robotics, large-scale power systems, and even neural systems, just to name a few.

Where do you find your inspiration? So many places. My friends who are women working in engineering, because we are all fighting the same battles in the workplace and we’re stronger together. I have so much respect for all of sister-in-laws, who are mothers and work full time, because they are just badasses. Sometimes it’s in the girls I mentor, because I know that I’m working to make the world a better place for them. But most of all my mom, who is truly one of the strongest and fiercest women I know. I’ve come to recognize that she sacrificed so much for my brother and I, and I hope that she’s able to live vicariously through all the things I’m able to do now.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? I have a Garmin 920XT, which is a GPS triathlon watch. I can’t estimate distances to save my life, and I’m terrible at keeping a running pace, so it’s great at keeping track of my workouts. Plus, it can connect to my phone and I can get texts and alerts (which is helpful when I’m cooking or baking and my hands are covered in whatever ingredient I’m currently working with).

Katherine Pratt’s geeky workspace. (Photo courtesy of Katherine Pratt)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? My desk on campus at UW is filled with mementos of my military service, including patches and coins. At home we have the library aka “the entropy room” and this is where you can currently find me furiously working on my dissertation. My friends feed my nerddom and have gifted me BB-8 lights and a Firefly poster, among other things. I won a Sphero R2D2 at the Grace Hopper Conference a few years ago when it was in Orlando. One of the more recent desk acquisitions is the American Girl 2018 doll of the year, Luciana. She’s going to be the first person on Mars (I have both her blue flight suit and space suit). Everything reminds me to be creative and think big, and I love color and light.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) Have hobbies that allow you to put down a screen and interact with the world in a different way. For me, it’s competing in triathlons and knitting. There’s nothing better than going down to Alki and running with the sound of the waves and the seagulls. And I have knitting projects that coincide with particular moments in my life: a scarf for my Ph.D. qualifying exam, a shawl for my Ph.D. general exam, and a sweater from my fellowship in D.C. It’s quite rewarding to have a physical manifestation of my stress relief!

Mac, Windows or Linux? Mac.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Tea. Earl Grey. Hot. (Picard).

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Transporter.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … create a nonprofit that funds underrepresented minority girls and women to participate in research experiences, and that also provides zero-interest loans to underrepresented minority women in college who need to pay out of pocket up front to attend academic conferences.

I once waited in line for … I waited in a digital waiting room to buy tickets to see Benedict Cumberbatch in “Hamlet” in London (which we saw while on our honeymoon).

Your role models: I was a shameless fan of the “X-Files” as a teenager (the most recent movie and all of the reboot episodes except for “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” don’t exist for me, #thisisthehilliwilldieon). Dana Scully was the epitome of awesome, to the point that I had my physician father bring home some latex gloves from the clinic where he worked so that I could have them in my backpack in case I needed to examine a potential alien body or strange substance (this is 100 percent absolutely true). Astronauts like Sally Ride, Christa McAuliffe, and Mae Jamison are true heroes for the work they did in America’s space program. I’m also in love with the band Pink Martini and I aspire to be as cool, confident, and glorious as China Forbes and Storm Large.

Greatest game in history: “Diablo 2.”

Best gadget ever: KitchenAid stand mixer.

First computer: I vividly remember learning Logo on what was probably a Mac SE.

Current phone: iPhone 6.

Favorite app: Instagram.

Favorite cause: Tie for Amelia’s Aero Club and the Michael P. Anderson Memorial Aerospace Program, both at the Museum of Flight (I’m a long-time mentor of the former, and new mentor for the latter).

Most important technology of 2019: Anything that doesn’t come with Bluetooth or smart speaker connectivity.

Most important technology of 2021: Devices that truly respect consumer data privacy and are transparent about what they’re collecting.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Ask yourself if the product you’re working on addresses an actual problem, or you’re creating something for a problem that doesn’t exist. Who are you trying to benefit, and have you actually talked to them about whether they need your product and what they want in it?

Twitter: @GattaKat

LinkedIn: Katherine Pratt

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