Need more women and girls in STEM

A PhD candidate in Electrical and Computer Engineering highlighted her work in STEM and the opportunities it has given her despite adversity, as part of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

“You can see adversity as a bridge to something bigger or you can choose to see it as a weight weighing down on you,” Mai Lee Chang said during the UW Oshkosh presentation Feb. 11. “We have that choice.”

Since 2015, the United Nations has recognized February 11 as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. This highlights the work that has been done and the work that remains to be done to break down the many barriers that women and girls face in STEM.

“It is important for us to remember [women in STEM and] their stories and realize how far they’ve come,” Chang said. “Part of that is realizing how far we still have to go because the STEM field is still heavily male-dominated.”

Chang was born in Ban Vinai refugee camp, Thailand. His family later immigrated to the United States as Vietnam War refugees in California.

Courtesy of UWO Flickr
Mai Lee Chang speaking to female students at UWO for the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Chang holds a Ph.D. candidate in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.

“I watch [at photos of my family] every now and then because it reminds me of the resilience of generations before me and how much they had to persevere for my siblings and I to have experiences like this,” Chang said.

It was difficult for Chang as a child because of the language barrier. She didn’t know any English other than the word ‘toilet’. Besides the language barrier, she had to deal with cultural conflicts.

After moving around throughout her life, she eventually graduated from Oshkosh North High School.

She received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical and astronautical engineering in 2010 and a master’s degree in industrial and systems engineering in 2012, both from UW-Madison.

“My view [while choosing a major freshman year] was that UW-Madison, this campus, is not bounded by UW-Madison,” Chang said. “My campus is the world. I took the opportunity to study abroad to learn more about the international component.

Prior to joining the University of Texas at Austin as a Ph.D. candidate, she worked as an engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. She was the first Hmong person to be employed at NASA.

She attended the NASA Pathways Internships at UW-Madison and got a job there soon after. At NASA, she worked on human-robot interaction and human-automation interaction research. She helped the Orion spacecraft, whose goal was to “carry man to Mars and beyond”, by helping software to “meet the demands of human systems”.

She has also worked with Engineers Without Borders helping build a water storage tank for a village of 200 people in Thailand.

“The most rewarding part is seeing the positive impacts,” Chang said. “The goal is to empower the villagers…to give them hope that tomorrow will be better.”

In his current work toward a doctorate, Chang’s subject is human-robot teamwork.

She is mentored by Dr. Andrea Thomaz in the Socially Intelligent Machines Lab where she creates algorithms that allow robotic teammates to reason about task performance and fairness to build lasting human-robot partnerships.

Their lab’s robots have been featured in the MIT Tech Review and recently in National Geographic.

Chang said a robot is made up of a computer, which is basically its brain. It also needs sensors like microphones and cameras, like eyes and ears, and actuators like arms and wheels to be able to move.

“For you and me, when we see a situation, it’s really easy for us to adapt and be helpful right away,” Chang said. “For a robot, it’s a difficult environment [to be in] and understand what is happening.

Chang said that for successful human-robot interaction, it is necessary to have real-time perception, planning, communication, and learning from people and experiences.

This led her to ask the question, “How do we design valuable robotic teammates?”

“If you think about the teamwork you’ve been involved in and the types of teammates you’ve had, I’m sure you can think of all those multiple factors,” Chang said. “Robotic teammates need to be able to reason about the multiple dimensions of teamwork. Research shows that people treat robots like other people too.

In the lab, Chang and others are trying to simplify interactions with robots. Various tasks and trials are performed between robots and participants to help the robot prioritize efficiency or effort in what it is doing.

“There are many other people who could use some help [from robots]”, Chang said during his presentation. “For me, what is exciting is the potential of robots to help us in different ways in our daily lives.

Chang predicts that more robots will soon enter the food, healthcare and maintenance industries.

“Your starting point doesn’t automatically determine your destination,” Chang said. “As a kid, I never envisioned being an engineer, working for NASA, being robotics, or pursuing my PhD. I’m really excited to see the amazing things you’re going to do and we really need each other from you.

The UWO Women’s Center is working on creating a full video version of her speech with a spoken Hmong language interpretation that she will post on her YouTube page when completed.

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