Mechanical Engineering

From Microscale to the Sky: How Dr. Denise Wong’s Robots are Changing our Workforce

Dr. Denise Wong ● Robotics Engineer ● Exyn Technologies, Inc.

Dr. Denise Wong ● Robotics Engineer ● Exyn Technologies, Inc.

“As a kid, I always imagined myself being an engineer, it was just a matter of what kind of engineer I would choose to be!”

As a robotics engineer for Exyn Technologies, Inc., Dr. Denise Wong spends most days at work analyzing flight data from autonomous aerial robots. Exyn is utilizing robotics research to develop autonomous aerial robots for commercial applications. The robot that Dr. Wong works on at Exyn “is a quadrotor aerial robot equipped with a wide variety of sensors and a computer that allows the robot to fly autonomously, without a pilot, and maps new environments it has never flown in before.” The goal is to create a tool that can do tasks that are dangerous or impossible for humans, as well as unpleasant and monotonous tasks that humans would rather not do. For example, an autonomous aerial robot could explore areas of a mine that are inaccessible or unstable for people, perform inventory management in large warehouses, or monitor progress on large construction sites.

Inspired by her mother, a chemical engineer, Dr. Wong started her career in robotics on bit of a smaller scale, working with micro robots. She came to the U.S. from Hong Kong for college and first started studying robots as an undergraduate at Cornell University. She responded to an engineering email her sister forwarded looking for students to work on vibrating particle robots. She was encouraged to apply by the wording of the ad, targeting underrepresented students and students with no background in robotics. From this experience she learned how to design a robotic system as well as design and run experiments. This piqued her interest in research and robotics and she went on to receive graduate degrees in engineering from the University of Pennsylvania in the robotics laboratory of Dr. Vijay Kumar. She entitled her thesis: Actuation, Sensing and Control for Micro Bio Robots. She notes that “biology is the best model for finding super small organisms that are well designed for things we’d like robots to do.” Dr. Wong says that working with genetically engineered bacteria that respond to sensor input, such as light, felt like being inside a “science fiction story.”

Dr. Wong initially found it a challenge going from researching microscale robotics to developing aerial robotics, since microscale robots involve different physics than aerial robots. The coding done in research is different than writing commercial code that needs to be more stable and interact with code written by others. In addition, research is a more solitary endeavor and Dr. Wong is now enjoying being on a team at Exyn and having a support network of people all working toward the same goal. She has learned a lot from this experience including how willing colleagues are to help if you ask. She advises anyone thinking of changing careers — 

 “don’t overthink it! It’s never too late to try something new!”

There is so much about digital technology that Dr. Wong enjoys, such as being able to solve problems that couldn’t be solved before and discovering new information from the large quantities of data that digital technology enables us to collect and analyze. New types of sensors allow humans to “see” things impossible for humans alone. For anyone interested in robotics, she advises students to look to the Internet.

 “There’s a lot of open source hardware and software, such as Arduino, that you can get experience and try out in a low risk way some of the common tools in the industry. Get experience with tinkering.” 

Dr. Wong also notes that it is equally important to understand the human-user interface, i.e. “how will a non-technical human interact with the robot?”, as well as other computing topics such as networking. She hopes that many people will consider robotics as a career. “Robotics is a great field with many, many opportunities!”

The Thousand-Mile Engineering Journey: How Patricia Garcia left the comfort of her hometown and Latino heritage to pursue engineering research

Patricia Garcia ● Undergraduate Student and Research Intern ● Florida International University

Patricia Garcia ● Undergraduate Student and Research Intern ● Florida International University

“At just 18, I was leaving my family and Latino culture… and walking away into an unknown, mysterious world in search of that elusive adventure I longed for.”

It took guts to fly out of her hometown for the first time for a 10-week internship, but Patricia took the leap of faith to transform herself into a researcher.

Patricia grew up in in Miami and attended the Young Women’s Preparatory Academy (YWPA). With its strong focus on STEM and incorporation of technology in almost all of its courses, YWPA encouraged Patricia to pursue her passion for science and math by looking into engineering.

“When I walked into Young Women’s, it was almost like the gender bias and the sexism many women in STEM [face] vanished,” Patricia says. “I didn’t see myself as an aspiring ‘girl engineer.’ I simply saw myself as an engineer.”

Back home in Florida, Patricia was often told that her hopes to one day become a mechanical engineer were pursuits for “a man’s job.” But after much reflection, Patricia knew that societal influences could not deter her from pursuing her dreams.

What inspired Patricia most was watching her mother’s illness continually take a toll on her without any firm diagnosis, despite numerous tests. During Patricia’s senior year of high school, her mother underwent a Percutaneous Endoscopic Gastrostomy (PEG) tube placement because she was no longer able to obtain the necessary nutrients.

“The only logical answer for my [never-ending] questions [was] the application of engineering principles and design concepts,” she says. “At that point in my life, I decided I would explore the intersection of engineering and research.”

As her mother’s health steadily improved, Patricia sought learning opportunities that incorporated the engineering principles she hoped to examine more deeply. In 2017, she took on a full-time research position at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). During this summer before her freshman year of college, Patricia focused her research on creating bio-engineered scaffolds to enhance the regeneration of damaged tissues and organs.

“To better understand the material properties of the composite patch, my project focused on evaluating the integration of the fibrin microthread and fibrin hydrogel phases,” she says. “After my time at WPI, not only did I solidify my passion for a long-standing interest, but I [also] developed the confidence in myself to pursue my goals.”

During the summer of 2018, Patricia spent time as a biomechanics project researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Over the course of nearly two months, she worked on a biomechanics project that consisted of engineering 3D skeletal muscle tissue.

“With everything that life threw at me, I look back and think… I could’ve just decided to give up and be average, but why be average when you have all these opportunities given to you,” Patricia says. “If it’s out there and I know about it, there shouldn’t be any reason why I won’t try to go get it.”

Patricia is currently a sophomore at the Florida International University Honors College and is pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering with a research interest in the mechanical design of medical devices and prostheses. She has recently been selected as a McNair fellow at FIU. While she is awaiting notification from several prestigious universities for research positions, she hopes to one day develop products for a company in the biomedical field.

“You know yourself better than anyone else, so there’s no reason why someone other than yourself should be able to tell you whether you can or cannot do something,” Patricia says. “Who is going to believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself?”

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This story was written by Shruti Kumar, Wogrammer Journalism Fellow, and told in partnership with NCWIT Aspirations in Computing (AiC).

The Art of Finding Yourself: How self-taught computer scientist Asta Li is bringing self-driving cars to market

Asta Li ● Software Engineer ● Aurora Innovation

Asta Li ● Software Engineer ● Aurora Innovation

Like most children, Asta Li grew up with ambitious and ever-changing career goals. One day, she would envision herself as an artist, or perhaps a designer. Another day, it seemed as though architecture was the perfect path to pursue her interest in art. Yet as a first-generation American, she wanted to pursue something that would guarantee financial security.

Asta first began coding at the age of 13, when she took a C++ class at a local community college. She settled upon this course while looking to expand on her skillset, as her high school did not offer any computer science courses. Despite having this newfound interest and doing well, she never considered being a software engineer. Seeing some of the boys her age code and play computer games somehow convinced her that competing with them was useless.

So Asta chose a path that she felt best combined her innate artistic ability and passion for STEM: aircraft design. Asta began working toward her goals at the young age of 15, when she started studying in the mechanical and aerospace department at Cornell University. (She intentionally chooses not to discuss her age to avoid assumptions about her experience and prefers to let her work speak for itself.) At Cornell, she joined a UAV team called CUAir, which built drones every year for AUVSI, an annual international drone competition held at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland. During her second year on the team, Asta designed the airframe and manufactured the competitive drone. She recalls this as the “start to [her] path to engineering”.

Although she thought she wanted to study computer science during sophomore year, Asta was accepted into a program to study abroad at Cambridge University for her junior year. Since she had already completed most of her mechanical engineering credits by this time and could not do much to change her major, Asta chose to teach herself computer science.

She took online courses, such as MIT lectures and Coursera classes, and completed assignments virtually. Asta learned Python, practiced coding problems, read textbooks and put herself on a rigorous schedule to teach herself what most students achieve over the course of four years.

“Basically anything you can learn in college, especially for computer science, is available for free on the internet,” she says. “Although I didn’t have much formal training, I was still able to get internships that were really valuable.”

Asta was able to take some computer science classes at Cambridge University, and she finished her degree in mechanical engineering the following year. While pursuing a masters degree in computer science at Cornell University, she worked at Uber as an intern and co-op student. With her interest in unmanned aerial vehicles and experience with computer vision from a research project and courses, Asta was able to work on self-driving cars and meet people who taught her “even more than she learned in school”.

“I do subscribe heavily to the belief that you create your passions. No one is born loving computer science. People develop these passions as they get really good at them,” she says. “That’s how I’ve tried to drive my career! I think the problem of transportation and safety has an impact on people’s lives everyday.”

In 2017, Asta began working at Aurora, a Bay Area-based startup working to bring self-driving vehicles to the market. Although this was originally a “scrappy startup in a lumberyard” with “no indoor plumbing” and “band practice next door”, Asta says she has learned much from choosing to work at Aurora.

As the youngest person and first female to be hired as a full-time engineer, she admits to being intimidated by being surrounded by people with more experience. She soon realized that she had picked up not only technological skills but also soft skills, like working effectively and being a good teammate. Asta says her biggest obstacle while trying to find her way to computer science and software engineering was self-doubt.

“I think this voice in the back of my head came from a lot of different things, like this idea that guys are supposed to be the ones that are good at computers,” she says. “The cultural effects are still present with the fact that very few computer science programs have an even gender distribution… and this is commonplace across the board.”

Asta learned over time that prioritizing sleep and goal-setting were most effective for success. What stuck with her most was the driven nature of her parents. She says that the words she grew up hearing from her mother were enough to keep her competitive and determined.

“My parents have a huge influence. My mom is what I would call a really powerful woman,” Asta says. “She grew up in a poor family… and taught me that you don’t have to be born with any incredible skill to be successful… All that matters is that you work hard.”

She goes on to share that “way more women could be computer scientists or software engineers but don’t believe in themselves, don’t believe they can be, don’t believe they should be and aren’t confident enough during interviews because of that self-doubt,” Asta says. “I’d love to change that.”