Logo: University of Southern California

Professor Maja J Matarić

Departments: Computer Science, Neuroscience, and Pediatrics

Courses taught: CSCI 445, CSCI 584, ENG 150, CSCI 499, CSCI 460

Short summary of your research:
My research is aimed at endowing robots with the ability to help people, especially those with special needs. I am inspired by the dual goals of 1) gaining novel insights into human behavior and cognition through human-machine interaction and 2) developing robotics systems capable of providing personalized assistance in convalescence, rehabilitation, skill training, and education. My Interaction Lab focuses on socially assistive systems capable of aiding people through social interaction rather than through physical contact; we work with stroke patients, children with autism spectrum disorders, individual suffering from dementia/Alzheimer’s Disease, and healthy users across the age-span.

What inspired you to become an engineer or scientist? What attracted you to engineering or science?
Most of my training is in computer science and neuroscience.  Back when I was in college, at the University of Kansas, computer science was not even in engineering (and in some places it still isn’t, but that’s changing).  I became an official “engineer” in graduate school at MIT, where the department was Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, combined. I was interested in the combination of computer science and neuroscience because it presented an opportunity to study and model human capabilities on machines, specifically robots, which would allow us to better understand people and create intelligent robots that can improve people’s lives. My work in engineering is very interdisciplinary and involves collaborations with social scientists, cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, physicians, and many others. In that way, I make sure that my lab’s research is properly informed and useful; also there is always something new to learn and explore.

Did anyone inspire you as a child or did you have a childhood hero? If yes, who was it and how did she/he inspire you?
Yes, I am fortunate to have heroes and role models in my own family:
- My mother is a force of nature. She has a Ph.D. (in English literature), which meant I never had to wonder if I, too, could get one (in my case, in Computer Science).
- My grandfather was a true leader, an advocate for the disadvantaged, and never cared what others thought of him.
- My father was an electrical engineer.  He died of cancer when I was a teenager so I was not even aware of his influence on my career for a while, but he influenced me more than he ever knew.
- Finally, my uncle is an aerospace engineer, and he used to tutor me in math in high school.  He urged me to go into engineering and get trained in something “employable”.   That was superb advice I have grown to appreciate more with each year.

What are some of the benefits and challenges of being a female in the engineering profession?
First, there are challenges in being a researcher in general, as the process involves juggling many important activities at once and never dropping any, including raising research funds all the time, staying current with the field, mentoring and advising students on their research projects, and managing one’s grants, projects, and programs.

My husband, who is also a professor, and I have three children. Having two professors in the house keeps things extremely busy, but it also makes it easier to understand and appreciate what we do and what motivates us. We share a passion for research, discovery, and helping people: his research is into drug discovery for cancer and diabetes. I am extremely happy to have three amazing kids; they shape my priorities and also my research directions. In fact, having kids is what got me to start working on robotics for health, because I wanted them to understand what their mom does and why she does it, and to think it’s cool.

What toys or games were you attracted to when you were younger? (e.g. LEGO, Connex, Play-doh, Barbies)
I was definitely not a typical engineer-to-be as a kid.  I liked to draw and paint, and  design clothes and shoes.  I also had a talent for languages, and used to read books in English and translate them (remember that I did not grow up in the US; I got my first Barbie when I was 10 and visited the US for the 1st time).  Once I moved to the US, I was advised by my uncle to study something useful at the university that would lead to a job, which was great advice.  I pursued computer science for its usefulness, and neuroscience and psychology because I was really interested in those topics as well.   Those areas came together in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI). But, AI back then was very formal (lots of logic, not enough action), so I shifted my interest to robotics instead. So it’s important to remember that one does not need to be a “born engineer” to become a great engineer!

Was there a science fiction book or movie that increased your interest in science/engineering? If yes, how?
I was not really interested in science fiction, so no particular sci/fi movie or book influenced me as a child.  Now I am very aware of the way movies in particular portray engineering and my field, robotics, and am really tired of movies about “bad robots” or “bad AI.”  It takes some talent to come up with a more interesting plot, but there is so much potential.  Great movies with robots are Wall-E and Robot & Frank (just released in August 2012).

Have you had a scientific ‘ahah’ moment? If yes, can you describe what happened?
Not really.  In fact, I think most of science and engineering does not work that way.  Instead, we work on problems for a long time and make progress, and then, after much work, things pan out.  I think it’s a little over-dramatic to expect those Eureka moments too often.  Also, people tend to look back and see things as sudden realizations, but often they did not happen quite suddenly, it’s just nicer to see it that way.  Research and discovery is work, often slow work, but it’s fascinating and rewarding.

Was there a scientific or mathematical concept, formula, or theory you had a hard time understanding? If yes, how did you overcome that challenge?
I took calculus in high school, and then again in college at a higher level, and both times I found it difficult because it was taught without any context, any motivation as to why it was useful in the real world, and definitely without any excitement. This is still true all too often for math courses, and it’s a pity, as math can be made both accessible and exciting when taught well. Often it is not taught well, and it turns off wonderfully talented students who simply do not relate to it through no fault of limitation of their own, especially women.

What is one problem in the world you will like to solve (or question that you would most like to answer)?
I would like to see my lab make progress, within my lifetime, that will result in socially assistive robots that can provide care to people with special needs, including those rehabilitating from major health events (e.g., stroke, heart attack, surgery, traumatic brain injury) and those dealing with chronic challenges (e.g., diabetes, MS, socio-developmental disorders such as autism).  Numerous people need daily dedicated one-on-one care that is lacking, resulting in diminished human potential and quality of life.  I would love to see my research contribute to helping those people.

Any advice for aspiring female engineers?
Know that you can be an engineer your way. Don’t believe any stereotypes about engineering: go visit a few real engineering labs, especially those lead by women. Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer, ever, from anyone. Take math, but don’t fret if you aren’t stellar at it or don’t love it, because engineering is not all about math (that’s another stereotype). Take science of languages or art or whatever you love, because these are branches of engineering that use all of those fields! For example, there is natural language understanding and translation research; there is computer art and computer graphics and animation; there is an intersection between every kind of science and engineering today… there is everything, and more that you can invent. Get involved in research projects, whether through engineering summer jobs or simply by volunteering in a research lab or engineering company. Get as much experience as you can, so you can informed about what you, uniquely, want and can do, and what you enjoy doing.  Then do it and be great at it. 

In ten years I will be… ?
Professionally, I would love to see the socially assistive robots we are developing in people’s lives (hospitals, school, elder care centers, and homes) in my lifetime, improving people’s quality of life and helping them to reach their potential. I’d also like to see a thriving service robotics industry in the US providing affordable products that help people with special needs, including the technologies we are developing. Personally, I want to relish watching my kids grow and become even more amazing than they already are.

To learn more about Professor Matatrić's research visit her lab website: robotics.usc.edu/interaction/