Profile with Amber Walker
Captain Amber Walker (Ohio & St. Catherine’s College 2004) is an Assistant Professor of Civil & Mechanical Engineering at the United States Military Academy at West Point. She gained her undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering (Aeronautical Systems) from West Point in 2004. She holds an MSc(R) in Engineering Science from Oxford University and a doctorate in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Oklahoma.
Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?
Amber Walker: I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio. Youngstown is an abandoned steel town, though recently they are making efforts towards revitalization.
Rhodes Project: What initially attracted you to career in the military?
Amber Walker: Originally it had to do with the challenge and pairing my college education with service of some kind. Then once I started, I fell in love with the lifestyle. I enjoy that my job requires me to be more than just one thing day-to-day. It has given me a sense of purpose that I never would have found elsewhere. There are a lot of interpersonal challenges, especially for me in how I relate to the people that I lead. Also for me there are always physical challenges. I compete with myself to improve.
Rhodes Project: How did your experience at Oxford inform your career goals?
Amber Walker: When I left West Point I didn’t know the trajectory my military career would take and Oxford put me on a more academic path. Getting my Master’s there opened the door to getting my PhD now at the mid-point in my career when people in the Army would only usually have that opportunity much later on. It has also made me a more tolerant person. I had very few life experiences before coming to Oxford. The travel and the international community opened my eyes to things I hadn’t considered before. In general, it helped me grow up.
Rhodes Project: What does a typical day look like for you?
Amber Walker: Right now, it’s all about preparing for the academic year. I am going through specific training seminars. I am usually at work between seven thirty and eight. I prepare lessons and then we go through practice classes, giving lessons to senior faculty and peers so we can identify areas for improvement. Then in a few weeks the academic year will start - it is going to be a pretty hectic semester but I am looking forward to it.
Rhodes Project: West Point is a traditionally male-dominated environment. Can you speak to how this fact has affected your teaching experience at the academy?
Amber Walker: It puts more pressure on me as a role model. You start with a pretty small pool and then there is a level of attrition as people go on, so it is important for me to show the next generation of cadets what is out there for them. I also try to find a balance between family and professional life and it is important for young women to recognize that they don’t have to do one or the other.
Rhodes Project: There has been a lot of press coverage about women in the military during the last year, from the recent announcement that women will be integrated into front-line combat positions to the issues surrounding sexual assault. What do you think are the greatest challenges for women in the military currently?
Amber Walker: Finding their niche. Finding out what it is that they want to do, whether that is blazing a new trail, or following ones that are already laid. Certainly, there are some issues but it is about how badly you want it. Individual experiences are very different. It is a voluntary force and you have to remember that. If we don’t like something about the environment then it is on us to change it.
Rhodes Project: What are the most powerful tools women have for making that change?
Amber Walker: Proving that it can be done. It always takes those few to shatter the glass ceiling. Once we have those, more people will be likely to take steps forward.
Rhodes Project: What is the greatest misconception that the public holds about women in the military?
Amber Walker: That we are all very manly. Certainly we all like to work hard and we are generally athletic but it isn’t all beastly women walking around.
Rhodes Project: Can you tell me more about the video on the WIRED website titled “CPT Amber Walker’s tilting smartphone robot controller”?
Amber Walker: That was a part of my doctoral research at the University of Oklahoma. I am using the sensors on a smartphone to drive a small robot, the idea being that you can make controllers smaller for soldiers and create a comfortable, simplistic interface that will do lots of things and limit soldier load. The big problem that most soldiers complain about is the fragility of the device and the lack of physical feedback, so I looked at how tilting the phone makes it a more physical modality and overcomes some of those issues. So I took one of my prototypes to what they call a “robotics rodeo” down in Fort Benning, GA, where different vendors and researchers come to show off the newest technology and that is where WIRED ran into me.
Rhodes Project: What is the most exciting technological development on the horizon for the U.S. military?
Amber Walker: Something like Google Glasses. Wearable technology is where we are headed. Sensors are becoming a lot smaller and we can integrate them better. The question now is where is the display, where is the feedback upon which you are relying?
Rhodes Project: What is the most challenging thing that you have ever done?
Amber Walker: Try and finish my doctorate in a limited amount of time and also have a child. My husband and I were simultaneously doing our doctorates and it was a little bit of a time crunch. It was hard to balance those things and not lose focus.
Rhodes Project: Do you have any long term career goals?
Amber Walker: I know that I want to use my education. There are some positions up in Michigan where we use robotics in the military. Long-term, I hopefully see myself back here at West Point as a senior faculty member.
Rhodes Project: What advice would you give a young woman looking to go into your field?
Amber Walker: Have a sense of humor. A lot of it, especially at the beginning, is a kind of game. You have to learn to view it as a game and not take everything too personally. Also you have to be yourself. It is easy to think you have to fit a certain mould; we are very conformist in the military. You can’t lose sight of who you are and what you want.
Rhodes Project: What brings you most joy in life?
Amber Walker: My family. I married my classmate, who went to West Point with me. We have had a lot a lot of experiences apart; for example, three months after we got married I moved to England. We also have had a lot of shared experiences – we have been deployed together. We have met a lot of life challenges together. Between my husband and my son, I am happy most days.
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