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From failing maths to a PhD in Robotics

This blog post was originally written by Bruna for Beyond Science who do fantastic work in encouraging young people to get involved in science. They have a series of blogs written by inspiring women involved in STEM, the aim is to support and encourage more girls to study these subjects. This blog post has been republished with the kind permission of Bruna.

There is something special about knowing your robots so well that you can tell what is wrong by the noise it makes. Initially, it feels like learning another language and with time, it becomes second nature. It is not just the noise, but the movements, the delay in responding to a command from the RC/Computer. Quite a magical experience when over time the robot changes from a cold piece of hardware into a machine capable of communicating what is wrong.

Funny thing is, if you had told me when I was a little girl that one day I would be soldering, coding or giving a machine the ability to see and comprehend its surroundings, I would probably laugh. You see I was not passionate about maths at all. I always loved coding but maths was my terror.

Somehow I realised that I could not code a robot without putting in the effort to learn maths. You see, it is perfectly possible to code loads of fascinating things without doing or understanding the maths behind it. After all, in most cases, someone already worked that out and turned it into a library and the only thing you need to do is to include the library to your code and that will make it work. But when comes to making a machine move from A to B and interacting with the environment, there is no escape, no easy solution… you just need to get down the bare bones of the equation and find out how it is going to connect with the rest of your code.

Often when I visit schools to present a demo or aid STEM activities there are always students that feel demotivated by the bumps they had on their grades. I usually take a copy of my grades with me, and play a little game… guess how bad I was at your age in maths? Quite often they laugh and guess a grade way better than my grades. So, I pull a copy of my report from a pocket and surprise them. The thing is, it does not matter how many bumps you need to overcome to get where you want to be, what matters is to keep pushing. Because, at the end of the day, you learned something important. Over time, that knowledge accumulates and before you even notice, you are an expert in all the wrong approaches to solving a problem, leaving you not only with more experience than those who got it right the first place but also with the correct answer.

It is then when I remind everyone I meet… if I managed to overcome my lack of maths and learnt it to the point where my maths skills bring me to where I am now, you are going to do so much better than me. All you need to do is keep pushing the barriers as far as you can.

Today I am finishing a PhD in Computer Vision and Robotics, where I work developing algorithms that allow a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) to autonomously navigate in challenging environments such a forest. These AI algorithms are currently learning to understand their surroundings. My hope is that in the future they can be deployed in search and rescue operations where drones play a vital role in assisting search teams in areas of difficult access.

So, that is how I became a scientist. Not because it was written in the stars or because it was a childhood dream, but because I could not accept defeat by the challenges life brought on my way. After all, science and more specifically robotics are fascinating, how could anyone ever give up or even worse not even try it?

Regardless of where you are in the world or how old you are, if you want to know more about robotics and computing, get in touch. You can find me at:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/brunapearson

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/brunapearson/

Bruna Pearson

PhD Researcher in Computer Vision and Robotics, AI Student Ambassador @IntelAI
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