Kathryn Huff, Ph.D. lives in Urbana, Illinois where she is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After completing the TAMS program in 2004, Dr. Huff earned a B.A. in Physics at the University of Chicago in 2008 and a Ph.D. in Nuclear Engineering in 2013.
What brought you to the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science (TAMS)?
At my rural high school in Bellville Texas, my twin sister (Allison) and I got ahead of ourselves in math at some point, and in the middle of sophomore year, I started running out of useful classes to take. In particular, the mathematics offerings were not going to last me through two more years. So, my twin and I applied to a handful of early college entrance programs like TAMS. When we got in we decided to go to TAMS after we finished the year in Bellville.
What did you enjoy most about TAMS?
I did a lot with the Academy Players at TAMS. At some point I think I was the president; that whole group of people were wonderful to have around me. I felt like I had a lot of friends at TAMS, and looking back, most of them were the Academy Players. I even performed in the Vagina Monologues that was being put on by a broader UNT group.
How did your experience at the University of North Texas (UNT) and TAMS shape your career path?
Without TAMS, I couldn't have gotten my summer internship at Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico. I had a summer internship at the lab there for two summers and learned to really love nuclear physics. Los Alamos was also a great experience from an independence perspective. That first summer, I lived alone in an apartment, hung out in Santa Fe, and wrote software in Fortran and Perl for analyzing neutron transport simulations.
Without my internship at Los Alamos and the unique education offered through TAMS, I also would not have been accepted to several colleges including, most importantly, my undergraduate alma mater, the University of Chicago.
What was the most valuable lesson – inside or outside the classroom – that you learned at UNT and TAMS?
This is a little dark, but I learned how to cope with loss. While I was at TAMS, I lost a family member. My twin sister and I coped with this loss in different ways, but for me, I know it was important to be in the warm, caring, learning-focused environment that I had at TAMS. The friends and staff support there were helpful in small ways that collectively allowed me to put my focus on moving forward healthily beyond that loss.
If you earned a bachelor’s degree, what did you do in the year immediately after graduation?
I spent another summer in Los Alamos after graduating from TAMS and then went straight to the University of Chicago where I majored in Physics.
Please share a memorable moment or experience from your time at UNT and TAMS.
Everything at TAMS was memorable. Thinking back, most of my cherished memories involved just goofing off in the lounge late in the evening, playing board games with other students.
My most specific memories were 'coffee house' nights where we would set up an open mic in the lounge and students would come to read their poetry, perform their favorite skits, sing a song, or do anything else.
How would you describe UNT, TAMS, and Denton?
TAMS is a fantastic institution. It provides an opportunity for advanced students to advance beyond their peers and begin their dreams. It's a unique concept designed to nurture a certain type of individual: bright, independent, young people with an endogenous love for learning.
UNT and Denton are a great setting for TAMS. I think the prevalence of music at UNT helps to make TAMS, UNT, and Denton in general a really multi-dimensional place. Without a little culture to shake things up, math and science can get pretty dull.
If you could go back and do it all again, would you still attend TAMS? What would you do differently, if anything, during your time as a student?
Of course I would still attend TAMS. No question.
I don't think I would change much. Over the last many years in school, my study habits have improved. I was still perfecting those habits at TAMS.
What is your greatest professional accomplishment?
I wrote a pretty cool book that people seem to like.
Did you pursue any other career paths prior to your current occupation? If so, please describe your occupational history.
In the summer after I completed my undergraduate degree (and before I began graduate school), I was a bike messenger in Chicago. Best job I ever had.
As a postdoctoral Data Science Fellow at UC Berkeley, in California, I dabbled in the possibility of a career in Data Science. But, I ultimately decided that the most interesting data analytics happen in the pursuit of real applied science, nuclear energy in particular!
What advice/insight do you have for TAMS alumni and students interested in your field?
I would strongly encourage any students with an interest in nuclear engineering to contact me with any questions they have. For students who aren't yet interested in nuclear engineering, I would recommend considering it! Nuclear engineering combines really interesting neutron physics with engineering to ensure a safe, carbon free option for the world's energy future.