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Allison Okamura

Mechanical Engineering
The most important thing about being an engineer is understanding people and designing systems that will improve the human condition. My research focuses on how we can engineer the sense of touch.

We’re trying to figure out how to enable humans to get the tactile feedback we receive when we directly manipulate objects in virtual or remote environments. This field is called haptics: the science of applying touch sensation and control to computer applications. It’s a field of robotics where we’re not just exploring what technology can do, but how we can bring our understanding of people to technology. Think about this in terms of medicine. What if we had a surgeon who was controlling a tele-operated surgical robot, smaller than his or her hands – and the surgeon could actually feel as if she was doing the surgery with her own hands? This would allow us to make smaller, less invasive cuts during surgery and would also open up the possibility that a surgeon doesn’t even need to be in the same room as the patient.

In college I decided to major in engineering because I liked math and science. But I also liked the idea that as an engineer, I would be a designer. I love creating systems that humans interact with. I also love teaching and working with students to shape the frontiers of knowledge, which is why I wanted to become a professor. I am passionate about imparting a holistic education, which connects technical skill to the understanding of people. In the classroom, I ask students to think about the ways their designs will impact people.

The biggest misconception about engineering is that engineers sit in a room with a pencil, paper and computer and work in isolation. In reality, it’s an area where you work with a lot of people on teams and with clients. For someone considering a career in engineering, the most important thing to understand is that you can have impacts in ways that aren’t purely technical.

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