Local girl Dr. Ayanna Howard can thank the Bionic Woman, her all-time
favorite TV series, for inspiring her to get where she is today. The
30-year-old robotics research engineer is now JPL's own bionic woman. She is
currently a member of the Telerobotics Research and Applications Group at
JPL and the principal investigator of the Safe Rover Navigation Task-a
technology development effort that will enable planetary rovers to safely
and independently traverse long distances on challenging terrains such as
those found on Mars.
"My task is to think of innovative technology for future robotics missions
and implement them," said Howard, who specializes in artificial intelligence
and is leading an effort to create intelligent technology for space
applications. In her work on robotic exploration, Howard and her team look
to human behavior for inspiration on working rovers. One of their current
projects is developing an advanced Entry, Descent and Landing software
application that enables spacecraft to analyze terrain and decide, just as a
human pilot would, where to land.
"In essence, we're mapping human intelligence to an aerial robot, such as a
robotic spacecraft," Howard said. The application will be used to look at
virtual terrain on Mars and help select the landing site for future missions
beyond Mars Smart Lander, launching in 2009.
Howard, who lives with her husband and two dogs in Altadena, Calif., was
first inspired to be a biomedical engineer and build artificial limbs for
humans when she was 12 years old. When she entered high school, she found
that she loved math, but did not enjoy biology and chemistry.
"The whole concept of being a medical doctor was not appealing, but I took a
real interest in this thing called robotics, which was fairly new, and not a
lot of people were doing it," she said. Howard entered her robotics career,
thrilled that she could do what she enjoyed most-work with artificial body
components instead of human limbs and parts. Making her days on the job both
challenging and rewarding are the discoveries she makes while trying to get
artificial parts to work together. Every day brings new challenges and
rewards as Howard strives to make artificial parts work in unison.
"Being adaptable to change is very important, but it is also very difficult
because all paths don't necessarily work," she said. "You have to be open to
change, be able to take input from other people and be flexible."
Howard is especially enthusiastic about sharing her career with the
community. In addition to speaking about robotics at local schools, she
reads to children at the library and helps put on cultural arts festivals
where unknown artists interact with the community.
"All the community efforts actually occupy a lot of my time, but it's fun
because they're social activities with a good cause," she said. "It's really
rewarding when you hear people say, 'Maybe I can do that,' or 'I want to
hear more.' I look at their eyes and think, 'Wow, I really do have a cool
One of Howard's priorities is to get young girls interested in learning math
and science and pursuing related careers. She is often concerned when she
sees young girls lose hope with those subjects after having one or two bad
"I think the problem is that parents and teachers allow girls to give up at
such an early age, so I try to encourage them," Howard said. "They don't
have to be nerds that wear glasses and pocket protectors; they can still
join clubs and play sports. Getting into math or science doesn't mean they
have to lose their social aspects."
She also advises girls who want to get into robotics to have a strong sense
"Don't let anybody persuade you to give up," she said. "Know that you are
going to experience adversity, but deal with it and keep going in spite of
Howard, who started at JPL as a summer intern in 1990, went to public school
in Pasadena before earning a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering at
Brown University in Providence, R.I. She then studied robotics and
artificial intelligence at the University of Southern California in Los
Angeles, where she earned both her master's degree and doctorate in
electrical engineering. She has published over 30 journal articles,
conference papers and technical reports on the successful use of artificial
intelligence techniques in a number of projects. In 2001, she received the
Lew Allen Award for Excellence in Research-the highest possible honor at JPL
in recognition of significant leadership and technological innovation
performed during the early years of an employee's professional career.
Had she not ended up at JPL, Howard said she would still be doing research,
but as a university professor. She plans to continue her research at JPL and
focus on managing a few large technology projects.
"I love what I do, I love the work and I love the hands-on experience," she
said. "As long as JPL continues encouraging people with good ideas, I
wouldn't trade it for anything."