My undergrad was in mechanical engineering, my PhD was in electrical engineering, and now I’m a professor in the Aeronautics and Astronautics department.
As I advanced in my education, I started to realize that having a lot of interests can be really useful, especially in an interdisciplinary field like robotics. It’s an amazing combination of mechanics, electronics, data science and math, so it felt perfect for me.
Today, I use skills from all those fields to improve navigation for autonomous robots like self-driving cars and drones. It’s a real challenge. When you have a GPS receiver, you’re picking up satellite signals from medium Earth orbit. That’s 20,000 kilometers away, so the signals are incredibly weak – but your receiver has to pick them out of all the background noise and then use them to calculate your position accurately.
It takes a lot of creativity to work around those limitations. That’s why, as an academic, I think it’s nice to have hobbies and interests that aren’t directly related to your work – trying new things helps the mind become flexible and make new connections. That’s an essential part of solving hard problems. It’s not easy to be creative when you’re stressed out and hammering away at a single problem without a break. Creativity comes from a happy mind.
I make it a point to try new hobbies that are introduced to me by my students. A few years ago, for example, two of my students got me into figure skating – I had never done it before, but I started to take some skating classes and fell in love with it. Sometimes when I’m really stuck on a research problem, I’ll go skate to reset my brain, and when I come back, I’m able to see the problem from a totally different angle.
This quarter, I couldn’t skate because the rinks are closed, so I’ve been focusing on other hobbies instead. I’ve been doing some running, taking drawing classes, and have even started playing the piano again, which is a hobby I picked up a few years ago. It’s important to me to set an example for my students of work-life balance. I don’t want to turn them into machines that only generate research papers – I want to train them to be good, happy people as well as good scientists and engineers.