Please tell us briefly about your current work as a research engineer. What is the range of tasks you need to do? What do you find most exciting about it?
I currently work as a sensor fusion and perception engineer at Ford. That means my team works with various sensors in the car (cameras, lidar, radar) and develops algorithms to understand the signals from each of them as well as combine them in a reliable way so that a driver or a computer can make driving decisions. To be more specific, my current research focuses on robustness in perception algorithms- so I am trying to understand where our sensors and algorithms work and how to identify when the algorithms may not work properly.
On a day to day basis, my work includes reading research papers, defining algorithm requirements, writing software and doing testing. Testing includes both experiments in the lab and experiments in the real road with the car.
What I find most exciting is that my work is right in between research and application. I get to read the most recent academic work and learn what is going on. And I get to choose how to apply that research into a feasible application that can go into a car. It is extremely exciting to see something you wrote being used while a car is driving on the highway.
Why did you choose engineering and aeronautics engineering in particular? Tell us a bit about your academic and career journey starting from your early school days.
It’s a long story and has many twists and turns. Growing up as a good student, everyone expected me to be either a doctor or an engineer. Since I never really liked biology and was scared of blood, I decided to be an engineer. My engineering studies started at Pulchowk Engineering College in Kathmandu. I joined Electronics engineering and really disliked it. So, with a leap of faith, I quit Pulchowk and decided to not become an engineer.
But I did not know what I wanted to do instead. So, I applied to colleges in the United States where you did not have to choose your major for the first two years. Luckily, I got into Harvey Mudd College. I was considering studying physics, mathematics, or economics at the time. However, fate had a different plan. As a first-year student at Harvey Mudd, I attended a robotics class and loved it. As a result, I ended up working in a lab doing research in robotics and ended back in the path of engineering.
During my bachelors, I received my degree in General Engineering (which includes a basic course in all the different fields of engineering and in-depth electives in a particular field). For my electives, I chose robotics and systems engineering. I also did research in the robotics lab at the time, focusing on information distribution with multiple robots in the context of SLAM.
For my M.S, I chose to continue my work with robotics and systems. With my general degree, I had applied to many different departments in different universities but aeronautics at Stanford was the best fit. Hence, I ended up an aeronautics engineer – but my real passion is in robotics. I worked in a multi-robot systems lab at Stanford working on avoiding collisions when many robots are trying to do the same thing. In my current work, I apply similar methodologies with multiple sensors trying to improve reliability and robustness.
There is a lot of buzz around self-driving cars. How far are these technologies to be available commercially?
It depends on what you mean by self-driving cars actually. 90% of the problem is solved. In the streets surrounding my apartment, we can see little Google cars driving by themselves. However, the remaining 10% of the problem is really hard to solve. In my opinion, we will not have self-driving cars which can do everything that human drivers can do today (I am 100% sure no self-driving car can manage the traffic in Kathmandu). However, we can isolate the problem in such a way that we can have an efficient self-driving system for a specific function. For example, there can be a self-driving system which can do package delivery in dense cities to a central location. Or, there can be a self-driving system which can drive long distances in limited-access highways.
When we hear aeronautics and astronautics, we tend to imagine cutting-edge and advanced transportation systems. What are the ways/examples that this field can be relevant for developing countries such as Nepal?
How is the representation of women in aeronautics engineering? What are your experiences, observations, and recommendations as a minority of your chosen field?
Engineering, in general, has few women, and aeronautics particularly has even fewer women. In my class, there were 20% women. However, I have observed that most people in the field (both men and women) come with good intentions and genuinely want gender parity. I have never felt underestimated professionally or technically just because I am a woman. But, it is really hard to identify and get rid of systemic biases that exist because of the historic gender gap. Unintentionally, people tend to propagate prejudices which harm minorities such as women. I have been lucky to have really good male and female mentors who are aware and outspoken about these things and that has helped me on my personal journey. And I think that is the solution, strong network for minorities (eg: women in engineering groups) who can be mentors and spokesperson, as well as strong male allies who create spaces for these experiences to be voiced outside of those networks.
Harvey Mudd College is one of the exemplary educational institutions that is championing for more women in STEM. Can you share about your experiences there? What particular programs and approaches helped you?
I am so glad you asked this question. For me, the biggest motivation at Mudd was the professors. Because it was such a small school (total student body of ~800), you got to know your professors really well and they were always willing to mentor you academically as well as personally. I am still in touch with my advisor from college and reach out to him for advice.
Other than that, the curriculum of the school is also really dedicated to making well-rounded engineers. The classes and the projects did not only focus on providing technical knowledge, but we were also taught to think about the impact of our work and the human side of engineering as well. I am sure this approach was a major factor in getting me interested in engineering again (similar to a lot of my girlfriends). In the same way, Mudd also had different versions of introductory classes for first-year students with different backgrounds. The course content was the same, but they were taught with different levels of complexity based on previous exposure such that all students were in equal footing at the end of their first year. This also helped a lot of minority students at Mudd who may not have had the same level of experience as some privileged groups.
Tell us about a time you made an exciting breakthrough — or any other highlight in your journey so far.
This is a surprisingly hard question to answer. I do not think I have had any exciting breakthroughs yet (hopefully someday within my research career).
A recent exciting highlight, however, is the fact that our team won second place IBM Call for Code 2018. I was participating as part of Nepal Flying Labs and we were collaborating with BuildChange, a non-profit working on post-earthquake reconstruction in Nepal. The Call for Code Initiative calls on you to create practical, effective, and high-quality applications based on one or more IBM Cloud services (for example, web, mobile, data, analytics, AI, IoT, or weather) to build a solution that can have an immediate and lasting impact on disaster response. With Buildchange, we were developing an AI app to identify damaged houses in images. We developed a proof of concept application, where a classifier tagged damaged houses and alerted engineers. While the project was only a proof of concept, winning the challenge was a nice validation of the concept. For me personally, it was a nice reminder that I can have an impact in Nepal.
Tell us about a time you had serious doubts about your own ability in the fields you chose. How did you overcome that?
I really struggled during my first quarter in graduate school. It was a serious challenge moving from a semester system (16 weeks of classes per semester) to quarter (12 weeks per quarter). But also, most of my classmates had come with a focused mechanical engineering or aerospace engineering background. With my general engineering degree, I lacked the depth of knowledge in some of the subject matter and needed to do serious catching up to understand what was going on. I did not do well at all during my first midterm and seriously considered switching majors. Thankfully, I had a really good support system in my friends and my advisor/mentor from undergraduate. They let me vent my frustrations, but also encouraged me to keep trying and kept pointing my focus to things I was doing well and was interested in. Eventually, I got used to the new schedule and discovered my general background also helped me learn new things pretty fast.
You are a technology advisor to Nepal Flying Labs. Can you tell us briefly about this initiative and your role?
Nepal Flying Labs is an affiliate of Werobotics. NFL wants to establish itself as a leading drone (aerial, marine, underwater robotics.) based service provider for social good and humanitarian projects in Nepal and in the region. The organization wants to contextualize various emerging technologies related to drone and robotics to problems in Nepal and develop both manpower and solutions to tackle them. I have been involved in the organization as a technical advisor for about a year. I provide technical guidance for proof of concept and pilot projects in areas related to my expertise so computer vision and perception technologies. Recently, we have been writing grant proposals and developing a proof of concept ideas.
There are a lot of youth initiatives around technology, entrepreneurship, and innovation. What are your observations and advice?
It is very exciting. I had a chance to talk to a few of those groups when I was in Nepal last year, and I was blown away by both the enthusiasm and innovation. Provided proper policy, I see a potential for a lot of growth. However, I did notice a tendency among Nepalese youths to dream big and not follow through on implementation. In my experience, a lot of engineering comes down to cleaning up data, doing analysis and fixating over small details to prevent minor bugs from creating failures. This is not very exciting work but is critical to any successful project. I have met a lot of people glossing over minor details in search of the latest and greatest grand ideas and I think it’s important to remember those details as well.
Can you recommend 3 resources for people looking to get into your field ?
A popular/useful listserv for robotics related announcements: robotics-worldwide
To keep up with self-driving vehicles and other automotive news : tinyletter.com (this is very USA focused)
This is not completely my field but hackaday.com is an amazing site filled with blog posts from people whose hobby is to make cool things. I love perusing these blogs and getting excited about engineering all over again.
I also recommend keeping up with new publications in arxiv (I look at computer vision, robotics, etc) and github. Most of the code nowadays is opensource and the development community can be fairly active. You can have a lot of good feedback via issues, and linked stackoverflow forums.
Tell us about the role of mentorship in your professional life.
As I mentioned earlier in my answer, my mentors have played a significant role in helping me face my fears and take new challenges. I do not really have formal mentorship relationship, but I think of many senior experts at my work, my professors, and even experienced people I’ve met at conferences and networking events as mentors. During my studies, I used to go to them with questions regarding classes, internships, general life advice. Now that I am more settled in my career, I have tended to do it less, but there are still a few people with whom I am in touch and would reach out if I need advice with anything.
Now, as an advisor in Nepal Flying Labs, I am also on the other side of the table where I mentor students working on projects there. Even this has provided a valuable learning experience and look at things differently.
What is the best career advice you have ever received?
“Do not be afraid to voice your opinion in meetings. Always assume you are invited to a professional meeting because you are an expert and your feedback is important”. As women, especially as women from Nepal, I think we are taught to listen more and speak less. So, it is still difficult for me to speak up- especially when I want to question someone or raise an objection. However, most of the times, my objections or questions have been valid and led to a positive discussion. Thinking of myself as an expert in my field, especially in the context of my work now when I’m working in an interdisciplinary team, has let me have the confidence to speak out.
What is your advice to young women you want to pursue engineering?
Engineering is exciting, interesting, and there are a lot of ways to make an impact. So please go ahead and pursue your dreams. Also, don’t feel alone because you are a minority. Unfortunately, the ratio is still skewed – but things are changing for the better, and as a woman engineer you can make a lot of difference. This goes along with the previous point – don’t be afraid to seek help. We as minorities have a tendency to struggle to prove our worth – and it is not necessary. Sometimes, getting help is the best way to grow and it is easy to forget that.
Your final words of advice for someone who wants to get into your field.
Robotics is very very exciting – and unlike popular perception- it is a lot easier to become a roboticist. Just get a raspberry pi, few motors, a camera and you can find online tutorials to make a robot. So, don’t be intimidated and get your hands dirty. But it is also a very new field – there’s a lot of breakthroughs happening but there are also a lot of challenges – not only technical but also legal and ethical. As engineers, we should also think about the impact of our work, and if you do choose to become a roboticist, use your skills to build hardware/software that would leave a positive impact.