Science fiction stories have served as inspiration for many a brilliant engineer, and Ayanna Howard is no exception. At age 11 she discovered the show Bionic Woman, where a badly injured athlete is given artificial limbs that grant her superhero-like abilities, and decided that she wanted to create technologically advanced prosthetics when she grew up. Howard later realized that medical school held little appeal to her, and instead opted to pursue robotics.
It’s fortunate that she did. After completely her Ph.D. in electrical engineering at the University of Southern California, Howard went on to work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory where she led research teams to develop software for Mars-roving robots. Her time at NASA won her many distinctions, among them the Lew Allen Award (JPL’s highest distinction for leadership and research), and garnered her a mention in MIT Technology Review’s 2003 list of top innovators under 35.
Howard currently serves as an associate professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. One of her more recent projects has been creating autonomous robots, called SnowMotes, to explore icy regions in the arctic for the purpose of gathering climate data. In her spare time, Howard spreads her enthusiasm for robotics and engineering through community outreach projects, speaking at schools and hosting robotics camps for middle and high school students.
Her advice to aspiring engineers? Enjoy yourselves. “Don’t be afraid that being interested in math or science [means] that you won’t be able to have fun,” she says on her NASA profile page.
Here’s a fun and simple explanation of her work with robots, from Dragonfly TV: