When Seton Catholic Preparatory asked Ahwatukee Foothills resident Kate McBryan to apply for its Hall of Fame it gave the alumnus the rare opportunity to list her accomplishments.

“To see everything listed, that was really nice,” the 28-year-old McBryan said of her lengthy record.

Moments later she admitted maybe as much as half those achievements would not have been possible if not for her participation in the Seton robotics club her senior year. But McBryan didn’t just participate; she helped found the still-flourishing club.

“That club started me on the path to where I am today. That’s where I started to build up my toolbox to get where I am now,” said McBryan, who will receive the school’s distinguished alumnus award during Seton’s Hall of Fame inductions on Saturday, Sept. 28. Five others also will be inducted.

“I had no idea what I was getting into; none of us did” McBryan said of that first year in 2002-03. “It’s absolutely fantastic the club is still around at Seton. The school is better for it and I think I’m a much better person for it. ... What it really did is build a sense of accomplishment and confidence in me: If we can build a robot in six weeks we can do anything.”

McBryan earned her bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from Arizona State University and her master’s degree from the University of Maryland, where she is a doctoral candidate for a degree in philosophy and aerospace engineering. McBryan’s PhD topic tackles how to design a two-armed robot that can climb up a space station ladder to help astronauts.

She has presented on neutral buoyancy in the U.S. and Europe and worked on projects featuring a high-speed robotic arm to service space satellites, a satellite that inspects the exterior of the International Space Station and an underwater robot that gathers ocean floor samples.

As part of her research McBryan scuba dives with robots, as she put it. The Maryland Space Systems Laboratory features a 50-foot diameter, 25-foot-deep neutral-buoyancy water tank that is used to simulate the micro gravity environment of space.

“Just getting in the tank the first time was really cool, and working with robots in there the first time was really nerve-wracking,” said McBryan, who’s logged more than 50 hours in the tank. “It still makes me nervous some times.”

As outreach director at the tank facility, McBryan gives tours to student groups and explains the robotic research being conducted. A tour staple: “Scuba diving is fun but scuba diving with a robot is awesome!”

Once she has her PhD — she expects to finish in either May or the following December — McBryan wants to work for NASA or any of a number of other private companies doing similar work.

“Kate McBryan is not only an admirable example of a Seton Catholic Prep distinguished alumnus, she is an inspiration to students everywhere, especially young women, to pursue their dreams in science and technology,” Patricia Collins, Seton principal, said.

As a woman, McBryan is in the minority in her field, something that has produced “interesting experiences” from time to time.

“I get congratulated a lot for going as far as I have ‘for being a woman,’” McBryan said. “People act surprised or coddle me, which I hate.

“I would love to see more women in engineering. I think we do bring something different to the table. I want to encourage more women to do that.”

McBryan said her peers are very accepting and think that will lead to more acceptance of women in the industry in the future.

Joining McBryan in Seton Hall of Fame Class of 2013 are: Evelyn Heath, Brother Mark O’Leary, Avel Mendoza, coach Joe Timpani and Lisa Wangler.

• Contact writer: (480) 898-6549 or cgabel@evtrib.com.

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