We spoke to Annika O’Brien as part of our ongoing In the Spotlight series. Annika is a roboticist with a background in computer science, software development and programming. Later, she acquired expertise in electronics and, more recently, she set up her own company. Annika has also been heavily involved in educational aspects of robotics, which she not only enjoys but also volunteers her time and resources. Watch the video or keep reading below for a summary!


Career Path

Annika started off at the young age of 8, tinkering with computers and taking things apart. Her parents realized that she had a natural inclination for electronics and computers. Despite this, she prepped for med school because father was a doctor, and it was only natural that she follow in his footsteps. She did indeed acquire a degree in biology. Annika enjoyed anatomy and physiology, and she found chemistry quite interesting. But she was definitely into hands-on experimentation, making bombs from bananas instead of poring over books, tests and papers! While in college she began programming, web design, A+ (hardware and software), then moved on to the game industry.

She got into robotics as a hobby, not thinking that it could be a full time profession. She founded LA Robotics Club as a way to meet like-minded enthusiasts, began working with young people and is now into education.

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Biology to robot design

Although Annika confesses to not having the surgical knowledge of musculature to directly impact her robotics work, she does think that the two disciplines merge in the field of cybernetics, for example the study of electrical impulses in rat brain informs the design of robots. On a more practical level, her science degree definitely helped with self discipline and honing her study skills.

Electrical impulses – that’s where I think we’ve got the merging [of biology and robotics]. Where we can connect a wire into a rat’s brain and his foot moves. Or we can create a 3D printed hand just hard-wired, that’s controlled by the human brain. I’ve never worked on anything like that [professionally]… but I’m definitely interested.

The thing that my degree helped the most with is study, and being willing to spend your weekends in a lab; in a library; at a soldering station. That self-discipline helps me the most. - Annika O'Brien, Engineer & Roboticist
The thing that my degree helped the most with is study, and being willing to spend your weekends in a lab; in a library; at a soldering station. That self-discipline helps me the most. – Annika O’Brien, Engineer & Roboticist

Pink Legos & the impact of gendered toys

Annika pushes for anything that will interest children (not just girls), and that exposes under-represented minorities, who may not have opportunities. For example, toys with Latino packaging is helpful in the southern California area. Anything that promotes learning and curiosity will ultimately create the kind of gender neutrality that Annika wants. Annika is fine with pinks, ribbons or robot ponies. She thinks that colors are not important in gender neutrality, rather it is more important that girls have opportunities to follow STEM careers, buy a house, and learn to do most things (like change the oil in their car!) without depending on a man. She advises, “If a little girl loves pink, then get her pink Legos”. But she does have a problem with the “girl Legos” in that they are sized differently and don’t fit with regular pieces. She reaches for a big jar of Legos behind her, that she can use to make a flower or build a castle with a princess!

Working with minority and disadvantaged youth

It all started with someone who brought a kid along to the LA Robotics Club and soon she started to “acquire kids” and began working with them. When the STEM Summer Institute for Underwater Robotics at Univ. Texas Corpus Christi  approached her to build aquatic robots, she hit upon the idea to make flotation devices with 2 liter bottles. Working out of her own pocket, she used PVC pipes, plumber’s wax and anything that could be re-purposed or purchased cheaply. This teaches kids to learn to budget and nurtures creativity and environmental responsibility. She views the trash around her like a “MacGyver” rather than a hoarder.

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Annika used to be considered a tomboy when she was young and explains why she has let her feminine side show only in the past few years. When she started her STEM career, walking into a room looking “girlie” meant that she would not be taken seriously. It did not matter that she was the keynote speaker, someone would ask her to get a cup of coffee! She was expected to be the secretary. At a conference, people assumed that she was there with her husband. It’s huge problem that women have to forgo femininity to be taken seriously.

My reason for becoming more feminine is that I got to a point where I could. [There was a time] where I was not being taken seriously… I noticed that at a younger age – I’d say from my late teens to early 20s, you kind of had to act more – masculine – so that people would take you more seriously. That’s something we need to fix! I’m not saying it’s okay. There’s a huge problem when a girl walks in with nail polish and all of a sudden, she’s the idiot. That shouldn’t be the case… You shouldn’t be judged because you’re “girly.”

Annika reiterates that you shouldn’t be judged for your gender, but of course, she notes, wearing 6” heels or super long acrylic nails could be hazardous to the workplace! She has observed that many women reveal their feminine side, say by wearing a dress, only after they have become established in their careers. Contradictorily, at that point, being feminine opens doors and brings opportunities.

You have to establish yourself. When you walk in the room, everyone has to know who you are immedietely. They have to know what your skills are so that they don’t judge you. Once they know who you are then it [being “more feminine”] opens doors for you. I know I’ve gotten opportunities to speak [at different events].

Managing sexism on social media

Annika will not interact on a personal level with males online unless they make it clear that their interest in her work is impersonal. For example, she avoids leading questions on popular technology that may be just a ploy to engage her in conversation. Annika is also grateful for a huge support system online, including a “small army” of male friends on Google+ who quickly deal with harassers and trolls because they want her to stay online and they want their daughters to grow up to be like her! Their support is far more important than anything that Annika may say or do: she can bring out letters of recommendation from universities extolling her qualifications but still be labeled “stupid” or harassed by a troll. But when another guy teaches him that it is inappropriate to be sexist, he gets the message.

Career advice to young girls 

Start by building a support system. Ask your parents to support you, sit down with them and explain how important this career is to you. Annika’s mother was an aeronautical engineer and she understands the importance of a support system. If you don’t have parental support, seek out other people who can support and guide you. Learn how to use the internet and align yourself (for example on meetup.com) with other girls and boys with similar interests. Read, read, read..learn how to use an RSS feed at a university level, not from popular “geek” websites that re-spin old stories for ad revenue.

Finally, watch the video to see how Annika tackles a sci-fi question from a sociological perspective!

Find Annika on Symbiobotics, an initiative that blends STEM education and human rights advocacy to solve humanitarian issues. Annika has also founded STEAMTrax, a website that provides classroom lessons in STEM that prepare students for college. Reach out to Annika on Google+ or on Twitter.

Over to you

Do you have a passion for engineering and robotics – what was the first thing you built? How do you use your STEM training in your work? Tell us in the Comments below!

Credits

L.A. Robotics Club photographs are copyrighted and are used with permission. See more of their work on Flickr.

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