Danica Kragic: On Robotics, Fashion, and Interdisciplinary Life

danica_300x200What do robotics engineering and fashion have in common? Much more than one might think! Swedish clothing brand Rodebjer’s new campaign concept “I Am” turns the spotlight on women who make a difference, and whose many interesting careers careers intersect with the fashion world in surprising ways. One of these women is Danica Kragic, a self-proclaimed roboticist and seamstress who is currently serving a second term on the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society’s (RAS) Administrative Committee (AdCom). Kragic, whose “I Am” contribution was recently featured in VOGUE, is a Professor of Computer Science, Vice Dean of the School of Computer Science and Communication at the Royal Institute of Technology, KTH, and Director of the Centre for Autonomous Systems. Her research,  in the areas of robotics, computer vision, and machine learning, stemmed from an early love for concepts that can be applied to engineering: “Solving real problems, finding new solutions: I always loved mathematics so [engineering] was a natural choice.”

Kragic has been involved with RAS in many capacities. She’s previously led a Technical Committee, and has been involved in organizing several conferences. She has also applied her expertise by being an active reviewer and member of the editorial board for both RAS conferences and journals, as well as a member of various RAS awards committees. Her desire to educate and influence others to pursue engineering careers is evident in her vast involvement with the IEEE. Kragic says of her commitment to the IEEE: “It is important to be able to motivate the science we do, show how it is important to meet societal challenges and to also show how important research is to educate the next generations of students.” She cites the diversity of the IEEE membership as an aid to accomplish this goal: “The ability to establish collaboration between academia, industry and society at large is also important – and IEEE has an important role here.” And through this collaboration and the research it catalyzes comes results that make an impact on our world, both present and future. Kragic insists, “Working with and making sure that politicians base their decisions on the latest research results is something we can contribute to.”

Kragic is perhaps the epitome of interdisciplinarity. As Kragic wears many hats, both with her career and in her roles in the IEEE, she notes that her chosen field of robotics is  particularly interdisciplinary as well. “Developing robot systems that are technical devices, equipped with the ability to learn and interact with the environment and humans on human terms we need to also be able to understand how humans collaborate and interact. So, mechanical and electrical engineering, mathematics and computer science meeting cognitive sciences – what can be more interdisciplinary?”

According to Kragic, the IEEE is uniquely positioned to be a broadly interdisciplinary organization, and to encourage interdisciplinary thinking among the youngest future engineers. “IEEE encompasses many different areas, and we see engineering solutions applied in medicine, education, and entertainment.” In order to develop a pipeline of bright and diverse thinkers, she believes that this is a resource that can be better utilized by the organization, which has the ability to influence the understanding in children of what an engineer can do. Perhaps her rejection of the image of the stereotypical engineer shapes her thinking that children should dream to transcend that image: “For children it is easier to understand what a lawyer or a medical doctor can do – and not so many are dreaming of becoming engineers. So, raising the awareness of the importance of this area in general from the early stage: IEEE should work even harder on this.”

Encouraging this pipeline diversity is a goal near and dear to Kragic’s heart. “Research says that mixed groups perform better than uniform groups. This is valid for gender, culture, nationality, and more.” Kragic continues, “The goal should be to have mixed groups that represent various aspects. And given that IEEE is an international organization, it should be an example of implementing this.” She speaks of even the less-obvious joys that a career in engineering has to offer: “Engineering gives us opportunity to address broad questions and I think this is something that is attractive.” The more diverse group of people addressing these questions, the more equipped we are to solve problems that will benefit all of humanity, and not just one particular segment.

Kragic routinely offers advice both to those who are currently engineers and to those who aspire to become them. When advising young women on potential engineering career choices, she “always tries to give advice based on what is important for the individual and how she wants to pursue her career. The most important thing is that work is only one dimension of our lives and that having a family and friends is also important.” She is quick to say that this advice is not just applicable to the women she is trying to attract into the pipeline: “It is all valid for both women and men.”

While Kragic spends much of her career advising students in engineering-specific issues, much of her advice can be applied to life as well. “You cannot do everything perfectly, at least not all the time. I think it is important to know your own strengths and use them for achieving what you want. It’s also important to know your weak sides and not be afraid of them – to try to develop them and find good mentors who can help you improve.” As an academic leader, she hopes to contribute to the discussion of development of other academic leaders who will continue to influence and advise generations of engineers:  “I think that the most important thing is that

we work and talk about what academic leadership is, which requirements are put on academic leaders, and then find good examples and share them and discuss them openly. We also need to be clear that academic leadership is not the same as industrial leadership.” According to Kragic, both leadership styles are important to possess for different reasons, but when shaping the lives of young engineers, it is important to be a strong academic leader who can guide mentees sensitively and appropriately.

Kragic has, of course, run into many challenges while juggling such an eclectic career, but has learned, over time, how to best deal with this inevitability. “There are challenges all the time. Every time you need to make a difficult decision, there will be people for and against it. It is important to learn how to listen to both sides, dare to make a decision and then communicate clearly why a certain decision was made.” Whether in her fascinating career that transcends the stereotypical idea of what an engineer is, or in her leadership in the IEEE, Kragic has boldly dared to make many decisions that have led to personal experiences that she will share to shape the lives of her engineering students.  

Comments

  • An interesting and informative view on approaches to attract more women to electrical engineering. I might add that every engineering activity can benefit from more participation by bright and eager young women, not just robotics. In my decades of engineering experience, I had hoped to see more women attracted to the profession, but alas, it has not happened to the degree to which I had hoped. In my BSEE class of 1959, there were only 2 women, but they were in the top 10%. In 2016, we are nowhere near some 30 to 40% that I had expected to happen in 57 years! The skills are there, but the response is not. How do we fix this?

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