Growing up in Pasadena, Kathryn Huang had her heart set on USC. It was in her blood; her mother and aunt were both alumni. While they both studied child development and business, Huang recalls being drawn to physical infrastructures that keep society’s safe – a passion that began with building 3D shapes from popsicle sticks.
“I saw how interesting the building science projects were. The renderings were amazing and I thought, ‘I want to do this kind of work,’” Huang, a senior at USC Viterbi School of Engineering, said.
But it wasn’t just engineering that compelled Huang to join USC’s Trojan Family. Huang was interested in USC for its emphasis on interdisciplinary coursework. Through side projects and emerging interests, she’s not only launched an entrepreneurial pet project—a knitting non-profit called Madhatters Knits — but is also staying another year to pursue her interest in medicine, as a pre-med major. Noting that the combination of the two fields might seem unusual, her interest in them grew organically.
“I understand they’re very different tracks,” Huang said. “When I first began, I was very interested in architecture and design. When I started looking deeper into it in LA, the unhoused populations made me think differently about what it means to have a home. In creating my projects for coursework, I mainly focused on trying to help low-income populations, and moved beyond housing, thinking also about community infrastructure and whether people have access to health care, for example.”
Huang said that one summer, she volunteered with a group that offered vision services using a truck. “Essentially, we would go around downtown LA and the Downtown Women’s Center. One major problem was astigmatism and myopia, but the patients wouldn’t know they needed glasses. We provided them what they needed. And this was a great merge point for me — seeing how access to health care, via infrastructural support and services, could enhance people’s lives.
A Thread of Purpose
Knitting was just a hobby. Huang used to convene with her cousins, Tiffany Chang and Kimberly Chang, and her sister, Christie Huang, in middle school, get out her knitting needles and work through a ball of yarn.
Until one day, Huang’s sister, Christie, who was volunteering at the San Gabriel Medical Center, noticed that the hats they were knitting could fit on a premature baby’s head. Because preemies are born early, they face a slew of health challenges early on. Hats help keep the babies warm in their early days and weeks in the NICU, and are especially important as babies lose a lot of heat through their heads.
That summer, Huang, her sister and her cousins pledged to knit hats they could donate to hospitals around the area. In 2014, they made their first donation: 160 hats to the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Soon after, they began the first local chapter of Madhatter Knits.
“In the beginning, it was slow,” Huang said. “We’d ask our friends, ‘Do you want to start a chapter in your school?’” But it was during the pandemic they saw incredible growth. “It was the first time we reached international constituents.”
Huang said her personal connection to the group rested largely in understanding that maternal health is just not well studied. “During the pandemic, we focused our donations on low-income areas. We also partnered with groups to provide maternal protection kits, which included sanitizer, masks and other supplies.”
Madhatter Knits has donated to several area hospitals, including Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Hollywood Presbyterian, and USC Verdugo Hills. The Los Angeles chapter alone donates about 300 hats a quarter, and the Madhatter community as a whole — including chapters in Johannesburg and Costa Rica — has donated over 25,000 hats to premature babies across the globe since its founding.
Of course, knitting a hat – for some – requires a little training. “We host knitting workshops for different student organizations,” Huang said. “For example, tonight we’re doing a USC Helenes workshop. Afterward, we’ll collect the hats we all made together.”
Huang said she wants to continue keeping up with her entrepreneurial spirit — inherited from her mother, who earned her MBA. Huang has applied to grants, including from the Strauss Foundation, and is proposing collaboration with schools to give more workshops on maternal health. She is also pitching workshops that teach kids how to knit.
Looking into the future, she’s considering her various interests and impacts. “I think my long-term goal is to help low-income populations through housing support. I’m currently working on a project in Compton, where students have experienced a lot of budget cuts across schools. The project is to design a building that serves students in STEM education, offering resources like 3D printers and laser machines.”
The project is part of Huang’s senior project for her building science class in the Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Along with other USC students — and in collaboration with the planning department in Hawthorne and in partnership with technology companies in the area — they hope to deploy this STEM resource center to help students in the area deepen their experience with an understanding of science, technology and engineering.
This is Huang’s sweet spot: cross-disciplinary effort to achieve holistic impact. It is what drew her to USC and is what is propelling her to explore interests as they come to her, without a rule book, one pattern at a time.
Want to knit your own hat? Here’s a tutorial:
Published on July 7th, 2022
Last updated on July 7th, 2022