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Photo of Madeline Kothe
May 15, 2018

Unique fellowship honors undergrad who aims beyond the sky

Written By: Lexy Brodt


When she first arrived at UW-Madison five years ago, Madeline Kothe had never considered pursuing engineering mechanics and astronautics. In fact, she only started to consider the major at the recommendation of a roommate. But now her passion for space is unquestionable.

“Something people don’t always realize about aerospace is how much it affects everyday life,” she says. “It’s not just something futuristic and out there; it’s changing how we live every day.”

Kothe recently received the Brooke Owens Fellowship, an opportunity that encourages women pursuing careers in aerospace by matching them with internships and mentorships. Kothe was placed with the space manufacturing company Made in Space, a California-based company that designs and manufactures 3D printers for use in space. Kothe’s upcoming role at the Made in Space Jacksonville, Florida, location is still taking shape, but she looks forward to the opportunity to observe and learn from the company’s many research and development projects. Through the program, she was also connected with a mentor—Pam Melroy, a former NASA astronaut and U.S. Air Force officer.

Kothe is one of the 41 women who were chosen for the fellowship, which is now in its second year. She was drawn to the program in part because of its interesting, thought-provoking application process. For one part of the application, Kothe displayed her entrepreneurial, creative spirit by including a sample of bracelets she designs and creates. They’re thin bands with beads, each adorned with a morse code symbol, creating a meaningful message. The take-away from this particular bracelet? “The sky is not the limit.”

This space-savvy metaphor seems to perfectly illustrate Kothe’s endless pursuits—both within and outside of the field of engineering. She has worked in both co-op and part-time roles at the Sierra Nevada Corporation, an engineering firm that focuses on innovation in aerospace and defense technology. During her time there, she was able to work on flight hardware that traveled to the International Space Station. Here on earth, in the warmer months, she is a member of the UW-Madison Waterski Team and leads the Mad-City Waterski Team’s ballet line.

Kothe is also working on earning her pilot’s license, a pursuit borne mostly out of a desire to push herself intellectually and to apply the technical knowledge of coursework to an immediate, high-pressure experience. “When I go to pre-flight on the plane, I get to see the actual shapes of the airfoils we learned about in aerodynamics, and know how the plane flies with pressure differences,” Kothe says. “So it’s connecting it to my schoolwork, but also having it be a personal challenge and goal for myself.”

Receiving the Owens fellowship and her pilot’s license are just among a few of the big changes coming for Kothe. For her senior design project, the 23-year-old worked on an electric plane that will help researchers survey wildlife in national parks without noisily disrupting the ecosystem. Kothe and her group drafted a computerized design of a quieter, lighter plane made of composite materials. After graduating in May 2018, she is living in Florida for the summer, after which she’ll move cross-country to California where, in fall 2018, she’ll begin graduate studies in aerospace engineering at Stanford University.

“It’s exciting, but definitely scary; it’s the next step and there are so many changes,” she says. “I’m grateful to have been given so many amazing opportunities at UW-Madison. I’ve been given the kick-start to an exciting career path where the sky is no longer the limit.”