Maja Mataric

Maja J Mataric

Title
Vice Dean & Professor of Computer Science
Organization
University of Southern California
Location
Los Angeles, CA, United States
Maja Mataric
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Biography

I currently have two jobs at USC. I create socially-assistive robots, machines that can help people to recover, learn, and achieve their potential. For example, my group creates robots that help stroke patients, children with autism, and elderly people with dementia. These intelligent machines can help to provide personalized care when human care is not available. I also serve as senior associate dean for research for engineering.

Answers by Dr Maja J Mataric

My advice to everyone is to first and foremost learn to program.  Programming is the most useful skill across engineering (and science); it helps in every branch of engineering so do start there.  Next, if you are interested in robotics, read up a few books, starting perhaps with "The Robotics Primer" I wrote back in 2007, published by MIT Press.  Reading a bit about robotics will help you to decide if you are more interested in programming robots (their brains, that's what I work on), or on building robots (their bodies).  Programming is studied in computer science, while building is studied in mechanical engineering.  You could also study electrical engineering and from there learn about sensors and go into building or programming.  So those are the college majors to pursue if you know you want to get into robotics.  Well before college, I strongly recommend getting into a local or more global robotics competition, there are many around you could try.  I especially recommend Botball (http://www.botball.org) which covers elementary, middle, and high school; but FIRST is also good (focus on the LEGO league if you want to program!), and really any option you find will give you experience.  These days there are increasingly more affordable robot kits you might be able to purchase and learn from at home, perhaps with friends on a team.  Depending on where you live, look for local summer and after-school robotics and programming classes and activities, as well as any your school may offer.  Also look at local universities and go for a tour of as many labs in engineering as you can.  Once you are a senior in high school, if you have programming experience, you may be able to talk a local university professor into taking you into the lab as a volunteer (don't expect to be paid, invest in your future :), and that is also great experience.  Finally, just so you know, I never did any of the above, I only decided to go into robotics in my senior year in college: so it's never too late!  In addition, I only got involved in robots for helping people in the last 15 years, and then invented a new field of socially assistive robotics; before that I worked on robot teams.  So again, it's never too late to figure out your dream career and pursue it, but it's good to think about it and plan for it early.

I love my work and get a lot of questions about it.  To even better answer your questions about how I got to where I am, I recommend looking at this web page, which I put together especially for girls interested in engineering:

http://robotics.usc.edu/~maja/women.html

On that page there are links to interviews, Q&A, and videos answering exactly the question you asked.

Remember, you get to invent the future of robotics, so go for it, have fun, and do something worthwhile that makes the world a better place!

<>Maja 

Hi London,

First and foremost, don't worry, computer engineering and computer science are not focused on calculus or physics, but instead on logic and, in some areas, probability and statistics.  Most CS/CE major require calculus but not as a pre-requisite, so you can just take the class in college.  I don't think physics will be of critical importance at all.   (Of course, having math and physics helps to get accepted into engineering programs, but is not required.)  

My advice to you is this: 

1) read up on CS and CE so you can see what might interest you more; the two are actually completely and entirely different fields.  In many universities, CE is part of Electrical Engineering, not Computer Science.

2) If you are interested in CS, it's best to get programming experience (see code.org), as that is what matters most.  Taking math or physics may make college classes easier, but it's not at the core of what either CS or CE is about.

3) I admit I am no expert on CE, so somebody else will help with that.

4) Go visit a local university or two, visit their CS and CE department(s).  Start on the web, seeing what the required and offered classes are and what sounds good.  Then actually go and talk to some students, stop by a class if you can.  Nothing beats an in-person experience :).

And above all: don't worry about any particular class that you may not like or do great in.  I heard a very successful woman CEO of a computing company say: "classes and teachers come and go, you stay."  That's great advice. Focus on the big picture instead: the major and, even more so, the cool stuff that you can once you get your degree.

<>Maja

Dear Jill, Engineering spans a huge spectrum of possible career options, some of which work directly with people, and others do not. For example, some engineers choose to work individually or in small groups to develop software, hardware, devices, structure designs, new materials, even new medicines. Others work directly with people to develop new prosthetics for people with walking disabilities, new robots that can help elderly in the home or fire fighters in the field, still others with architects to develop intelligent buildings. The best way to find out is to go visit different kinds of engineers at a local university. Cheers, Maja Mataric


My area is actually computer science, not computer engineering. The two are completely distinct, separate departments and research areas, with some overlap but not much. So you will need to read up a bit on the two and learn about the differences. I must admit I don't know enough about CE to tell you how it differs from CS other than to say that it definitely does differ. For example, at USC CE is part of Electrical Engineering, while CS is a separate department.

First: you should say "many fewer job opportunities"; good writing is a major pre-requisite for success in any field, including engineering. Second, no, that's not so at all. Engineering careers are the highest paid today, and they are also the only ones these days that are hiring people in large numbers; engineering majors get jobs while others have more trouble, this is clear from all recent surveys and hiring/placement data analyses. Finally, it is not the case that women do not get jobs; women who are top students get more job offers than men do, because there are fewer women in the field, so top women are in high demand. So my advice to you is to go into engineering, find an area that you enjoy, and do as well as you can in it.

Your sister is wrong; she is not speaking from an informed point of view, one that is based on actual data, but instead is probably speaking based on anecdotal evidence (someone said something) or worse yet and more likely, from stereotypes. You need to make sure you get very good information and advice when making major life decisions. It's always important to talk to your family, but it is just as important to talk to people who have scientific data and evidence to back up their claims. In this case, your sister does not. She no doubt means well, but she is not correct, and that's good news for you and other women in engineering.

By the way, to avoid such confusion, it is best to get involved with your field of interest early, during high school or even sooner. Go to a local university and talk to students (and professors, if you can get their time); they will tell you what things are like. The next step is to volunteer your time in a research lab, to see what the work is really like. That will teach you more than anything else.

Best of luck!