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Julia Di : “Robots are here to help people, not replace them”

Hey Guys!

I hope this article finds you well. My name is Julia Di. I have Chinese heritage and I study Robotics at Stanford University in the USA. In high school, I was mostly interested in visual arts and English literature and dreamed of a career in the arts. However, I also was interested in technology and how technology could directly help people. One of my friends in high school started a robotics club during our secondary year. This was the first time I heard about robotics. It inspired me to see how a team of people could create a complex robot, which required mechanical, electrical, and computer science skills. For my undergraduate degree (bachelor’s degree) I decided to pursue Electrical Engineering at Columbia University. I picked Electrical Engineering by opening the book of majors and randomly flipping to a page! At the time, I did not know enough about engineering as a field and wanted to learn as much as I could before specializing in graduate school. Now I am a PhD student in a more specific field of robotics called manipulation, which involves moving objects using robotics. This has many applications, ranging from the aerospace industry to the medical industry. A PhD program is usually 5- 6 years after a bachelor’s degree, so I will be in school for quite a while!

For my PhD I was awarded a fellowship from NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) that paid for my program. As a NASA Space Technology Research Fellow, I can work and do research at NASA on various robotics projects. My project last summer was called PUFFER, and it was a folding origami-inspired robot. My project this summer will be related to “Astrobee”, a free-flying robot that is currently on the International Space Station. For anyone else who is interested in space robotics, NASA JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) is a great place to be, and you do not need to be an American citizen to work there! After my PhD, I think I will either start my own robotics company or join an existing initiative to create robots to help people.

I have been very lucky so far, because NASA has been very supportive, and I have never been questioned or invalidated during my work because I was a woman. There were many times, however, that I felt questioned, especially early in my engineering studies. Often these would come in the form of microaggressions, such as being treated in a condescending manner, or being asked to take notes rather than participate in technical work in group projects.

Everyone experiences stress or self-doubt at least once in their lives. For me, it helps to remember all that my family had overcome to even get to this point. My grandparents were peasant farmers from China, with an elementary school level of education, having dropped out of school to work. My parents immigrated and learned the way of new country, America, where they faced common immigration problems such as learning a new language. I am the first in my family to be born outside of China. When I am stressed or feeling left out, I remember that I never face my problems alone, and that no problems are truly insurmountable.

So how does a day in my life looks like? Usually I go to the lab, where everyone is prototyping, designing, and coding different robotics projects. Some days, it looks like this clip from Big Hero 6:

I love my job as a researcher because I can try cool and crazy ideas. Some of those ideas are bad, some of them are good – and some of them will eventually make it to outer space, your school textbooks, or art museums. What could be cooler than being able to help invent the future?

During my leisure time l love to read, sketch, and hike. I also like to cook and spend time with my family and friends. I make sure to infuse empathy in the things I build and do. One example is the Instagram and Twitter pages I started, which you can find at @astroboticist. These show bits of my professional life, such as the robotics projects I am working on. Feel free to message me on these channels, if you want to reach out to me ;). I also sometimes show bits of my personal life, such as somedrawings I make for friends:

My advice to all who want to go into robotics but are scared:

First, focus and learn. No matter how many roadblocks you hit, or how many people think you can’t – if you cultivate your talent in science/engineering/math/technology, you will find a place in the STEM ( Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields. Focus on improving your skills, and don’t waste energy on negative influences and naysayers.

Secondly, speak up. If you come up with an idea, just say it! Don’t be afraid of if it’s “right” or “wrong” or if a boy is going to say the same idea 10 seconds later. Ask a lot of questions and don’t be afraid if some of them seem stupid. Often, the “stupid” questions I ask end up being very important because they point out something, some design issue, that everyone else overlooked! You are smart and capable, but you have to show it by advocating for yourself.

Finally, use your uniqueness to your advantage. Because of the gender inequity in STEM fields, being a woman or gender minority is an automatic way of standing out in a crowd. Use that to your advantage when meeting people, networking, and learning about new things.

Written by Angela Y

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