An Interview With...
Andrea Suarez is the builder and Team Leader of the BattleBot known as Witch Doctor. She has been competing in combat robotics for 15 years and works as a Biomedical Engineer creating medical devices and implants.
To begin, how do you pronounce your name? Where does your family originate from? What languages do you speak?
My name is pronounced in Spanish: An-DREY-ah. Spanish is my first language, and it’s still the language I speak with my family. My parents came to the US from Cuba in the 1980’s. They gave up everything, including their chance for a college education, in return for their freedom. They’ve always encouraged my education and any crazy endeavors that I’m passionate about- like robots!
What were your favorite subjects in school? Why?
You’re probably expecting me to say that math or science were my favorite subjects in school, but that was really not the case. By far, my favorite was art class! It was the only subject that let me get my hands dirty and actually make something real!
What were your least favorite or most difficult subjects?
My least favorite subject was always any class that made me memorize a bunch of things. I always prefer the challenge of trying to understand something as opposed to just remembering information. The challenged keeps me engaged and interested, and I love the satisfaction of finally grasping a concept and being able to apply it successfully.
What did you want to grow up to be?
Growing up I was convinced I would be an artist. I loved making things, and painting was a great outlet for that creative energy. Throughout high school I was taking AP level art courses thinking I would chose an art-based career. I took formal art lessons throughout my childhood, and even apprenticed with a professional artist. I still apply those skills every day in my job as a medical device engineer.
What made you want to build a robot?
I went to high school at Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart, which is an all-girl school. When I went to the open house before deciding to attend, I walked into the chemistry lab and saw all of the tables turned on their side to create a barrier in the middle of the room. Once I got closer, I saw that the tables had formed a make-shift arena for an active demonstration of a 120lb BattleBot named Gator. A group of high school girls were controlling the machine, and they were excited to answer all my questions. They had BUILT the robot. My mind was blown. If they could build this, maybe I could too!
How old were you when you built your first bot?
I built my first big robot when I was 14 years old. It was a 120lb machine called Kerminator with team Mean N’ Green. We travelled all the way to Minnesota to compete it at Bots IQ. It was not very competitive. In fact, our weapon, a Home Depot saw painted red, fell OFF in one of our matches. Still, we won a couple of matches and learned a whole lot by talking to the many teams at the competition. By the time we were seniors, we won 2nd place with our full-body spinner Marvinator. We were the first all-girl team to ever make it that far in a tournament, and we still hold that record!
What is the largest and smallest bot you have ever built?
Witch Doctor is the biggest robot I have built at 250lbs, and the smallest robots I have built are 150 gram combat robots.
Have you ever messed up when building a combat robot?
All the time! In fact, most robots don’t work well (or at all) the first time. That’s why it’s so important to test them and to always keep improving the designs. If you listen closely to the interviews before and after matches on the BattleBots television show, you’ll notice some of the builders on BattleBots say that they’re extra nervous for their first fight when they are using a new design- this is why!
Why is the destruction process important to learning and creating robots?
I design medical devices for a living, and we would never put a device in a human without doing destructive testing. If you don’t learn how something breaks, you can’t learn how to design something that doesn’t break! Learning how to build a good BattleBot means learning how to build something that can survive the harshest environments. Every time Witch Doctor breaks, we learn how to improve the design. That’s exactly how the engineering process works in the real world.
What do you do for a career today? What was your path to your current position?
I’m currently a medical device engineer at Zimmer Biomet, which is also one of Witch Doctor’s sponsors. I design titanium implants that serve to reassemble a patient’s bone after a high energy fracture, such as a car accident. These implants hold the small bone fragments in the correct positions so that the body can heal correctly. I studied biomedical engineering in college and got an internship my sophomore year at this same company. That entire interview was technical questions about my BattleBots experience. I thought it was weird since I was expecting super hard biomedical questions. Of course, I wasn’t complaining because I knew robots so much better! Years later my boss told me that since he had never met a young lady that was actively involved in robotics, he wanted to make sure I was the real deal and not a bystander on the team.
How many patents do you have? What are they for? How old were you when you received your first patent?
I have two issued patents and six patent applications that will be issuing soon. They are all for different medical devices to address wrist and clavicle fractures. My patents have been a result of my work at Zimmer Biomet, and the first one was in my 20’s.
Do you think BattleBots is a good activity or sport for both boys and girls? Why?
Of course! Boys and girls can have very different creative and critical thinking, so we need a combination of both to solve the world’s greatest challenges! You’ll notice that Witch Doctor is not an all-girl team. That’s because the team is strongest when we have different people working together and coming up with solutions. Girls don’t have to isolate themselves in all-girl teams to prove that they’re good enough to “play with the boys.” The reason there are less girls in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) now is not because girls aren’t as good at it. It’s because girls haven’t been encouraged to participate in these activities until recently. Think to the last time you went to McDonalds and they asked you if you want a “girl toy” or a “boy toy.” The “boy toy” was probably a toy like a Transformer or Inspector Gadget, while the “girl toy” was probably a toy like My Little Pony or Shopkins. There’s nothing wrong with My Little Pony, but I always preferred the hands-on toys that the boys got! I would tell my mom to lie to McDonalds and tell them I was a boy, while I hid in the backseat of the car while we went through the Drive-Thru. It was a harmless lie of course, but I always wished these kinds of toys were aimed at me! That is changing quickly now, and very soon we’ll see the number of girls in STEM skyrocket.
Are you friends with the other BattleBots builders and drivers? How fierce is the competition between the various teams?
You’ll hear this a lot, but it’s true- BattleBots is a big (crazy) family! A lot of us have been competing together since we were in high school. The competition is very serious, but we’re all good friends and always encouraging and helping each other. It’s my favorite part of this sport!
Do you have any words of advice for children reading this interview?
The best way to learn how to make something, is to make something! Anything! Every time you make something you learn new skills that you can apply to your next project. You need to know a lot of different things to be able to build a robot, but no one learns all those skills all at the same time. Start with simpler projects where you can learn how to use tools and put things together. Then get together with your friends and work your way up to building your first robot together!
What is your favorite quote? What does it mean to you?Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
~ Arthur C. Clarke
- 2 June 2018
2 June 2018
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