backs of students heads, wearing black motorboard hats and tassels - photo by Terry Bolstad

Don't ever stop

This one's a life update post, but it's also a "here's some cool science!" post.

A few days ago, I graduated from Vassar College with a Bachelor of Arts in Cognitive Science and a correlate in Computer Science. I was decorated with general honors, departmental honors, membership to Psi Chi, and membership to Sigma Xi. My time there was awesome.

What's next?

No lazy summer!

Well, no lazy summer break for me! I've already spent three days in my summer lab at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where I'll be working on a number of software development projects. The primary one is a LIDAR-assisted robotic group exploration project, in which we're going to have a small fleet of robots -- a mothership and some workerbots -- use 3D LIDAR data to autonomously map and plot paths through an area. This kind of robot fleet could, eventually, be used to explore other planets. One of the big challenges will be dealing with the 3D image data. I'm looking forward to learning more image processing algorithms!

Another project is the redesign of the Greenland Robotic Vehicle, a big autonomous rover that'll drive across Greenland, collecting a data about snowfall, mapping, and exploring. Did you know there's ice on that country two miles thick? I may also get to play with a robot that has stereo vision.

You can see some of these robots (and what life in the lab may be like) in this great video about last year's interns.

So far, I've met a bunch of intelligent, friendly folks, started catching up on already-written code, and begun to delve into the platforms, libraries, and algorithms we'll be using and developing this summer. Our mentors have already proven themselves to be enthusiastic and helpful. Just yesterday, one of them told us,

"You're engineers at NASA. You want to go where things are, and then go beyond."

That may end up being our theme for the summer.

A little overwhelming?

shiny silver model of a space shuttle

There's going to be so much going on. It'd be easy to get overwhelmed -- especially now, jumping in and floundering around in the code, the projects, the people. So much to learn.

But as I sat in the lab today, reading about ROS, going through tutorials, reading about PCL and feature detection in point clouds, digging through last summer's confusing pile of C# and C++ programs, I realized I wasn't overwhelmed. And it was because of all the other experiences I've had that've gotten me to this point.

Confidence. My first URSI summer, flailing through Microsoft Robotics Studio and complicated conceptual theories. Figuring out how to deal with webcams and image data my second URSI summer, reading papers on optical flow and implementing algorithms. Last summer: excavations of an open source flight simulator, the Aeronautics Student Forum, dealing with different work styles and communication styles in my LARSS lab. And more.

I think about all those experiences, and I'm not afraid of this summer. I could almost be overwhelmed -- perhaps thinking that everyone else has more of the right kind of experience; I wasn't trained as a classic engineer -- but I know I can succeed. My non-engineering, cognitive science background sets me apart and lets me look at problems a little differently than everyone else. I'm an asset.

I know how to learn. I know how to do research.

I can conquer this summer.


Summer plans

My first post-graduation plans have been finalized: I'll be returning to the fine world of software development and robotics for a summer internship at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. I'll be working with a diverse bunch of engineers and interns on what I expect will be super exciting, super cool projects.


_red and blue simulated robots in a flat simulated world_

On Friday, I turned in my undergraduate cognitive science thesis. It's been a year in the making -- I started brainstorming ideas last April, spent all summer reading up on relevant literature, and all of this school year developing my model, programming the simulation, running experiments, and finally, writing about all of that.

It's a little weird to realize that I don't have to constantly be thinking about this project any more. I don't have to be, but ever since handing it in, my thoughts continue to swirl around what further analyses to do on the data I collected, how to fix up the studies I did to get more powerful results, which studies would make sense as the next step...

Here's the abstract:

A biologically inspired predator-prey study of the effects of emotion and communication on emergent group behavior

Any agent that functions successfully in a constantly changing world must be able to adapt its behavior to its current situation. In biological organisms, emotion is often highlighted as a crucial system for generating adaptive behavior. This paper presents a biologically-inspired predator-prey model to investigate the effectiveness of an emotion-like system in guiding the behavior of artificial agents, implemented in a set of simulated robots. The predator's behavior was governed by a simple subsumption hierarchy; the prey selected actions based on direct sensory perceptions dynamically integrated with information about past motivational/emotional states. Aspects of the prey's emotion system were evolved over time. The first study examined the interactions of a single prey with the predator, indicating that having an emotion system can led to more diverse behavioral patterns, but may not lead to optimal action selection strategies. In the second study, groups of prey agents were evolved. These agents began to utilize alarm signaling and displayed fear contagion, with more group members surviving than in groups of emotionless prey. These results point to the pivotal role emotion plays in social scenarios. The model adds to a critical body of research in which important aspects of biological emotion are incorporated into the action selection mechanisms of artificial agents to achieve more adaptive, context-dependent behavior.


_group shot of nine interns and Garry (one intern, Leo, is not pictured) in front of blimps, holding quadcopters and shiny cars_

I collected up all the articles, blog posts, and cool videos about my LARSS summer into one nice, neat page. There's new material there - I've included our project abstract as well as videos of flying quadcopters!

Check it out. You know you want to.


_My labmates, our mentor, our vehicles, and I_

On the last day of my LARSS internship, NASA EDGE filmed my lab for their Future of Aeronautics episode! It's currently up on NASA's main page in the "Podcasts and Vodcasts" section, and it's available both online and through iTunes. The opening montage has clips of my labmates and I, and the segment about our work starts at 19:18 and lasts three minutes.

I encourage you to take a look!


Aeronautics Student Forum

Wednesday, August 4th. 10AM. The Aeronautics Student Forum.

My lab is lined up in the front row, fidgeting, exchanging nervous glances. We trade seats between the other students' presentations, taking turns with the laptop to read over the half-done powerpoint.

_four computers in a row on a table_

The motion tracking camera system is set up (we were in the building until 10pm the previous night, testing our hardware and software, ensuring it'd all be ready to demo). One of the cameras lurks beside the white screen, ominous, a constant reminder that it's our turn in an hour, and like or not, we don't have our finalized slides and some of us don't even know for sure whether we'll be speaking.

It was nerve-wracking.

It was also remarkably exciting.

Presentations, preparation, control

I usually plan presentations out to the last sentence. I know I'm not an improv whiz, so I practice my talk out loud over and over. Any slides I have, they're done at least two nights ahead of time. Practice, preparation, organization. No need to worry because I have everything under control.

This presentation at the aero forum was the opposite.

The previous week, to the relief of my labmates, I'd tried to organize everything (the slides, the talks, the demo). But our mentor, Garry, told us not to worry about any of it. He kept repeating that: don't worry. It's just a presentation.

_a white board covered in colorful diagrams_

None of us were convinced.

It wasn't until Garry sat down with me and explained what he had in mind--how he was going to help compile photos and diagrams into a logical order--that I trusted he was right. No need to worry. He had given scores of presentations. He had good ideas. He frequently pulled things together last-minute. It'd be okay.

In short, when he explained that, I consciously relinquished control. I mentioned control (and the lack thereof) in the context of volleyball games with my lab. The same idea comes into play here: Setting perfectionism aside, trusting that someone else is competent enough to get the job done. Teamwork. All that good stuff.

Coming together last-minute

Garry showed up not long after 10AM, printed copies of the finalized powerpoint in hand. As our time slot approached, my labmates and I shuffled discretely through the slides, still worried, still anxious.

Our turn came. We trooped up to the podium, all nine of us. We spoke. Twenty minutes, all told (not too long, really), plus the demo. We explained our newly established Autonomous Vehicle Lab, its capabilities, and what the audience would see in the demo. We flew our quadcopter. We demonstrated object tracking and obstacle avoidance.

It went well. It went better than well: our presentation was splendid.

Everyone knew what to say. Everyone was clear, concise, and comprehensible. Perhaps it was because we were not prepared that we were prepared: rehearsing, in our minds, coherent sentences about our parts of the project. Recapitulating our work with the quadcopters, the DGPS system, the Vicon cameras, the many vehicles and pieces of software. Unsure of what we would need to say, and thus, preparing for the worst.

If not for Garry's persistent "don't worry about it"s, I would never have experienced a presentation this way. I'd have planned out that talk and every one after, never daring take a chance on not preparing enough and not practicing enough. Now I know. Our aero forum talk was proof: Things can come together last-minute.

That said, I think I still like having my slides done more than an hour before the presentation. As engrossing an adventure as it was, last-minute isn't going to become my style.