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Catie Cuan

Catie Cuan

PhD candidate
Mechanical Engineering
I didn’t study engineering in college.

My childhood dream was to be a dancer, but I didn’t know anyone pursuing dance when I graduated. I initially worked in consulting. Eventually I decided to just go for it and start auditioning. I booked one of my dream dance jobs within 12 months, and my career followed two different tracks after that. One track was in performing arts as a dancer and choreographer, and the other was more technical, working on websites for clients. I enjoyed both fields, but I felt like I lived in two different worlds. I continuously sought ways to bridge these two spheres and was lucky enough to be offered an artistic residency at the Robotics, Automation and Dance Lab at the University of Illinois, through the lab director, Amy, who I met at the Conference for Research on Choreographic Interfaces.

At the start of the residency, I thought I’d just create dances with robots, but while I was there I rekindled my passion for conducting academic research. I enjoyed designing experiments and creating situations that allowed many different types of people to interact with often inaccessible, intimidating machines. So, I decided to apply for graduate school to study mechanical engineering and learn more about robotics.

There tends to be a bit of a hyperbolic, catastrophic storyline around robots, especially in the media, and I think dance is a powerful way to change that. My research focuses on how to empower people to feel comfortable interacting with machines through movement. I want to design an interface that detects human movement and uses that movement to control robots both near and far. I want to learn more about why and how stories about robots affect people’s perceptions of them. My background in dance and the performing arts makes me uniquely positioned to do this.

Robots move and choreographers are experts at constructing movement. I believe there is a natural connection, and my dance experience is an integral part of my current research. I really like that Stanford puts diversity into practice by thinking outside of the box and encouraging people like me who don’t have traditional backgrounds to study and apply their skill sets here.

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