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Paulo Younse

Mechanical Engineer
California, USA

Where did you grow up and what were your favorite activities as a child?

I grew up in the San Francisco and Ventura County areas in California.  When I was in 5th and 6th grade, my family and I lived in Lagos, Nigeria, which is in western Africa.  As a kid, I liked to play soccer and basketball, play video games with my friends, and build things out of Legos.

What were your favorite subjects and what made them your favorites?

My favorite subjects in school were math and science because we got to learn all about how and why things in the world work.  I also loved history and English because the my teachers showed me how to think creatively and understand the world through the eyes of other people.

What were your least favorite or most difficult subjects in school?

English was a challenging subject for me, especially when it came to making speeches in front of the entire class.  However, after lots of practicing and some advice from my teachers, I learned to be very good at speaking and therefore not afraid to speak in front of large groups of people.  In college, I even became a DJ for our college radio station, as well as speak on TV in some news interviews.

Did you live in any other countries or experience other cultures or languages as a child?

When I was in 4th and 5th grade, I lived in Africa and went to an American International School, which had students from all over the world.  My best friends were from England, Australia, Israel, Somalia, Germany, Korea, China, Colombia, and India.  My family and I also took trips to Kenya, South Africa, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Greece, Italy, and England when I was a kid.  Seeing how people live in other countries really helped me appreciate the different cultures and lifestyles people have.  It also showed me why it is so important for us, as Americans, who have so much wealth, to help out some of the countries that do not have as much as us because in the end, even though we may be in different parts of the world and speak different languages, we are all people, people who deserve the best.

In school, I took classes in French and Spanish, which was a lot of fun because I could communicate (even though just a little) to people from other countries.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was a kid, I found a lot of peoples' jobs interesting.  I thought about being a paleontologist so I could look for fossils and dinosaur bones, an artist, an astronomer, a scientist, and an electrical engineer.  I wasn't sure yet, but I did know that I needed to go to college to do all these things, and that to get into college I had to do my best in all the subjects in school.

When did you decide what you wanted to be a mechanical engineer?  What subjects most prepared you for your career/future career?  Why did you want to work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory?

It wasn't until my senior year of high school that I decided to be a mechanical engineer, and not until midway through college that I wanted to work for NASA and build robots.  In high school, science and math courses prepared me for my engineering courses in college.  English was also very important because it taught me how to write well (as an engineer we need to write reports).  History helped me better understand the world we live in (which drives what an engineer designs) and also improved my memorization skills (which allows me to know equations and engineering knowledge at the top of my head).  I decided to work at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) because of all the cool robots, satellites, and spacecraft that they design.

As a youngster, what were your favorite activities?

Growing up, I liked to build things with Legos.  I remember building a moving robot, a rubber band gun, and small cars out of Legos.  I also liked to draw and play the harmonica.  In high school, I played basketball, ran track (my best mile time was 4:51), and cross-country.  I also did a lot of community service through CSF, NHS, Rotaract, and our International Club.

Please comment on the following statement: "Difficulties on the job arise more often from lack of human understanding than from lack of knowledge or skills."

This is true.  As an engineer, I have to work in teams and with people all the time.  The better you are at talking to people, working closely with them, showing them respect, helping them with their problems, and being a good leader, the better you will be at your job.  Also, I find that sometimes I do not know the solutions to an engineering problem, but if I have lots of contacts at work, I can always find something who can help teach me what I need to know to help me find a solution.

What do you like most about your current job?

I LOVE my job at JPL, where I get to design, build, and test robots.  I get to use nearly everything I learned in school to do my job, and there are always new challenges involved where I continuously get to read and learn even more.  I also get to work with a lot of very smart, creative, and exciting people who are willing to teach me what they know and work with me on different projects.  Most of all, I love getting the chance to come up with new ideas for how to explore space, the solar system, and beyond.

How does it feel as a newcomer to JPL, an institution with a long and respected history?

When I graduated from college, I had a lot of friends and knew everything about the university and city I lived in.  When I moved to California, I had to restart my life in a new town, a new workplace, and among new people and coworkers.  So, the first day at work, I went around and introduced myself to everyone around, made friends, asked lots of questions to learn about how to get around and do my job, and did a lot of exploring on my own to learn all I could about JPL.  Now, I feel at home at JPL and in Pasadena, and feel like I am part of a family and community.

Also, I came into work straight out of school and had to work with people who knew a lot more than me and had many, many more years of experience.  However, I did my best, kept on learning how to do my job, and got lots of help from many of my co-workers.  Your co-workers know you are new, and are always willing to help you succeed if you ask.  Now I feel very comfortable in my job and enjoy it more than ever!

When you began your engineering studies, did the coursework meet your expectations?

When beginning my engineering courses at Cal Poly, I found the engineering course extremely interesting and exciting!  The material they taught in the courses was all new to me (which of course is the reason to go to college - to learn new skills and ideas).  However, the knowledge I had in science, math, and physics from high school helped me very much in getting through these engineering courses.  Most of all, by not procrastinating, studying hard, doing my best, and being willing to ask my friends, classmates, and professors for help understanding some of the materials when I needed the help, was key in succeeding through my mechanical engineering program.

Do you have any advice for the students reading this interview?

My advice to everyone is to do well in school - not just in science and math, but in all subjects.  To be an engineer (as well as many other jobs), it is important to go to college and to get into college you have to have good grade in all subjects.  Even if you decide you want to do something else for a career, you can always switch majors during or after college.  Also, joining clubs and activities that help you work in the community, practice leadership skills, organize events, and do public speaking are very important.  The leadership skills and people skills I learned through these helped me get a job at JPL, and definitely help me on the job where I constantly have to deal with all types or people and lead teams in projects.

You should also keep up with your regular activities like sports, music, arts, and hanging out with friends, because they help clear your head, practice creativity, stay physically healthy, and relax.  Being well-rounded will help you enjoy work and life to the fullest.  When not working on robots, I love to draw portraits, train for marathons and triathlons, teach classes at local elementary schools, watch movies with my friends, play the harmonica, swing and salsa dance, read novels, and travel.

Also, if you find yourself having a difficult time in your classes in college, don't be afraid because you aren't alone (I did very well in my math and science classes in high school and also had some very tough classes in college).  What helped me get through my tough courses was to spend some more time reading my textbooks and doing extra homework problems, working in study groups with my classmates, and visiting my professors to get help and advice - they are more than willing to help and want to succeed.  Don't give up, do your very best, expect the very best for you, and expect the very best of you because you deserve it!

Does being a robotics engineer require you to have a broad field of knowledge?  If so, what kind of knowledge is helpful or required for the work you do?

Being involved in robotics requires me to be good in many fields of engineering such as mechanical and electrical engineering, artificial intelligence, computer vision, and computer programming, because it takes all of these working together to build a robot.  This is what I love about robotics!  English is also very important because I need to be able to write about what I create for other people.  And even biology - a lot of what we build in the field of robotics we can learn by looking at nature and animals (think about robotic arms, legged robots, computer vision, and artificial intelligence).  Art is also important because when you design something, you want to make it cool so people will buy it, support it, and want to take lots of pictures of it!  People love cool looking robots!

What are some of your favorite robots?

My favorite robot is LEMUR, a six-legged robot that can walk and was designed as a prototype for future robots that may go up into space to assemble structures, space stations, and satellites, as well as help astronauts with maintenance and inspection.  We also have a really neat robot called Cliffbot than can scale steep, rocky cliffs.  My favorite task at work is being able to play with and operate these robots.  In August, we are actually going to travel up to Svalbard, a little island up in the Arctic Circle near the North Pole, to test Cliffbot on some real cliffs!

What is a typical day like for you at work?

A typical day at work for me:
8:00 am
- I show up in my office, check my voice-mail and e-mail, and make a list of things I need to do for the day.
- I spend a few hours designing new parts for a robot on the computer using my college books, performing calculations in my notebook, and meeting with other members of my team to get their opinions and feedback.
- I make drawings of these parts either on the computer or by hand and take them down to the machine shop to be built - I attend a meeting or two for the different projects I am on, where everyone gives a description of what they accomplished over the last week, what they plan on working on the next week, and we come up with solutions and new ideas for the project together.
11:30 am-12:30 pm
- I go to lunch at the cafeteria with 7-8 of my co-workers.  Some of them bring sandwiches they made at home, while others buy food from the cafeteria (I love JPL's sushi bar and brick-oven BBQ chicken pizza!).  We eat, share jokes, tell stories about what we did over the weekend, and some people talk about the funny things their kids did at home.
- I go into our lab to test drive some of our robots.
- If a robot or a robotic arm breaks, I get to disassemble it and take it to our mechanical room.  Then I get to use a bunch of screwdrivers and wrenches to take it apart, figure out what's wrong, and fix it (like replacing gears and motors, re-gluing parts, and soldering wires back together).
- I get phone calls from the machine shop, letting me know the parts I ordered had arrived or had been made, I pick them up, and then I assemble them onto our robot and test them out to make sure they work.
- Sometimes I'll have visitors at work and get to take them on tours of JPL and our lab and teach people how robot works, how robots help us explore the solar system and learn about where we came from, and how you can get to be an engineer like myself.
5:00 pm
- I put away all my papers, tools, shut down my computer, say goodbye to my co-workers, and go home. (Though sometimes, if we really need to finish something at work or if one of my co-workers needs help on a project they're working on, I'll stay a little longer at work to help.).

Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you?

"Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and then leave a trail." ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

As an engineer, our job is to come up with new ideas and new inventions to help us explore the universe, help us learn about the world, and make the world a better place.  It is our job to pave new paths for all people that will help us grow, learn, and live better lives.  It is our job to take the lead and inspire the world to follow.

Paulo's Interview in 2015

- 19 May 2006


Last Updated:
1 July 2015

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