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USA Science & Engineering Festival – Role Models in Science & Engineering Achievement

Ayanna Howard

Ayanna Howard – Internationally-Known Robotics Engineer

Led the groundbreaking design of NASA's Mars-roving robots at Jet Propulsion Laboraory. Now at Georgia Tech University, she is directing the design and use of "SnoMote" robots to study the impact of climate change in the Antarctic.

Robotics engineer Ayanna Howard succinctly describes her job and profession: "Besides being the coolest job in the world," she says, "a robotics engineer designs, builds, and programs robots to help scientists (and humans) perform jobs that are either too dangerous, tedious, or currently impossible (such as living on the planet Mars) for humans."

In her young and compelling career in this realm, Ayanna Howard has covered a lot of ground. Shortly after completing her undergraduate studies in engineering at Brown University, she headed up the software team at Axcelis, Inc., coding the first commercial genetic algorithm package, Evolver. Later she joined NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Growing up in Altedena, CA, she became inspired by robotics as a kid by watching the TV series, "The Bionic Woman," in which a severely injured woman attains extraordinary powers through artificial (bionic) limbs. Recalls Ayanna: "I decided at age 11 that I wanted to create artificial limbs for people. I planned to go to medical school, but discovered I hated biology in high school -- especially dissecting frogs. Then I heard about robotics and realized that, if I became an engineer, I could do exactly what I wanted to do -- and no frogs!"

Why She's Important: Ayanna is known for making notable inroads into various areas of robotics, namely Human-Inspired Control Robotics, Space Robotics, Perception and Reasoning, and Assistive/Rehabilitation Robotics. At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory she led research teams to develop software for Mars-roving robots and various other robotic projects by using soft computing methodologies such as computer vision, fuzzy logic, and neural networks. Now at the Georgia Institute of Technology where she is Associate Professor in the School of Electrical and Computing Engineering, she has received worldwide attention for her "SnoMote" robots which are designed to study the impact of global warming on the Antarctic ice shelfs. In addition, she has become known for her "Access4Kids" technology which makes using and accessing touch screen devices easier for children with fine-motor skill impairments.
At Georgia Tech, she founded the Human-Automation Systems (HumAnS) Laboratory, and is currently a member of the university's Center for Robotics and Intelligent Machines as well as coordinator of the robotics Ph.D. program.

Other Achievements: Her accomplishments at NASA garnered her numerous distinctions, among them the Lew Allen Award (JPL's highest distinction for leadership and research), and being listed by MIT Technology Review in 2003, and by Time magazine in 2004, as one of the top rising young innovators. In addition, she is widely recognized for sharing her excitement in robotics and engineering with K-12 kids through community outreach projects, speaking at schools and hosting robotics camps for middle and high school students.

Education: Ayanna received her Bachelor's degree from Brown University, and her Master's and Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Southern California. She also holds a Master's of Business Administration from Claremont Graduate University.

In Her Own Words: "If you are a young student thinking about a career as an engineer or scientist, don't be afraid that you won't be able to have fun. You can still do things like join clubs and play sports. You don't have to be a 'nerd' that wears glasses and a pocket protector."