Maja Mataric

Current Position: Vice Dean & Professor of Computer Science at University of Southern California
Maja Mataric
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November 7, 2016Her job: University of Southern California
Describe what you do in your current work situation? I am a chaired professor of computer science, neuroscience and pediatrics at the University of Southern California. I do research in socially assistive robotics, a research field I co-founded, which focuses on developing robots that can help people through social rather than physical interaction. My lab works on developing human-robot interaction algorithms for children with autism, elderly with Alzheimer's, stroke survivors, teens at risk for Type 2 diabetes, among others. I also run a startup aimed at improving people's quality of life through socially assistive robotics.
Why did you choose engineering? I moved to the US from Yugoslavia when I was 16, and my uncle, an aerospace engineer, made it clear that I should take up a college major that will make me employable. He said "computers are the future, study computers" and he was so right. I pursued a major in computer science, and found I both liked it and was good at it. If one of those components had not been true, I might have ended up in something else. I minored in cognitive science, which is now also a key part of my research. When I was in college, computer science was not part of engineering; now it is in many universities, but it is also growing into an entirely separate area of its own, given its scale, diversity, and role in 21st century society. I had no idea how good my choice was back when I made it, but I always tell students: you can't go wrong with engineering: you'll always get a job and you'll be doing something interesting and useful."
Where did you go to school and what degree(s) do you have? BS in Computer Science from the University of Kansas MS in Computer Science from MIT PhD in Computer Science and AI from MIT
What kinds of activities have typically been part of your work? I don't have a typical day. On any given day I might: meet with PhD students one on one to talk about an interesting research project; meet with a stroke patient/parent of a child with autism/etc. to learn what their real challenges are and think about how we might develop technologies to help them; present a talk at a conference or to K-12 STEM audiences or to empower women in corporate settings; advising companies on the potential of robotics and AI; writing grant proposals to support my research lab; working with the engineerings in my company to make choices about the product we are developing; presenting our product to venture capitalists to raise funds toward the next stage of development; meeting with university officials about how to make the university a more productive and effective place, and so much more...
What do you like best about being an engineer? I firmly believe that the purpose of engineering is to solve people's problems and make the world a better place. So that means I get to make the world a better place each day, by choosing the right problems to work on and the right people to work with. I like being on the cutting edge and working on things that are as yet undiscovered and new, yet have huge potential.
Which of your career accomplishments are you proudest of? I am most proud of the success of the PhD students, as well as the younger students (undergraduates and K-12) whom I have mentored over the years. They have been amazing, and they have gotten me to think about the new and interesting things I have pursued. Working with amazing students is the best part of my work. And that results in other wonderful parts, such as getting the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring from President Obama in the Oval Office! And of course seeing stroke patients, children with autism, and elderly users smile and enjoy interacting with our robots and get better as a result.
What challenges have you met and conquered in your pursuit of an engineering career? Any worthwhile pursuit is full of challenges. Like everyone else, I meet challenges every day. The world has its share of sexist people, racist people, negative people, insecure people, and lazy people, and those people get in everyone's way and can make things difficult. They never go away, no matter how successful, senior, and established a person is, there are such people to be found. So, it is important to do three things: 1) work on meaningful things; which will result in 2) believing in yourself; and 3) having good people you can talk to and work with. Focus on what's worth doing and ignore the rest. Don't expect things to get easy, because life is not about things being easy, it's about things being meaningful.
Please tell us a little about your family. I have been with my husband since the 2nd week of college and we have three children. I absolutely believe that one can do work and family, but it is important to not see them as separate and at odds with each other, but rather as part of a continuous fabric of one's life. I don't believe in either hiding the fact that I am a mom or compromising it for work. I've missed plenty of work dinners and international trips and don't feel sorry one bit for the time I got to spend with my children instead.
What are your short-term (1-2 years) and long-term (10+ years) goals? In the next 2 years I hope to develop a product that can help people with real daily needs to lead better lives, though my company. And I also hope to help more amazing students to continue to strive in their lives and careers. And I look forward to seeing my children develop and thrive, now and always. In a decade, hopefully my research and company have achieved major visible milestones, and I may be looking at more of such achievements and also possibly looking into some type of philanthropy.
What (or who) had/has the greatest influence on your life choices? My mother is my greatest influence. I watched her get her PhD (in English literature) while working full time and taking care of me in my pre-teen years. So I knew that getting a PhD was possible. Then I watched her move from Yugoslavia to the US as a widow in her 40s. And now, in her 80s, she is publishing books every year and giving talks to inspire people of all ages. That's what I hope to achieve. My uncle, as mentioned above, was a key influence in getting me into computing. And my husband has given me some absolutely amazingly good advice over the years; I must remember that when we bicker, as all married couples do...
What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in engineering? Go for it. Realize that you will have doubt and will feel out of place and will have the imposter syndrome; don't let that get you down, fake it 'til you make it. Never take no for an answer; guys are smart that way, to them "no" means "not now"; we women can learn from that. Also, stop trying to be perfect, accept yourself as you are. Don't fear failure, fear not trying, as that is the real failure. Don't let anyone tell you what you can't do, they don't know and have no right to tell you anything negative at all. Also, don't worry about loving math, it is absolutely not necessary for major success in engineering; just survive the math classes and press on toward what you care more about. Stay with it so you can make the field what you want it to be!
Describe something about your life outside of work: your hobbies, or perhaps a favorite book. I have 3 children so my favorite thing in the world is to spend time with them. In the little time that I dig up around that, I love to read and listen to books when I run/jog/walk the dog. I love interesting science-oriented podcasts, but also anything about what makes people tick, from neuroscience to behavioral science and wellness. I love to dance but don't get to do it much, maybe I'll take a dance class in a decade. I love playing Charades with my kids; when I'm 70, I might take up amature acting :). When I was younger, I tried many things (travel, scuba diving, painting, dancing, piano, etc.), and I am glad I did. Now I like different things. Everything in its time, or, rather, do whatever you want when you want, who's to say you can't?