From Tinkering as a Child to MSR and a PhD

Yuchen Rao (MSR '17) looks back at how she became interested in robotics and the role Northwestern Engineering's Master of Science in Robotics (MSR) played in her current research in artificial intelligence.

Yuchen Rao (MSR '17) reflects on the role the MSR program played in her current research in artificial intelligence.

When she was a kid, Yuchen Rao (MSR '17) enjoyed watching her father make handcrafted toys. Sure, she enjoyed playing with them, but even at a young age, she developed a fascination with the mechanisms and mechanical design of the toys. Rao enjoyed dissecting the parts of objects and was always looking to design a new device that could aid her in her daily life.

That passion ultimately led her to Northwestern Engineering's Master of Science in Robotics (MSR) program, and now to Munich, where she is pursuing her PhD in the 3D AI lab at the city's Technical University. She entered MSR with an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and left with a new range of opportunities before her.

Rao chose to focus on industry work initially. She spent a year as a robotics software engineer at OTSAW, where she improved and tested a mobile base navigation system on a mobile robot and successfully delivered it to a customer in Singapore. From there, she spent nearly two years in a similar role at Berkshire Grey, where she contributed to the development of perception modules for object-grasping robots.  

In both jobs, she leveraged the lessons she learned in MSR, particularly the knowledge she gained with the Robot Operating System (ROS).

"When I worked in those companies during the last three years, I used ROS every day," she said. "I also worked on robotic perception, which is highly related to computer vision." 

In January 2021, Rao decided to leave her industry work and pursue her PhD. She is currently working on using deep learning methods to help understand 3D scenes and semantic segmentation using both supervised and unsupervised methods.

"I am really interested in 3D vision, which is a really important topic for computer vision and robotics," she said. "I am trying to do research on this topic and solve daily problems by using this technique. What I enjoy most is that I keep learning new things every day."

That longing to learn, coupled with the knowledge gained in MSR, brought her to where she is today.

"The MSR program is a great way to gain experience with robotics, and it's a great program for people who want to work in the robotics field," she said. "You will get to know a lot of people who have the same interests as you and you will make good friends. I highly recommend it."

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