She holds four degrees, including a Doctorate in Engineering and a Masters in Business.
She has designed rovers for Mars exploration and robots destined to help study climate change in Antarctica.
She has contributed to seven books and published over two hundred academic papers.
She has been the recipient of numerous awards including the 2001 Lew Allen Award for Excellence in Research from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Early Career Award in Robotics and Automation in 2005, the National Society of Black Engineers Janice Lampkin Educator Award in 2009, and the Georgia Tech Residential Life Cornerstone Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Community in 2013.
She is also a wife, a mama, and downright beautiful.
Who you are: Dr. Ayanna Howard
What you do: Robotics Engineer, Professor, Entrepreneur
Where you do it: Georgia Institute of Technology, Zyrobotics
I read that you were inspired to pursue a career in science after watching the TV show The Bionic Woman. What was it about the show/character that clicked with you? Before watching the show, what did you want to be when you grew up?
As a young girl, I was always into sci-fi – anything with robots, space, super heroes – if it included any imaginary futuristic technology or world, I was hooked. The Bionic Woman attracted me, in particular, because it engaged me into thinking about my role in society. Here was this amazingly intelligent, beautiful, super hero that, not only highlighted the strengths of a woman, first and foremost, but had the primary purpose of saving the world. And then I knew that what I wanted to do was pursue a career that allowed me to build the Bionic Woman. Before that, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was always good at math and science, but didn’t really know what kind of career I wanted.
What were some of the biggest challenges you have faced on your professional journey? How were you able to move through them?
When I was younger, the biggest challenge was in learning how to not take things personally and push forward, despite any implicit biases expressed by others. Basically, the biggest challenge was dealing with the Imposter Syndrome, especially as, many times, I was the only female or minority present in a given situation. I once heard someone say “Fake it until you make it.” I realized no one feels confident 100% of the time, so you just press on until you do.
You are a role model for kiddos who are interested in robotics and engineering. Who were some of your role models growing up or as you went through university?
I float through role models – basically, I find individuals who are doing what I’d like to do and figure out how they got there and the lessons they have learned through that process. I also like to surround myself with ‘advisors’ – i.e. individuals whom I can seek out when I need advice. In essence, they function informally, at various instances of time, as my mentors, colleagues, confidants.
Your list of awards and publications is staggering (your CV is 17 pages long!!). You have worked on building rovers for Mars, artificial limbs for kids, and robots that can explore the Arctic to help scientists study climate change– what are you most proud of?
I’m usually the most proud on the things I’m working on now. Right now, I’m most proud of releasing the Zumo Learning System, which is an accessible electronic learning system for STEM. It brings together technology licensed from my lab at Georgia Tech, aspects of machine intelligence, K-12 math education, and addressing the needs of children with differing abilities.
What is your favorite ice cream flavor?
What is the best song to sing to in the shower or when you are alone in the car?
Don’t actually have one. When I’m listening to music – it’s usually Zumba music (since I teach a weekly Zumba class and the rule of thumb is – know your music).
What was the best piece of advice you have received? What was the worst?
The best piece of advice has been when someone asks a question that makes me think (causing me to give myself advice or seek advice to answer the question) – Why haven’t you written a book? Have you ever thought about starting your own company? Have you ever thought about an academic career?
The worst piece of advice – I’m actually not sure since I tend to push negativism out of my life.
You have been interviewed and featured by just about everyone, from TIME magazine to PBS. Is there anything you wish they would ask, but they never do?
I wish they would ask: “You’ve done a lot and seem to be quite busy. How do you balance?”
My answer would be: My family – they keep me sane and grounded. They help me to say NO when it’s time that I should.
What is your definition of beauty? Or, when/where do you feel most beautiful?
Definition of beauty – strong inside, exuding confidence outside. Honestly, I feel the most beautiful when I’m on stage speaking to a general audience. Each time – it challenges me to rise above self – becoming stronger inside and more confident outside.
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