Interview with Brenna Argall

Meet Brenna Argall, Graduate Student in the Robotics Institute, singer, pianist and member of the Pittsburgh Mendelssohn Choir here in Pittsburgh.

Interview by CSD Juniors: Renee Nicole Rivas and Sana Yousuf

Where did you do your undergraduate degree and in what?
I received my undergraduate degree in 2002 from Carnegie Mellon, with a major in math and minors in music and biology. I was also pre-med. After, I worked in Washington, D.C. for 2 years at the NIH. Then I applied to grad school for a PhD.

What attracted you to Carnegie Mellon?
I enjoyed being here as an undergrad, but was actually looking to go to graduate school in a new place. The Robotics Institute has such an excellent program, however, so of course I still applied to the school. After visiting all potential programs, it was clear that here was the best match for my interests. There were so many project groups, and such an emphasis on building robots.

Describe your current position and its roles and responsibilities.

I always work with the same robots – the Segways. We use these robots on two different projects, RoboCup robot soccer and the Boeing Treasure Hunt Project.

What research projects are you currently working on or completed recently (e.g. describe your work. What is it? Why is it important? What impact has this project made or will make in the field?)
I’m working on Segway soccer, which is a newer league where humans play alongside robots. Their coordination is peer-to-peer, instead of master/slave, and a main research focus is how this coordination plays out between them, rather than which side controls the ball. Since the humans also play on Segways, this eliminates the platform differences. Our code runs on a laptop on the robot, which deals with perception, decision-making and command execution.

The Treasure Hunt Project has a goal of being able to develop pick up teams, where there is no knowledge of teammate capabilities before hand. Currently there are three roles involved, a Pioneer robot, our Segway and a human. Right now the three coordinate together in search of treasure, and eventually the hope is to advance to multiple team competitions.

How did the demo at the Carnegie Science Center work out?
It went well, we ran outside, so we had to recalibrate the cameras to adjust to outdoor light. This is difficult because natural light is so bright. For example, often the orange ball has a large white reflection spot from the sun, but if we calibrate this white to be classified as orange, the robot will associate everything that’s white with the color orange and potentially think everything is the ball. We worry about these sorts of problems, but it worked out. We also had a lot more space, so it was nice to be able to move around and the kids loved the Segway rides.

How did you get interested in robots?
It was a direct result of being an undergrad here. Even though I was never involved in robotics then, I always saw them. I actually always thought it was a field I wasn’t qualified to get into, so it was nothing I exposed myself to. But still, I would see them everywhere.

I became really interested in nano-scale medical robots. An applied math example I heard of as an undergrad were robots which looked like an alligator mouth, which are injected into your blood stream to find blood clots and chew them up. The only reason I didn’t go in that direction was because robots are only just beginning to be made that small, so I would have spent most of my time making things small, which wasn't quite my interest.

What do you want to see happen, or what do you hope to accomplish regarding robotics?
Autonomy and machine learning. At a higher level I want robots to exist in dynamic environments and be able to adapt to those environments. I want them to be flexible so that they can exist in society.

I plan to stay with my current project throughout my PhD. I feel like it’s a great group for me. RoboCup is very challenging; the robots need to make decisions in a quick amount of time, it’s an excellent way to study autonomy.

What opportunities do you feel you have at Carnegie Mellon regarding Graduate School that you wouldn't have had at another university?
One thing is that as far as the initial matching between you and your advisor, you have a lot of time. At other places you often have to pair with an advisor prior to beginning there in order to secure funding. Here you get to meet all the groups and see if you match well, if they have the same goals as you, etc. That was a big part; another was the huge faculty to student ratio, and the environment once you get here. It’s extremely uncompetitive once you get here, and that’s a lot more comforting than other places where you could get kicked out after qualifiers. The facilities are also great.

They actually say within the Institute that, while a class will not count towards your degree if you get lower than a B-, if you get higher than that then you’re not spending enough time on your research. So there is less of an emphasis on grades, and more on getting what you need out of classes to apply them to your research.

Also, because the degree is in robotics specifically, and not one of its component engineering disciplines, you get a more overall education about robotic systems.

Where are you from?

What are your hobbies and other interests?
Music would be my main interest.

How long have you been singing? Was it a major part of your undergrad experience?
I got much of the credit for my minor by singing with the CMU Concert Choir and taking piano lessons, which I started at age 6. I consider playing the piano to actually be my forte, not singing. But I've been fortunate enough to sing in really high caliber choirs, and at this point I’ve had a fair amount of vocal training just from the general instruction given by my conductors. I am currently a member of the Mendelssohn Choir here in Pittsburgh, and in DC sang with the Master Chorale of Washington.

I also like to create things, and often crochet. I have recently begun to volunteer at Planned Parenthood. In DC, I volunteered at a free health clinic and I want to continue that to maintain ties with the medical community.

How did you balance music and academics?
I had to spend time in the practice rooms, which meant I had to force myself to leave the desk and my math work, and I think it made things easier in the long run to have that break. It was stressful at times because there was really no overlap between music, biology, and math studies, but the music minor was still interesting and relaxing.

Any advice on how to do it?
I think that my best motivation was seeing and being around other people who were doing it seriously. The fact that music was not my major could not be used as an excuse for not doing the work as thoroughly as the music majors. Also they have changed the requirements a bit – now you have to have a declared instrument, so anyone interested should start looking into that a bit earlier.

Describe your most memorable event/adventure?
I studied for a semester in Ireland my junior year and that was really exciting. It was great to see another culture and take a break from all the work, I only took 5 classes. I definitely recommend it, even though it’s a little more unusual for non-humanities students to go, it’s very possible to find the classes you need.

How balanced is the female/male ratio in your department, and throughout your education.
Undergrad ratios were around the same as they are now. I remember, as an undergrad, CMU had recently changed the CS admission criteria, which included dropping the criteria for prior programming experience. An effect of this was that many more girls were admitted, and there was a misconception amongst the students at the time that the school had tried to correct for their female/male ratio explicitly. There was an overall feeling that many of the girls had gotten in because of their gender and did not deserve to be there, and even though I wasn’t in CS, I thought people had that impression about me. But when I actually talked to people, no one really thought that. I think that was an impact of being one of the few girls in the major. The spotlight made you feel intimidated, but the biggest issue was actually self-hindrance.

In grad school there are about 4 girls out of 33 in my year, and that’s actually very good compared to the rest of the country. I pay less attention to the ratio now. Sometimes I look around and realize I’m the only girl out of 30, but I really don’t think about it much after that. In the Field Robotics Center, the term “there’s more Dave’s than girls” still holds, though I know it no longer exists in the CS department as a whole. There is also a group of grad women called RoboGals that go out together and support each other, and all the girls know that’s available. It’s sort of comforting to know it’s there, but it’s not really my thing.

Did that impact any of your decisions related to your career?
Not really.

How do you think we could improve the number of women in robotics?
I don’t know how much you can do at the graduate level, and we don’t have an undergrad degree. We try to make sure that the undergrads realize they can do research and be part of the labs, because they usually don’t think that, I didn’t think that. So we make it a point to encourage that.

I’m sure an undergrad degree would help. We have a minor, but it’s difficult to earn that if you are not a CS major because of all the required courses and prerequisites. One of the things we have to work on is getting other people/majors involved, not just CS majors into the field.

We should try at a pre-college level though, such as promoting AP courses. This is a good time because confidence building starts then.

Favorite robot:
I should say mine right? That’s a tough question … I don’t know if I have a favorite.

Favorite food:
I don’t eat meat, and I eat a lot of candy. My favorite genre is Italian or Indian. I’d say the steadiest thing in my life is candy.