Finding Her Wonderland

Zhouru Zhang’s internship at Argonne National Laboratory helped sharpen her robotics skills and gave her focus as she nears graduation from the MSR program.

Zhouru Zhang

The name of Zhouru Zhang’s personal website reflects how she views the field of robotics: Zhouru’s Wonderland.

Zhang is a student in Northwestern Engineering's Master of Science in Robotics (MSR) program set to graduate in December. This summer, she interned at a place with a reputation for being a wonderland of its own – Argonne National Laboratory.

With roots dating back to the Manhattan Project, Argonne is run by the U.S. Department of Energy and touts itself as a place “where talented scientists and engineers work together to answer the biggest questions facing humanity.” Those questions range from how to obtain affordable energy to necessary steps to protect ourselves and our environment.

For Zhang, it was a place to put her learning into action.

“As an MSR student, we take many hands-on courses in different fields,” she said. “The internship is a great opportunity for us to apply all the technical skills we learned to solve some real challenges and help people in other fields tackle their problems.”

The problem she tackled during her internship centered on artificial intelligence (AI). The goal was to create an AI-driven robotics system where a machine-learning algorithm assists its human operators make key decisions.

If successful, the project will help biologists work more efficiently, enabling them to submit an experiment and have robots and AI perform that experiment automatically.

“When my co-workers and I presented our mini system design demo to other people and made it work with real robots, I felt very excited about turning the idea of the system into something that proved to work successfully," Zhang said.

Zhang came to the MSR program after earning a bachelor’s degree in telecommunications engineering in 2020 from East China Normal University. 

The Argonne internship helped prepare her for life after MSR. 

“The internship experience gave me the chance to meet people who have worked in robotics for a pretty long time,” Zhang said. “Working with them and hearing their career story definitely helped a lot.”

Beyond that, the internship helped her learn more about building a variety of robotics systems that work together to automate the scientific research process. Coordinating those differing systems to cooperate showed her how important it is to think about how others are programming their robots, not just how she wants to program her own.

Zhang started the program uncertain about which industry she wanted to enter after graduation but was comfortable with that uncertainty In fact, she offered that as advice to students who might be thinking about joining the MSR program as they search for their own wonderland.

“Don't be afraid if you haven't chosen a very specific area you want to dive into for now,” she said. “The robotics engineer's job requires multiple skills, so you should be prepared to equip yourself with domain knowledge in both software and hardware. Through all the courses you take, all the independent and group projects you work on at MSR, and along with your internship, you will find something that appeals to you.”


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