Maja Mataric

Current Position: Vice Dean & Professor of Computer Science at University of Southern California
Maja Mataric
Highlight Know that you can be an engineer your way. Don't believe any stereotypes about engineering; go visit a few real engineering labs, especially those lead by women. Don't take no for an answer, ever, from anyone.
May 13, 2011Her job: Sr. Assoc.Dean & Professor of Computer Science, Ne, University of Southern California
Describe what you do in your current work situation? 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.
Why did you choose engineering? Because I can create things that improve people's lives. But my work in engineering is very interdisciplinary and involves collaborations with social scientists, cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, physicians, and many others. In that way, we make sure that our research is properly informed and useful, and also there is always something new to learn and explore.
Where did you go to school and what degree(s) do you have? B.S. Computer Science, University of Kansas S.M. Computer Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Ph.D. Computer Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
What kinds of activities have typically been part of your work? I wear many hats at my university (I run a large lab, a research center, and am an associate dean for research) so all my days are a busy mix of activities including lots of email, meeting one-on-one with PhD students doing research in my lab, meeting with other professors to discuss research ideas and plans for our School of Engineering, holding lab meetings (with home-cooked food provided by the grad students!) where we discuss what's working in the lab and what's not and how to fix it, mentoring new professors in the school, and writing grant proposals to get funding for my research.
What do you like best about being an engineer? The opportunity to positively impact people's lives through innovation and discovery, as well as the ability to do new things and keep reinventing yourself throughout your career.
Which of your career accomplishments are you proudest of? Meeting President Obama in the Oval Office in January 2011 when I received the Presidential Mentoring Award. Getting my PhD from MIT. Being elected President of the USC Faculty and getting to lead the giant graduation procession while carrying the silver mace (and not dropping it or tripping the entire way! :) Seeing my graduated PhD students receive national awards, get jobs as professors, and get tenure. Having kids, parents, and families who participated in user studies with our robots tell us that they love our technologies and hope they can get them for their family members right away.
What challenges have you met and conquered in your pursuit of an engineering career? Doing research involves raising funding all the time. Grants only last about 3 years, so one needs to keep writing proposals to keep one's research group supported. Also, I moved from Europe in my teens, and it was very hard to leave all my friends behind. I finished high school in the U.S. Midwest and was not very happy there. I went to the University of Kansas and got my B.S. in Computer Science. I loved it there; I lived in a great all-women group called the Scholarship Hall (like a sorority based on grades and talent) and so had a great group of new friends. I got involved in various short-term jobs (semester-long, summer) and got a glimpse of various options. My boyfriend (now husband) was the one who pushed us both to apply to graduate schools, and I am so glad he did. I applied to various graduate programs and did not really understand the difference between a Master's and a PhD. They are *completely* different, so make *sure* you get good advice before you apply, and also make sure you apply even beyond your expectations; aim for the stars. I got my PhD from MIT, which was amazing training and a great stepping stone for my career. MIT was really hard, and it tested my confidence, but once I realized that it tests everyone's confidence, I enjoyed the challenge. Now I work to have a similarly challenging but supportive and inspiring culture in my research group at USC.
Please tell us a little about your family. I am extremely happy to have three amazing kids. They shape my research ideas; in fact having kids is what got me to start working on robotics for health, because I wanted them to understand what their mom does and why she does it, and to think it's cool. My husband is also a professor; he works in chemistry and chemical engineering and develops therapeutic drugs for cancer, diabetes, and other diseases. Having two professors in the house keeps things extremely busy but it also makes it easier to understand and appreciate what we do and what motivates us.
What are your short-term (1-2 years) and long-term (10+ years) goals? Professionally, I would love to see the socially assistive robots we are developing in people's lives (hospitals, schools, elder care centers, and homes) in my lifetime. I'd also like to see a thriving service robotics industry in the US providing affordable products that help people with special needs, including the technologies we are developing. Personally, I want to relish watching my kids grow and become even more amazing than they already are.
What (or who) had/has the greatest influence on your life choices?
  • My mother, who is a force of nature and has a Ph.D. (in English) which meant I never had to wonder if I, too, could get one (in my case in Computer Science).
  • My grandfather, who was a true leader, an advocate for the disadvantaged, and had no cares of what others thought of him.
  • My father, who died early but was an engineer and so his influence had an impact, more so than he knew.
What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in engineering? Know that you can be an engineer your way. Don't believe any stereotypes about engineering; go visit a few real engineering labs, especially those lead by women. Don't take no for an answer, ever, from anyone. Take math, but don't fret if you aren't stellar at it or don't love it, because engineering is not all about math (that's another stereotype). Take science or languages or art or whatever you love, because there are branches of engineering that use all of those fields! For example, there is natural language understanding and translation research; there is computer art and computer graphics and animation; there is an intersection between every kind of science and engineering today... there is everything, and more that you can invent. Get involved in projects, whether through engineering summer jobs or simply by volunteering in a research lab or engineering company.
Describe something about your life outside of work: your hobbies, or perhaps a favorite book. I have 3 kids and 2 jobs so I have no time for hobbies. I'm OK with that because, before I had kids, I ran marathons, did scuba diving, painted, hiked, bicycled across Canada with my husband, and traveled all over the world. Now I'm cool with doing stuff with my kids and rediscovering the world with them.