Dr. Allison Okamura is a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University. She also holds a courtesy appointment in Computer science there. Allison received her B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, and she was awarded her M.S. and Ph.D. both in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University. Before joining the faculty at Stanford University, Allison was Professor and Vice Chair of Mechanical Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. Allison is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including being elected as a fellow for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). She has also been awarded the IEEE Technical Committee on Haptics Early Career Award, the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society Early Academic Career Award, and an NSF CAREER Award. In addition, Allison was honored as a Duca Family University Fellow in Undergraduate Education, a Robert Bosch Faculty Scholar, a Gabilan Fellow, and an Alumni Distinguished Scholar by Stanford University, as well as a Decker Faculty Scholar by Johns Hopkins University. In our interview, Allison speaks more about her experiences in life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:45)
Much of Allison’s free time is spent with her husband, daughter, and son. When she’s not at work, Allison also enjoys relaxing, running, and playing ice hockey.
The Scientific Side (3:52)
Research in Allison’s lab examines three different areas of robotics. The first is haptics, which involves human machine interactions through the sense of touch. The second is designing medical robots that can, for example, be used to help people recover from stroke or perform surgery. A final area that Allison studies is creating soft robots that can conform to their environments.
A Dose of Motivation (5:01)
“All models are wrong, but some are useful.” – George Box
What Got You Hooked on Science? (7:54)
Allison has always had a variety of interests. Growing up, she enjoyed school and loved learning new things. Her parents were professors and chemists, so she was exposed to the academic lifestyle and the excitement of scientific discovery from an early age. When Allison applied to college, she planned to pursue science or engineering. Mechanical engineering ultimately piqued her interest because it combined physics, math, and the potential to have an immediate impact on the world and people’s lives. Allison had a great professor who encouraged her to work in his lab during the summer after her first year. This gave her an opportunity to conduct research on engineering education as well as on the protective potential of Taekwondo equipment. As a member of the Taekwondo club and a competitive martial artist, this work was particularly exciting for Allison. After college, Allison enrolled in graduate school. While there, she worked part time for a startup company, and she wasn’t sure whether she wanted to pursue an academic career or go into industry or entrepreneurship. Interviewing for faculty positions was inspiring, and Allison decided to pursue a career as a professor.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (17:11)
The imposter syndrome is a lifelong struggle. It is a feeling or psychological condition where you feel like you don’t deserve to be where you are, and you worry that someday people will find out that you shouldn’t be there. Despite having an excellent academic background and the best possible preparation for her career, the imposter syndrome has been a challenge for Allison. It has become easier since she had successes, gained confidence, and realized that failures weren’t going to ruin her career. However, it is still present today, particularly when Allison is considering high risk or unusual projects or career directions.
A Shining Success! (20:07)
The successes that are most exciting for Allison are the accomplishments of her students. Working with students, helping them find their passion, and seeing them succeed is really rewarding, particularly students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds or who may not have had the opportunities she had. Showing students what they can achieve is one of the wonderful things about being a faculty member, and it’s something Allison feels fortunate to be able to do for students every year.
Book Recommendations (23:06)
The Martian by Andy Weir
Most Treasured Travel (24:17)
Attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland was among the most unique travel experiences Allison has had. The meeting was retreat style, and it was held in a secluded town in the beautiful mountains in Switzerland. Attendees were scientists, politicians, business people, and economic leaders from all over the world. Learning from and talking to people with different backgrounds and expertise was great, and it was fun to share her technology and robotics with them. While in Switzerland, Allison also had an amazing opportunity to snowboard down the picturesque slopes.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (28:07)
Allison’s lab is nicknamed the CHARM (Collaborative Haptics And Robotics in Medicine) Lab. One of her previous PhD students was talented both in laboratory work and in sewing. This student made a set of pillows shaped like the marshmallows from Lucky Charms cereal to keep in the lab. In addition, they had fun with their Halloween celebration this year, and Allison made her own bubble tea costume. Examples like these highlight the crafty and creative side of Allison and her lab.
Advice For Us All (33:26)
In academic research, you have the freedom to choose what you work on, so pick something you really want to do. If you do this, you’ll be more successful, and you’ll be happier doing it. You don’t want to get a grant for a project you don’t want to do or get tenure for a career you aren’t excited about. Also, there are many options when it comes to careers. The people who are academic scientists weren’t necessarily destined to become scientists. A series of choices, random opportunities, and luck brought them to where they are today. The steps to take on a career path and where they will lead aren’t obvious. You should find your own path, and realize that it might not end up where you originally expected.
Allison studies robotics, primarily haptics (human-machine interaction through the sense of touch), medical robotics, and soft robotics. She runs the CHARM Lab which is an acronym for Collaborative Haptics And Robotics in Medicine. Allison and her students and collaborators are working to improve human health and quality of life through applications of robotics in many areas, including robot-assisted surgery, simulation and training, rehabilitation, exploration of hazardous or remote environments, enabling technologies, manufacturing, design, mobile computing, and education. She is also passionate about broadening participation in STEM fields and research. Toward that end, the CHARM Lab offers two websites with open-source designs for making haptic devices and soft growing robots. Outside academia, she enjoys spending time with her husband and two children, running, and playing ice hockey.