When Kimberly Gottula was growing up in Placentia, her mother made sure that books and math-oriented board games were always at the ready. She wanted her daughter not only to learn to read early but also to develop an affinity for numbers, to defy her older sister’s opinion that “math wasn’t for girls.”

Defy it she did. In May, Gottula graduated magna cum laude in industrial engineering from Cal Poly Pomona, whose Department of Industrial & Manufacturing Engineering named her valedictorian.

From a tender age, Gottula enjoyed puzzling over numbers. In the GATE program for gifted and talented pupils at Golden Elementary School, “I was a year ahead in math,” she said. In her junior year at El Dorado High School, she signed up for dual-enrollment calculus, earning two semesters of credit at Cal State Fullerton.

During her senior year of high school in 2016, Gottula’s computer science class, in which she was one of two girls, worked with the programming language Scratch through a Massachusetts Institute of Technology website. MIT posted Gottula’s Dress Up Stick Man, which allowed users to dress a rudimentary figure by dragging and dropping hair, clothes, hats and footwear. Thousands of fans have played the game and posted their “stick man” and “stick woman” results.

Soon after graduating from Cal Poly Pomona, Gottula quipped on the MIT site that, despite becoming a valedictorian in an engineering major, “we all know that this game is my true legacy.”

When it came time to select a college, Gottula said, “I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I knew I was good at STEM, and I figured Cal Poly Pomona could be a really good school.”

Not every element of STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — has been her cup of tea. Neither high school biology nor chemistry appealed. At Cal Poly Pomona, she tried out computer science and aerospace engineering but immediately changed her mind.

She eventually landed on industrial engineering, and it seems the apple did not fall far from the tree.

Before his untimely death from leukemia when she was in the sixth grade, Gottula’s father, Ron, worked as a mechanical engineer at Northrop Grumman Corp. Her mother, Melanie, later married Joe Montoya, a building system specialist with Irvine Unified School District.

“The reason I like industrial engineering,” she said, “is I get really frustrated by things that could work better or faster.”

On July 13, Gottula will begin her new job as a manufacturing planner at Lockheed Martin in Sunnyvale, California. She plans to move north with her boyfriend, Michael Green (’20, aerospace engineering), who also graduated in May and will work in systems engineering at Lockheed Martin.

One close associate who envisions success for Gottula is her campus supervisor, Zoe Lance (’15, English), a communications specialist with the university’s Office of Student Success.

Gottula went to work for Lance about three years ago when the campus was planning for the conversion from quarters to semesters.

“She played key roles in so many student-facing projects, both during and after conversion — websites, social media, event planning and so many other things,” Lance said.

“She embodies the learn-by-doing ethos we are all so proud of. When something stalled or got a little thorny, she didn’t give up. … Lockheed is immensely lucky to have her; she has the technical engineering skills, but she’s also a great communicator and collaborator.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions putting a damper on campus festivities, Gottula had to get creative. Her mother dyed her hair black for an on-campus photo shoot, for which Gottula wore her cap, gown, sashes and honor cords.

During a virtual celebration with the department chair and classmates, Gottula made brief valedictory comments, expressing gratitude for the people she had met, for her job — and for her mother, with whom she competed at Money Bingo and 4-Way Countdown all those years ago.

By Martha Groves
Published June 12, 2020