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Ayanna Howard

Robotics Engineer
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Pasadena, California

What is your job title and what do you do at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)?

Robotics Engineer. My main task is as a robotics researcher – I come up with innovative technologies that enable robots to think for themselves.

What inspired you to become interested in robotics? How old were you when you first considered robotics as a possible career?

When I was younger, I remember seeing the Bionic Woman on television and becoming fascinated with this novelty. Here was a woman who was super strong, super fast, and super smart that went around helping people just because. At that moment, I knew I wanted to build the next bionic woman. I was in the 5th or 6th grade and about 11 years old.

Did you ever want to be anything else? If so, what? Why didn't you go into that field?

At first, I thought I had to study biomedical engineering in order to work with bionics. I was under the impression that I needed to study the human body in order to become involved in robotics. After taking biology, I realized that what I loved was math and physics and that what interested me about robotics was the mechanics and control, not the human physiology.

What were your favorite subjects in elementary and high school?

My favorite subjects in elementary and high school were math and computers. Of course, computer programming consisted of BASIC and the machine I used was the Commodore 64.

What were your least favorite or most difficult subjects?

My least favorite subject was biology because I didn't like dissecting frogs.

Which subjects helped you most towards your present career and how did they help you?

Math was the basis of everything. I think the process of training my mind to think logically helped me toward my present career.

What do you enjoy most about your job? Is it fun?

I always tell people "I get to play with toys." I enjoy my job very much. I actually get paid to think outside-the-box and to make my imagination a reality.

What do you like the least about your job and what would you change if you could?

The think I like least about the job is fighting for funding in order to do the work. Robotics research can be a competitive field and it takes a lot of effort to get recognized as an established expert in the area.

Do certain types of people do better at the kind of work you do?

Anyone who likes to work with their hands and has a knack for math and science should do well in this field.

Is robotics a difficult career for girls to enter?

Robotics, itself, is not a difficult career for girls to enter, but engineering, which is the backbone of robotics, can be. So many of our girls get persuaded to pursue other career choices at a young age and become discouraged with math and science. By the time robotics is thought of as a career choice, they have already been left behind in the game.

What is a typical day like for you at work?

In general, each day is unique. A typically week consists of (in no particular order) -- 1) meet with my task members to discuss current problems and solutions, 2) develop, improve, or program a new algorithm, 3) work in the robotics lab to solve a current problem, 3) test an algorithm in simulation or on the robot - either in the lab or in the field, 4) document results for future publication, and 5) provide updates to the sponsor.

What does your family think of your job?

They are very proud and supportive. In the 5th grade, my parents were the first to put a Radio Shack electronics kit in my hands and encourage a hands-on engineering experience.

What do you like to do in your free time?

I enjoy going to the movies with my husband. I usually see every sci-fi, horror, and action-adventure movie within 2 weeks of its opening. Imagination drives science, and it's interesting to see how creative non-scientific minds work.

What advice do you have for students around the world about education in general and robotics in particular?

Don't let anybody persuade you to give up. Know that some things may be difficult and others may cause you to struggle, but deal with it and keep trying. If robotics is your dream, persevere to make it a reality.

Do you have a favorite quote that you find inspirational?

"Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don't bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself." --William Faulkner

Ayanna responds to questions

JPL Engineer Selected as Young Innovator

- 16 August 2002


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Last Updated:
16 August 2002

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