Interview with Ayorkor Mills-Tettey

Ayorkor Mills-Tettey

Interview with Ayorkor Mills-Tettey, PhD student in the Robotics Institute

She taught computer science in Ghana, works on path planning for autonomous robots, is on the executive board of TechBridgeWorld ....and can show you how to do Gumboot dancing!

Where are you from?

Ghana, West Africa

Where did you do get your undergraduate degree from and in what?

Dartmouth College, in Computer Science

What attracted you to Carnegie Mellon?

What made me apply was the excellence of the School of Computer Science (SCS), but what made me come was what happened when I actually visited here. I met amazing professors and students who were very down to earth, which is more than can be said about some other CS schools.

Did you come straight from undergrad, or did you work in industry first?

After my Master's at Dartmouth, I went to Ghana for a year and taught computer science at a university there.

Describe your current position and its roles and responsibilities.

I am currently a Ph. D student in the Robotics Institute and there are 2 main things I work on. First, my main research is in path planning for autonomous robots. For this, I have two great advisors. The second thing I am a part of is the TechBridgeWorld initiative. This looks at increasing diversity in the producers and consumers of technology and how technology can be of benefit in developing communities. With TechBridgeWorld, I work on a number of projects that bring together technology, education and development.

Describe one interesting project from this past summer.

In Ghana, I was teaching Intro to Robotics at Ashesi University. Here I worked with Bernardine Dias, Brett Browning and Nathan Amanquah to design the course and teach it. We believe it was the first undergraduate robotics course to be taught in Ghana. Our goal was to basically help students to develop technical creativity and to expose them to more of the breadth of Computer Science. There is so much more than databases and web design. The course was hands on but technical as well.

How did you get interested in robots?

I definitely didn’t go to Dartmouth with the idea of studying computer science, I thought I would do civil engineering. All engineers there are required to take a programming course, and I fell in love with it. So I switched from Civil Engineering to computer science. In addition, we got to attend a weekly seminar series. One day a speaker from the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute, Professor Takeo Kanade gave a talk, and it seemed to encompass exactly what I was interested in. I realized that robotics brings together Computer Science and engineering. That seminar spurred my initial interest in Carnegie Mellon and Robotics, and as a result I decided to apply to Carnegie Mellon.

What do you want to see happen, or what do you hope to accomplish regarding robotics? How/Do you plan to be a part of that?

I am currently working on a NASA sponsored project for path planning for robots. This project is to determine very efficient paths for autonomous robots. Because it is expensive to have a rover out there on another planet, the path has to be as efficient as possible, while also worrying about energy, communications, and other constraints. This is an interesting project because of the combination of optimality and path re-planning when unexpected things occur, so my dissertation may be on this topic.

At Carnegie Mellon I want to continue working on how technology plays a role in developing communities. How does it affect the majority of the world, like Ghana, that is made up of developing countries? It doesn’t necessarily work to take products from developed countries and place them in locations like Ghana. Therefore, the context of a developing country is very important for technology. I would like to continue to learn as much as possible about that area. I will most likely go back to Ghana after school to continue working in this area.

What are your hobbies and other interests?

I really like kids and often find myself involved in various children’s activities. I also teach Sunday school in my religious community and am a participant in mentoring programs. I also like to watch movies.

I also do Gumboot dancing. Gumboot dancing is a South African dance similar to step dancing however it doesn’t use music but rather puts more emphasis on rhythm, stomping, and clapping. At the turn of the 19th century it was developed when people were working in the mines in South Africa and people used to wear boots; so that’s where the name came from. I learned it in college from a friend at Dartmouth and we even had a Gumboot group where I was co-coordinator. Here at Carnegie Mellon we have sort of started a group, really just a couple of friends, and we even performed at SCS day. We might get more formal as interest goes.

Describe your most memorable event/adventure?

Well, there are a lot of random things… when I was about 14 or 15, I attended the non-governmental forum co-located with the United Nations 4th World Conference on Women which was held in China. There were thousands of people there. I went through a UNESCO scholarship and was a youth of Ghana representative. I had never been to Asia and it was really cool and was memorable. It was very cool to be in a part of the world I had never been to; it was only a place I had read about or seen on TV. I never had dreamt I would go there. There were many volunteers helping out with the conference and a lot were students so I had the opportunity to interact with them. Their English wasn’t good so communicating was hard but still possible. It was fun to talk and sign things out. It was interesting to realize that people have so many similarities regardless of where they are from. I mean, a 15 year old from Africa actually has a lot in common with a 15 year old from China. It was just cool to have opportunity to attend a huge conference and learn about cultures. There were many workshops and talks that were fascinating.

What opportunities do you feel you have at Carnegie Mellon regarding graduate school that you wouldn't have had at another university?

One is that the School of Computer Science is really big. There are many, many different research projects going on and really amazing people and such a large exposure to these projects, especially in Robotics Institute. That’s hard to get at other schools.

And other schools that might offer a similar amount of exposure, I feel don’t have the community that Carnegie Mellon does and that is what makes the difference. The combination of excellence in research, people and community brought me here.

Another thing both at Dartmouth and here is … winter! You can’t prepare for it if you’re from Ghana. How many degrees below zero? In Ghana, just wear a sweater! I have been in the US for 8 years now but the winter still catches me by surprise. But I also learned ice-skating and skiing at Dartmouth. Snow is fun and I wouldn’t mind winter if it was only one month long. But winter is like half of the year up there!

What has it been like being a woman in SCS?

The Robotics Institute has a great sense of community --for men and women. I have never felt any sort of disadvantage or felt uneasy because I am a woman in that department. I feel extremely supported, and my advisors, Tony Stentz and Bernardine Dias, are really great.

If the support and community are there, why do you think there are so few women involved?

One of the big things is that it’s a question of the pipeline. If there were an equal number of women and men applying, then there would be an equal number at the School of Computer Science. So I think part of the problem is not equal numbers going into college and undergraduate programs and then even down into high school. So the problem starts well before college. I don’t think Carnegie Mellon turns off women who are interested in computer science because there is no supportive environment for women here. It’s the complete opposite.

What would you recommend to other women who are interested in pursing research in Robots, whether in industry or though grad school?

I don’t think they’re all looking for one kind of experience. I would say one piece of advice is to explore your interests. I was recently communicating with one woman who is a senior and she needed to plan her senior project and she had many choices. One was in robotics and she wasn’t sure whether to stick with an old choice she had worked on or if she should try something new. And my advice was to follow your heart and if you want to try something new, try it, it won’t hurt you getting into graduate school. They are looking for experience but they aren’t necessarily looking for all of one kind of experience. Don’t do all your research in one area; that’s not the purpose of undergraduate education. The purpose is to become an expert in graduate school, not beforehand. You can get research experience through independent studies or through classes and you don’t have to be too specialized so undergrad is the time to explore. When you are in grad school then become more of a specialist. So it’s better if you had a chance to explore earlier and there are so many cool things to explore and do.

How do you think we could improve the number of women in robotics?

The biggest challenge in terms of numbers is people not understanding the breadth of the field. They don’t know how interesting CS can be or how many different areas there are. It’s not always sitting behind the computer screen for a long time. At undergrad, the best thing is exposure, through seminars or workshops with people working in different areas in Computer Science. When exposed to this, people are likely to find something they like from all the choices. Exposure is the reason I got into Robotics.

At all steps, you are looking at different levels of depth. Even in middle school people need to understand at different levels what is available. High school is important because there are certain things you need if you are going to study engineering or computer science. You need a fair amount of math or physics and if high school students are not already taking those courses, it is going to affect their college studies and how well they are going to do. Say if you didn’t take Algebra in high school… that’s going to be extremely necessary and is going to make things very difficult in college. When those skills aren’t there, students might think that they can’t do Computer Science or it isn’t for them, while if they had the preparation they would be able to do it. It’s not because you’re a woman, just that you didn’t have the preparation beforehand. So we need preparation at many different levels.

In terms of awareness, seminars are great, such as the ones at Dartmouth with the Carnegie Mellon professor. If he hadn’t been there, I probably wouldn’t have come here.

Favorite robot:

Qrio. I don’t think it’s useful, but it’s cute :o)

Favorite food:

Fried plantains

Favorite quote:

Baha’i Faith – "Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit there from."

Basic gist is we have so much potential and the purpose of education is to reveal all that potential. In high school I was always like, “why am I doing this?” So this was inspiring for me in high school and college because the purpose of education is to let me achieve my potential and realize that I can make a real difference in the world.