Dinkel receives 2023 Zonta International Amelia Earhart Fellowship
Since 1938, Zonta International has honored 1,275 women with the Amelia Earhart Fellowship. This year, Holly Dinkel is among the 30 recipients from around the globe. She is a Ph.D. student in aerospace engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign working with Professor Tim Bretl and with Brian Coltin and Trey Smith in the NASA Ames Research Center Intelligent Robotics Group.
Dinkel’s work develops algorithms to sense, model, track, and manipulate deformable linear objects, such as wire and rope, with robots. She focuses on these because they can be found everywhere—in space and on Earth—and maintaining them is important for safely exploring extreme environments.
“On the International Space Station, the power and communications system alone includes over eight miles of wiring,” Dinkel said. “On Earth, wires appear in households, power lines, submarine cabling, and all settings where energy or data is transmitted. Deformable objects are interesting to study because their motion cannot be simplified with rigid body dynamics. Any force applied by a robot to a deformable object not only induces motion, but also shape change.”
Dinkel explained that perception and modeling will allow robots to autonomously monitor and maintain deformable objects in deep space habitats, such as NASA’s Gateway.
“Habitats in deep space may be uncrewed for weeks or months at a time due to the expense and danger of human presence there,” Dinkel said. “Developing robot autonomy for building and maintaining the complex systems within these habitats is critical to sustaining their functionality.”
Dinkel said her long-term goal is to use robots to help humans explore and develop extreme environments.
“After earning my doctorate, I hope to find a research role where I can automate the routine, but dangerous tasks commonly performed in extreme conditions, where human exposure to the environment poses health risks. I aspire to become an astronaut, working collaboratively with robots deployed on other worlds such as the Moon or Mars. I hope to use robotics and automation to accelerate humanity’s evolution into a space-faring civilization.”
Dinkel recently received a Scholar Award from the P.E.O. Sisterhood and holds a NASA Space Technology Graduate Research Opportunities award.
Dinkel said she is both honored and humbled at being selected to receive the award, made even more special due to a regional connection.
“Amelia Earhart’s childhood home in Atchinson, Kansas is near my childhood home in St. Joseph, Missouri,” Dinkel said. “Amelia Earhart’s legacy has inspired me since I was very young; I stand on her shoulders today.”
According to Zonta International, women make up about 25 percent of the workforce in the aerospace industry. The Amelia Earhart Fellowship is offered to promote the Zonta International mission that women have access to all resources and are represented in decision-making positions on an equal basis with men.
For more information and the complete list of recipients, visit the Zonta International website.