Ayanna Howard, Roboticist
Dr. Ayanna Howard has changed the face of robotics in every sense. She’s one of the few black women in the field and she’s working on inventions with an eye on social impact, not science fiction.
I like going to places and people are like, what do you do? And I'm like, I'm a rocket scientist. What else? I like having that power. The ability to take things that were imagination, that were in my mind, and make them a reality.
My mom and dad were both techies. My mom was a math major and my dad was an engineering major. And so when I grew up, I would get my little Betty Crocker bake oven, but I would also get my erector set.
I was always into science fiction and anything science-y that was on TV. When I saw "The Bionic Woman," I was totally fascinated. At the time, there wasn't a lot of positive female role models.
And here IT was, this beautiful person who was saving the world with these things called bionics.
- Jamie! Run, Jamie, run!
- We had the technology, which I always resonated with, but you had this social impact. And so I knew at that point that I wanted to build a bionic woman. That's what I want to do.
We're designing intelligent navigation systems for future Rover missions. And here I was, this young, you know, fresh out with her PhD leading engineers who were slightly older, and have not been exposed to a black female engineer. And I come into the room and, you know, first of all, I was really excited, because this was, like, my first lead, and I was this PI on this project.
I remember there was an engineer who was like, oh you're not supposed to be here. You need to go down the hall, because that's where the secretaries are. Basically, he dismissed me because of the way that I look. But I took up the courage and introduced myself, and was like, oh you're on my team. You know, we haven't met before. Let's get down to work. We've got to wait for the other folks. Those kind of things, it was just pushing forward, making sure that I spoke up and didn't sit down. Keep proving yourself, because you're awesome, and eventually that pendulum swings.
When I started at Georgia Tech, I knew space robotics. That's what I knew. And about three years in, I realized that I wanted to do more. That bionic woman desire kicked in, and I was like wait, I'm at Georgia Tech. I can do anything that I want. Why don't I focus on what I wanted to do originally-- this social impact, this health aspect in terms of robotics?
At the time, that was a big risk. Health care robotics was totally new. How do I get clinicians to buy into this idea, because I need medical professionals to work with me, and there are no steps because no one's done it before. So it's exciting, exhilarating, also terrifying.
In my lab research, we focus on robotic therapy. So how do we design robots for the home environment to engage children in their educational therapy goals. We brought in our therapy system into the home of a child with severe spasticity. So part of our system is you play a game. I remember sitting there and the child was in the wheelchair, and at one point he hits one of the objects and it pops and there's like this feedback, so it was like this [HIGH PITCHED SQUEAL] and there's a smile on this kid's face that, oh my. If you could just capture that and put it in a box. Any time you felt bad you could open it up. And at that moment, I was like, you know, we're doing the right thing. We are definitely doing the right thing.
Just like when you work on women initiatives it's good for everyone, when you work on initiatives that are accessible to diverse learning needs of children with special needs, it means you're working on something that works for everyone. I was inspired by the social impact of this woman who had bionics that saved the world. And so I feel now that that's what I'm doing. I'm taking my intelligence along with my robotic systems and I am having a direct impact on children's lives.