Female Roboticist Wants Girls to Build, Break, and Make Things

The robotics industry is in a period of tremendous growth, with robots increasingly being used in multiple areas, from transportation and manufacturing to entertainment and health care. According to Boston Consulting Group (BCG), the industry will balloon from $15 billion in 2010 to $67 billion by 2025 thanks to new technology becoming cheaper and more efficient.

Although the field is growing at a rapid pace and making tremendous strides, it is still behind in one area: It is not easy to find women professionals with a long and successful career in robotics. The percentage of female roboticists is far lower than the percentage of males, and very few women have seen the birth, development, and progress of robotics.

But things are slowly starting to change. With programs like FIRST gaining momentum among female applicants and the public interest in robotics encouraging young women to want a career in the field, we are starting to see an increase in the number of girls getting excited to study STEM (just this past spring, Harvey Mudd College awarded 56 percent of its engineering degrees to women.)

I caught up with Sampriti Bhattacharya, the director/founder of Lab-X Foundation (which provides hands-on engineering training to those with limited resources) and one of Robohub’s 25 women in robotics you should know about to find out where she got her start and what she thinks can be done to keep encouraging women to pursue these careers.

How did you first become interested in Robotics?

Sampriti BhattacharyyaI first got interested in robotics around the age of 12 after watching a Discovery Channel documentary on the Mars Rovers. The Hollywood science fiction amazed me, but in India (Kolkata), there weren’t many, if any, young people who took interest in building things or doing something hands on, and we couldn’t imagine a girl working with robots or building things.

My senior year of high school I did my first science project called Mission Mars, and I felt more serious about the field. Unfortunately the majority of undergrad colleges in India are very different from here—most of them don’t provide any hands on experience and there are barely any resources available to do much. My first real robotics project was something I did as a hobby in my junior year of college when I built an autonomous sun tracking solar panel which could be integrated with a Mars Rover. A girl doing hands on project just for fun made me look weird, nerdy, and definitely out of place—but I thoroughly enjoyed it!

What has been your most interesting project to date?

I definitely find my PhD work on underwater robots very exciting. I see it having a lot of potential for the future—from monitoring contrabands, to rescue missions and exploration, as well as the inspection of nuclear reactor vessels to prevent radiation leakage. I would be thrilled if I can contribute something to make oceans and ports secure and safe. Particularly incidents like MH370 made me think a lot—that we need to step up in our technology to enable faster and more effective rescue operation possible.

But, to be honest, I think the first time I actually made my solar tracker work hands free, making decision and tracking the sun all by itself, that was one of the most amusing moments! Mostly because I had never done or seen anything like that before, and it convinced me that technology really works, it’s no magic, but a bunch of code and hardware.

Where do you see robotics going in the next 5 to 10 years?

Robotics has immense potential in the future and I feel that very soon it will be smoothly integrated with our everyday life. Things that we thought were science fiction or robots once are things we use every day now, like touch screens, Google Glass, the iRobot vacuum—you name it! Advanced prosthetics, surgical robots, assistive robots in airports, railways, and even at home, industrial robots in warehouses, or for delivery, and even social robots—these applications all have a lucrative future.

And then there is security, safety, and military applications. For that, I think as long as the main goal is to keep people safe rather than to destroy, mankind will in fact benefit hugely from autonomous robots and surveillance systems. Imagine being able to stop human trafficking, weapon or illegal good smuggling, or able to expedite rescue operations from months to a couple days!

But in the age of automation it’s easy to lose contact with the natural world around us. As a roboticist, and as someone who loves technology, I still feel we need to stay grounded and connected to nature, to people, to feelings.

What steps do you think need to be taken to get younger girls interested in the robotics field? 

It’s sad that even in a developed country like the United States there are very few women doing robotics. Recently I was at the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS) and women were definitely a tiny minority. But I think things are changing. We need to be active by holding programs that are particularly targeted towards young girls, and parents themselves have to be conscious about how they inspire their children. And last but not the least is the media. The way media portrays “the ideal women” drastically impacts young girls on what and who they want to be. I think the media can take some big steps in promoting the right role models and inspiring young minds.

It’s worse in countries like India, where the ideal woman is the shy and absolutely gorgeous housewife; one who cooks for her husband, follows him around, and takes care of the household chores. It’s a bigger challenge in those societies to break the stereotypical expectation and teach young girls to be independent and empower them with real technological knowledge.

I started the organization Lab-X Foundation last year and really one of my biggest goals is to inspire young women to build, break, and make things. We are organizing a four day all girl hack-a-thon in India early next year. I myself might not have started very early, but something I’d like to say to any girl: It’s never too late to start building and doing things, if you really want it.

Photo courtesy of FIRST Robotics/Adriana M. Groisman

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