Photo: Jason Dorfman, CSAIL photographer
Where did you grow up: Kingsport, TN, in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains.
What was your academic path before coming to grad school at MIT? After graduating from the Tennessee public school system in 2005, I went to college at Tennessee Tech University. There I studied Mechanical Engineering, exploring a wide range of possible career options. I did a bit of work with one of the Materials Research labs at TTU, and also did a year-long co-op at Eastman Chemical Co. One professor, Dr. S. Canfield, offered a special topics class in Robotics, which I audited, and that motivated me and a few others to form TTU's Autonomous Robotics Club. I co-led the club to two IGVC competitions, and my passion for robotics has brought me to MIT.
What did you want to be when you were younger? Is that still an interest of yours? Everything! I'm really a dreamer at heart, just that reality thing keeps getting in the way. Anyone who watched me, though, would have probably been able to predict that I would be an engineer/scientist from about age 7. I was always involved in problem-solving and science activities, just at an elementary level.
What is something most people would be surprised to learn about you? Some of my friends have remarked at the huge variety of activities I did growing up. A few of the more interesting: I knit and crocheted, I played competitive paintball, I performed magic tricks, and I was a waterskiing instructor for 2 summers.
What department are you currently working in, and when did you start there? I am studying in the Mechanical Engineering Department (course 2) but my lab and research are more in line with the Computer Science field. I started in the fall of 2009.
What are you working on and why are you passionate about it? I'm teaching robots to navigate intelligently. Our lab's work centers around the Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) problem, which we humans do all the time. Within the SLAM world, I'm specifically interested in very noisy and low-feature environments, specifically underwater. Within that, the key nugget of my work is studying the use of negative information (when you expect to see something, but don't find it) and its effects on finding your correct location. Perhaps my overall favorite part of the work is comparing, on a big-picture scale, why it's so hard for computers to do what we humans perform quite easily.
What is your favorite thing about working at CSAIL? The people at CSAIL are some of the most driven, thoughtful, and creative minds I've ever encountered. They create a whole atmosphere of innovation and persistence. And they are capable of bringing in the most advanced resources, both academic and extra-curricular, which makes CSAIL really unique. I really believe that the people I work with (and around) make CSAIL amazing.
What effect do you think your area of work will have on the world in the next decade? We're already seeing real navigating robots in our world. We've seen autonomous cars driving around California, we put robots underwater to work on our oil spill, and we have robotic vacuum cleaners in our homes and our swimming pools. Let me agree with every other roboticist: The robots are here. They're getting smarter, faster, and more able to work alongside us. And the technology is being created by people like me.
What are your future plans? I will spend my entire career in robotics, I just can't get enough of it. For my immediate future, I am investigating a variety of opportunities to research legged robots, specifically for walking, running, jumping, etc. We do it so well, so how come they don't? The RoboCup competition has announced a very lofty goal for 2050: To have a robotic team defeat the World Cup 2050 champions in regulation soccer. I want to be watching that game in person, watching my team defeat the world's best. While there, I'll have my robotic servant bring me a cold beer.
What advice would you give a prospective CSAIL graduate student? There's no single formula to success, that's been proven. But everyone who's successful seems to be chasing dreams. So get to it. Work hard, dream big, and accomplish things you're proud of, in your career and in your personal life.
Is there anything else you'd like to share? Some of my favorite quotes:
"Engineers aren't boring people...They just get excited about boring things."
"They are happy men whose natures sort with their vocations."- Francis Bacon
"Never slap a man who's chewing tobacco."-Will Rogers