Live Event: February 23, 2017 at 1:00pm Eastern
Erin Fischell is a robotics and acoustics researcher at MIT. She builds robot sensors for use above and underwater, and runs experiments using those systems to collect data. We asked her a few questions about herself and her STEM career to get to know her and her work a bit better before her live event.
Learn More About Erin
What are your favorite hobbies or activities you do for fun?
Gardening, hiking, singing, reading, playing with my daughter
Do you play any musical instruments?
Do you play any sports or do any athletic activities?
Swimming, scuba diving, hiking, skiing
What is your favorite non-science book, magazine, or blog?
A specific favorite is hard, but the fiction authors I read and re-read year after year are Tamora Pierce, Anne McCaffery, JRR Tolkein and Terry Pratchett. Favorite books I read this year are “The city and the city” by China Meville and “The hare with the amber eyes” by Edmund de Waal.
What’s your favorite song?
“Falling slowly” from the musical Once
Who do you look up to and admire?
My parents, especially my mother. As a kid I particularly looked up to Sally Ride.
Highest degree attained
PhD, MIT/WHOI Joint Program in Mechanical and Oceanographic Engineering
Cornell University, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (undergraduate)
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mechanical and Oceanographic Engineering (graduate)
Favorite classes/coursework in elementary school, middle school, high school, college
Elementary/middle school: Science, math, music
High school: Calculus, Physics, History
College: Systems dynamics, fluid dynamics, nautical archeology
What educational accomplishments are you most proud of?
Completing my PhD at MIT in 4.5 years.
What kinds of challenges did you overcome during your education?
I had a lot of support from my parents and many teachers through my education, but there are still additional challenges to women in science and engineering. Discrimination is not as blatant as 30 years ago, but it is too often necessary to have a thick skin. A few (of many) examples: I had a high school mentor who joked along with my otherwise male robotics team about girls not being able to build things when I made errors, I had to pretend deafness to lewd comments on otherwise male teams at many points through high school and college, I had a professor who never called on women in his class, etc. My experience has been that once I am integrated with a team being a woman does not matter, but getting taken seriously initially can be a challenge. My solution has been to ignore words directed at me, to be professional, reliable and competent, to speak up if I recognize someone else being targeted, and to help create policies and culture that is professional and universally welcoming when I am in a position to do so. When I ran the Cornell University Autonomous Underwater Vehicle team, for example, I helped to draft a harassment and discrimination policy for the project team space and focused on professionalism in my own team.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Postdoctoral Associate, Laboratory for Autonomous Marine Sensing Systems (LAMSS)
Robotics and acoustics researcher
Years in this organization/position
I have been working with LAMSS for 6.5 years now, between my PhD and Postdoctoral work. I have been a postdoc for almost 2 years.
What does your organization do?
Build robot sensors for on and under the water, run experiments using those systems to collect scientific data, analyze data informed by oceanographic and acoustic modelling.
What is your role in the organization?
I am a postdoctoral researcher, which means I manage and advise the graduate students in the lab, plan experiments, and perform my own acoustics and robotics research. Right now that includes writing code to process acoustics (sound) sensor data on underwater robots, modelling acoustics, developing robot behaviors (how they respond to the environment), systems engineering for new payloads for acoustic sensing, planning experiments for next summer, and writing papers based on my work.
Describe your work environment
Much of my work in on a computer: acoustic modeling, robot behavior, sensor processing and simulation coding, writing papers and grants. I do electrical work: designing circuit boards, integrating electronics with underwater robots, testing new designs on a lab bench. I also do field work, testing the software and hardware we build and conducting science experiments.
What tools and/or techniques do you use in your job?
I use a number of programming languages (Python, C++, C, Matlab) for software development, and electrical design tools for PCB design. For electrical integration and testing, I use oscilloscopes, multimeters, function generators, soldering irons etc. I sometimes need to use machine shop tools (e.g. mill and lathe), and mechanical design tools (CAD/CAM). The best tool for any engineer is knowing how to learn new things: this is especially true in robotics, where most researchers need to be generalists who can build, wire, program and test by themselves or with a small team.
Describe a typical day in your job
On a typical day, I spend some time writing (papers or proposals for funding), some time writing code, and some time meeting or e-mailing with students for advising or engineering management. What else I do is dependent on time of year and project load: sometimes I am getting sensors ready to go on a vehicle, or testing a new data acquisition system. Sometimes I am getting ready to go out on a boat with underwater robots, so I am running engineering tests in tanks or small scale and running simulations to test any new autonomy. Sometimes I am running an experiment.
Describe an atypical day in your job
The most fun days are when we get to run experiments. This summer, I ran experiments at the MIT Sailing Pavillion in the Charles River weekly. On those days, I arrived early to help students set up networking equipment, charge vehicle batteries, and finalize experiment plans. Any acoustics arrays or sources went in the water first, then the autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) and possibly autonomous surface vehicles (ASVs). I generally stay on the dock with binoculars and a radio while students take boats out for vehicle monitoring and recovery. AUV operations are boring when they go well: the robot is underwater so you can’t see it, and is autonomous, so it drives itself. After it finishes its mission, it surfaces and gets brought back to the dock. We download and process the data, and possibly send it out on another mission. At the end of the day we pack up our equipment and copy the data to a server.
How is the work you do important to society?
The applications of the technology I am developing are important: specific applications I work on include monitoring changes to the arctic ocean due to a warming climate, finding and classifying underwater mines, and collecting acoustic data for identifying animals or boats.
What accomplishments are you most proud of in your current role?
I am most proud of how much the graduate students have learned in the last year, and of the cohesiveness of my team.
What projects or goals are you currently pursuing?
I will be starting as an assistant scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution this spring. That means I will be starting my own lab for underwater robotics and acoustics research. My near-term goal is to be running multi-robot underwater missions by the end of the summer.
What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?
The thing that is giving me the biggest headaches at the moment is how to create a maintainable software structure and coding culture within my lab. I am trained in mechanical engineering, as is most of my team, so we need to balance flexibility with something that self-trained programmers can sustain over time. We are also coming up against the limits of underwater communications technology.
What is the most exciting, most amazing, or scariest thing that has happened to you during your work?
We had a 3-AUV collision during an experiment my first year of graduate school. Underwater communication is poor- we hear from each robot every minute or three. There were three AUVs in the water, and one had the wrong navigation settings so that it encountered first one and then the other collaborator robot. I was monitoring the operation, and suddenly I get position updates and all three vehicles are hundreds of meters away from where they were supposed to be, and all on top of each other. We sent out the work boat to pick up the pieces. Fortunately, it was the last day of the experiment and only one of the vehicles was seriously damaged.
Previous employers and positions that have lead to your current role
Team Leader, Cornell University Autonomous Underwater vehicle (2008-2010)
Best job you’ve ever had and why
My current job! I love working with students, designing experiments, and developing new technology.
What were you like as a kid?
I loved school, read constantly and was bad at relating to kids my own age, particularly other girls (possibly because I was an insufferable know-it-all disinterested in “girl” things). I also enjoyed swimming, playing the flute, singing in choir and building robots out of k’nex.
What were your favorite books/shows/movies when you were a kid?
Tamora Pierce was easily my favorite author from age 11 or so. I still love her books. Bill Bryson was (and is) another favorite. I don’t remember any particular movies or TV shows.
What did you think you were going to be when you grew up at age 12? At age 15? At age 18?
At age 12 I thought I wanted to be a geologist: I loved rocks. By age 15 I knew I loved building things so I wanted to be an engineer, but was still trying to decide if I wanted to pursue music as well. At age 18 I knew I liked robotics, though I don’t think I had identified that as the career I wanted.
When did you know you wanted to pursue your current career, and what drove you towards it?
My family says they knew I was going to be an engineer at age 4. I knew I wanted to be an engineer (in general) from 9th grade: working with a team to build things was more fun than anything else, and the idea that someone would pay me to do it was appealing. I liked physics a lot, but by senior year of high school I knew I was not smart enough to be a physicist. By junior year of college I knew I wanted to make robotics into a career. I decided on academia instead of industry when I was offered a job at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution a few months ago.
Who inspired you on this path?
My parents are both engineers, so that definitely make me realize engineering was a good choice early on. However, probably the greatest influence was my high school research teacher Mr. Roche, who got me started in underwater robotics. Mr. Roche started a MATE ROV team my junior year of high school and convinced me to join. We won the national competition that year, and placed third my senior year. Based on that experience, I was accepted to Cornell University Autonomous Underwater Vehicle team (CUAUV) my freshman year of college. I built 4 robots with CUAUV, and led the team to 2 international championships in 2009 and 2010. My work on CUAUV led to me being accepted to grad school in underwater robotics at MIT.
What did you believe about this career before entering into it that proved to be different once you were in?
I don’t think I thought about it much: to some extent, I found a particular thing I liked and was good at (building underwater robots), and have followed from one opportunity to the next without some grand vision. The things that have surprised me the most in my current position are how much I enjoy teaching and working with graduate students and how much of my time I spend writing.
If you weren’t doing what you’re doing now, what career(s) might you have pursued?
I thought about studying biomedical engineering or aerospace engineering early in college, music and physics in high school, and geology and medicine when I was younger. I think I would have loved geology!
What advice would you give a student interested in pursuing your career?
Take every opportunity to get hands-on experience building something and learn to work well on a team. You learn more about the process of learning by completing a project than by reading about it, and it contributes to your ability to problem-solve effectively in the real world. Unlike in classes actual engineering is rarely clear-cut, and there is almost never a single answer- so get practice with real problems.
When I am choosing someone to join me on a project what I think about is:
1) Are they good at something I need for the project, and do they learn new things well with a minimum of guidance? Will they “own” the project or merely do what I tell them to do?
2) Are they good at working with others? Will they contribute to the overall effort and be easy to be around in late-night debugging sessions? Do I trust them to treat everyone on the team with respect?
What advice would you give students in general?
1) Show up and be kind. “Show up” means more than just be there and don’t be late: it means invest yourself fully in any effort. It means don’t make excuses for yourself or for your performance: if you mess up, own up, apologize and have a plan for next time. “Be kind” means don’t gossip, assume the best of everyone going into each day, and treat others with respect.
2) You want to be able to go through life proud of what you have done rather than what you have been told to do: so do something that makes you more interesting. So do something outside of your classes: don’t expect to just go to class, get A’s, and have anything handed to you. Looking at online videos makes poor dinner conversation, but a woodworking project, band concert or film you are making with your buddies are fun to talk about and helps you form an identity.
3) Ideally, find something you love that people will also pay you well for (I got lucky in this), and have realistic expectations about doing what you love. I have many friends whose “real job” is something they like so that they can afford to do what they love. They pursue their passion at a professional level (music, writing, filmmaking, etc.) while their day jobs are writing code, developing websites or designing circuit boards.
4) On the topic of only doing what you love, my family uses the expression, “that is why they call it work”. Even in your dream job, you will not always be doing what you want to do. The most exciting part of my job is running robotics experiments and coming up with new designs. That is about 5% of my time: the rest is writing, debugging, fighting with code, teaching classes, reading papers to keep up with the literature, scheduling meetings, etc. I like many of those things, and dislike others (grading papers comes to mind). All jobs include some amount paperwork and things you would really rather not do. Don’t expect to be fulfilled every day, and be willing to do your share of the grunt work.
What are some interesting places you’ve traveled?
My first year of graduate school I spent a month in Italy for an experiment. We worked out of a naval base that was closed on weekends, so we got two days a week of hiking in the Cinque Terre.
Twitter (with photos from summer 2016 ops): https://twitter.com/erinfischell
Erin Fischell MIT webpage: http://lamss.mit.edu/lamss/pmwiki/pmwiki.php?n=People.Fischell
2014 GOATS Experiment, with photos (data from this experiment was the basis of my PhD dissertation):