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Ayanna Howard with a robot
Courtesy of Georgia Institute of Technology

Building the Bionic Woman

I was shielded from stereotypes during my young and impressionable years. I didn’t realize they existed until maybe middle school, and by then, I’d already decided I wanted to build the Bionic Woman.

I was always drawn to ‘techy’ stuff, but I also liked what people would consider typical girly things. I would just as quickly ask for a RadioShack kit as a Betty Crocker oven, and get both. I learned to solder at the same time I was playing with dolls (not necessarily Barbie, although I did collect them for a while and have some that are quite valuable). In the third grade, I started programming in BASIC on a Commodore 64 computer in the basement.

I wanted to build the Bionic Woman!

This article ties-in with Science's special issue on robotics.

This article ties-in with Science's special issue on robotics.

My dad majored in engineering, and my mom majored in math. Both were large influencers in my life. From an early age, I loved math, puzzles, computers, and gaming, and I seemed to have a knack for them. These things just seemed so logical. There was always a right or wrong answer; you just had to figure it out.

By this time, I was a total sci-fi nut. I would watch anything in that domain: Battlestar Galactica, Star TrekWonder Woman. There was one show I particularly liked: The Bionic Woman. I thought the concept was ingenious.

Middle school was also the time when everyone started to ask, “What do you want to do in life? What do you want to be?” It wasn’t a nurse or a teacher, which were the typical roles. I wanted to build the Bionic Woman!

At first I wanted to be a doctor, like the ones who put Jaime—the Bionic Woman—together, but then I took biology and hated it. There was something about cutting frogs and dissecting that I didn’t like; I must have been a budding vegetarian, although I didn’t actually become one until college. I believe it was a science teacher who suggested engineering—after all, doctors didn’t build the bionic implants; they just did the operation. So by the time I was in the 10th grade, I knew I wanted to go into engineering. By the time I started college, I had figured out that bionics was really robotics.

Credit: Robert Neubecker

*   *   *

College is when I learned about stereotypes. If I really think back on my childhood, there were times when I faced stereotypes, but I was confident (or naive enough) that I didn’t see it then. As an adult, I still deal with stereotypes, but I’m confident enough to not even care. But in college, through graduate school, and in my first few years at NASA, stereotypes were ubiquitous, and confidence was not my friend.  College was my awakening period.

I chose a university where I could major in engineering. I attended an orientation program for which minority students were invited to show up the weekend before the other freshmen arrived on campus. I loved that weekend. I met friends I have to this day, and they helped me deal with the world I was about to face.

“There’s a program for minority students? That’s because you guys need more help.” “The only reason you’re here is because the school needs diversity.” “Maybe you should think about applying to graduate school at XYZ University; they are trying to bump up their minority numbers.” When you hear comments like that and you’re no longer getting straight A’s—and when you don’t realize you’re actually doing well because everyone else is barely passing—you begin to doubt yourself: “Maybe they’re right; maybe I do need extra help.” “Maybe I’m not cut out to be an engineer.”

Ayanna Howard

Ayanna Howard

Courtesy of Georgia Institute of Technology

What kept me hopeful were my summer internships at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. At JPL, I felt smart again. I remember getting some simple, menial task that first summer. I rocked it in less than a week, and they gave me more challenging tasks. I kept hearing, “She can figure out anything. She’s great; we’d better not lose her.  I wish we had more students like her.” After the summer I’d go back to college, sit in class, and feel dumb again.

At JPL, everyone had a master’s degree, so during my junior year I decided that I would get one, too.  I wasn’t considering a Ph.D., because I wanted to be in school for as little time as necessary. I decided to work at JPL while going to graduate school because I knew I would need that ego boost.

My transformation back into that confident, 12-year-old girl started during graduate school. Oh, trust me, the stereotypes were still there, and the confidence took a while to grow back. But I also found hope, in my adviser, in my lab mates, in my JPL colleagues, and in the fact that the graduate school courses—OMG—were easier than my undergraduate courses. When I made a straight 4.0 GPA my first year, I thought I was lucky. When I received a Ph.D. fellowship, I thought I must have been the only one who applied. When my first conference paper was accepted, I thought that no one actually read it.

Words can break a person or lift a person up. It’s taken me years to realize that. Words can be swords, or they can be salvation. Somehow, despite that, I became the successful person that I am today, and I now claim that loudly.

*   *   *

I was 1 year out from earning my Ph.D. and had just won my first NASA grant. I arrived at my team-kickoff meeting to find one guy sitting in the room. “They moved the secretaries’ meeting down the hall,” he said. I held out my hand and said, “Oh, you must be so-and-so. I’m Dr. Howard. I’m running this meeting. Welcome to my team.”  I smiled widely as he turned slightly red and shook my hand. I had my confidence back.

How did I get it back? It wasn’t a magic bullet. It wasn’t a near-death experience. What was it then? It was teaching and mentoring others.

About 2 years before I’d finished my Ph.D., JPL started asking me to talk to K-12 students about NASA and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics; they even provided some media training. The same semester I defended my Ph.D. thesis, I’d begun teaching as an adjunct professor at a local university. Students came to me and said, “I was about to drop out, but I think I can do it now,” or “I want to grow up to be a scientist like you,” or “You’re the coolest.” Such unbiased, unfiltered expressions of gratitude, hope, admiration—they turned the tide for me. I’d never thought of myself as a mentor, but I realized that, just as past words had punched holes through my soul, I could patch holes for others through my own words. In return, my own holes were filled.

Courtesy of Georgia Institute of Technology

I continued to excel, becoming a senior robotics researcher and a deputy manager in the office of the chief scientist. I was still hearing those stereotypes while winning numerous awards and grants. I started outreach programs for K-12 students and undergraduate women. Every summer, I hired and mentored undergraduate students at JPL; almost all of them continued on to graduate school. I traveled throughout the United States, talking to K-12 audiences and inspiring the general public. 

Today I’m a full professor, holding an endowed chair. I’m associate director of research for the robotics institute at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. I’m chief technology officer and founder of a startup. I still run outreach camps for K-12 students, even a robotics camp for children with disabilities. In my spare time, I teach Zumba to older adults and kids.

Yes, I still face stereotypes, but now they don’t bother me as much. In fact, I sometimes take those moments to call them out, to make people think about why they have those stereotypes. Every so often, in the dark of the night, I still get those twinges of self-doubt. But now I can just close my eyes, breath deep, and tell my own self, “You’re the coolest.”

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