Woman of the Month: Madison Chambliss
Alden Wiygul | Writing Contributor
When Madison Chambliss was growing up in Prattville, Alabama, she declared that even though she was interested in science, she would never become an engineer. Growing up with two civil engineer parents, she thought all engineering was focused on infrastructure. Today, Chambliss serves as the team lead for The University of Alabama Astrobotics team.
Her journey towards space started her sophomore year of high school in the Montgomery, Alabama, Hyundai plant. The first time she saw the power of robotics left her in awe as she watched the giant arms putting the cars together. After that experience, she joined her school’s robotics team which sadly ended after only two months, leaving her craving more. She then stumbled upon Alabama Astrobotics and was enthralled. The opportunity of joining the time helped aid in her decision to come to the Capstone and major in aerospace engineering and mechanics.
She has previously served as the sub-team lead for Systems Engineering both last year and this year. In addition to her Alabama Astrobotics positions, Chambliss is an ambassador for the College of Engineering and Vice President of Women of Aeronautics and Astronautics (WoAA). WoAA is a subset of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and focuses on encouraging more women to get involved in the field.
“We have a subset where all the women come together,” says Chambliss. “It is still professional, but we try to focus on encouragement because only 2% of aerospace is women. We only have one female professor out of 20, so we try to support each other there.”
While she has had good experiences working as a woman in STEM, there are still moments when she is left wondering whether something happened because of her lack of qualifications or because of her gender. Chambliss thinks academia has come a long way, but she acknowledges some prejudice still remains.
“In the classroom, it can be a bit weird, I mean look around and count the ponytails,” says Chambliss. “There’s not that many.”
She is proud of the Alabama Astrobotics team because of the inclusive environment for all students to feel welcome. Within their current administration, three out of nine admin members are women and 33 out of 118 overall members are women. One of the team’s biggest issues is retention. The team is constantly working on taking their members’ interest in astrobotics and turning it into a passion.
This year Chambliss’s main focus as Astrobotic’s team lead is bringing in new members and increasing retention. In 2009, the team started with only six people. According to Chambliss, as the team has gotten larger and members leave more frequently, it has gotten more difficult to transfer knowledge between the group members. With a larger, more involved team, they hope to expand into other elements of space robotics.
“We’re trying to evolve into an organization and not just a team,” says Chambliss. “The national championships are just a manifestation of us being able to successfully pass on our knowledge.”
Before joining the team her freshman year, Chambliss knew little to nothing about robotics. She also did not realize everything the engineering organization did. Besides the competition team, the club encompasses everything on campus that involves space robotics. The team is comprised of undergraduate and graduate students conducting research for companies or government organizations like NASA and senior design teams working underneath them for advice on projects and outreach that increases interest in robotics.
Chambliss’s team is tasked each year with building a rover that can traverse a simulated lunar environment, dig up “ice” (gravel, and bring it back to a collection center). The competition grades on how heavy the robot is, its size, how much it digs up and how much power it consumes. Alabama Astrobotics has claimed eight titles out of the last nine national championships.
NASA’s creation of the LUNABOTICS Competition in 2009 was intended to use the excavator built for any off-earth missions. After NASA’s focus shifted to going back to the moon and the Artemis missions started, the competition changed to creating prototypes for their moon rover. With Chambliss on the team, Alabama Astrobotics has won both the 2021 and 2022 Joe Kosmo Award for Excellence, making them national champions. This year the LUNABOTICS Competition is going to be online so the Alabama Astrobotics team will not be competing.
Instead, UA will be hosting its own Astrobotics competition in May called the Robotic Mining Challenge. The competition will be hosted in collaboration with Caterpillar, which has long been a sponsor of the NASA competition because of its admiration of the autonomy aspect. There will be roughly 35 teams coming on campus to compete, and since the competitions are so similar, those competing in the LUNABOTICS Competition will be able to reuse their robot.
While Caterpillar is writing all the rules for the competition, Chambliss and her team are the ones organizing and conceptualizing what the competition will look like.
Alden Wiygul currently serves as a writing contributor. She is a senior double majoring in psychology and criminal justice. Originally from Columbus, Mississippi, she loves to read, write, crochet, and knit. She hopes to bring more female voices into male-dominated conversations.