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Karen Leung

PhD candidate, Aeronautics and Astronautics
Story originally published on Jul 2021
#IAmAnEngineer: I work on developing algorithms that help robots understand the world around them, and that teach them how to move safely around humans.

This is critical, because the next generation of autonomous systems – or robots – will have to be able to interact with humans. Right now, things like selfie drones and robotic vacuum cleaners don’t interact much with us; in fact, their job is to stay away from us. But if we’re able to create systems that can be safe and work alongside humans, this will open up a whole new set of opportunities.

One area I really care about is autonomous cars. Making them safe and able to work with us will not only allow us to ride in the car without paying attention and reduce road accidents; it’ll provide mobility to everyone, regardless of their age, abilities, health or even wealth. It’ll give people opportunities they didn’t have before due to lack of mobility, and I think that’s really important for an equitable future.

During my PhD, I’ve collaborated with Stanford Engineering’s Dynamic Design Lab, where I was able to put my algorithms on full-scale vehicle platforms and test them on a racetrack. One study focused on understanding how an autonomous car can safely merge into traffic, especially on a highway when it’s really busy. The autonomous car has to be able to predict what the oncoming car is going to do. If the autonomous car speeds up to merge, will the approaching car speed up or let it pass? We have to understand how the other cars have been behaving up to that moment in order to predict what they’re going to do next, then use that prediction to figure out what the autonomous car should do.

Entering aerospace engineering was a surprise to my family and friends, because they didn’t understand what it was, or know anyone who worked in the field. My parents and their friends who have emigrated from Hong Kong typically encourage their children to study medicine or law or business, which they feel paves the way to more stable career paths. I want to change that misconception by showing them that engineering does the same, and so much more. It’s about developing highly transferable skills that allow you to create technologies that improve the lives of millions of people around the world.

I’d tell anyone thinking of entering engineering that you can succeed. Engineering is multidisciplinary and a group effort, and when you’re an engineer you’re not alone; you’re never the only person working toward a solution. You’re always going to find people you enjoy working with who bring out the best in you, and you can bring out the best in others.

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