My Introduction to Robotics at Northwestern

James Sohn (MSIT '19) talks about his background and what he hopes to learn during his time in Northwestern's Master of Science in Robotics (MSR) program.

James Sohn witnessed the impact robots can have on an industry firsthand during his time working as a Research Development Project Engineer at Valeo, where he led automotive exterior lighting projects for General Motors. He also saw the limitations of those same robots.

James Sohn

Sohn enrolled in the Master of Science in Robotics (MSR) program at Northwestern to build a better knowledge of robotic systems and carve out a path for himself that leverages his background and expertise.

Sohn shared more about why he chose the MSR program and reflected on his experience in the program after the first two months of the school year.

You led automotive exterior lighting projects for General Motors before coming to Northwestern. Can you explain a little more what that means and what your responsibilities were?

My responsibility as an R&D product engineer at my previous employer was to lead product development; in this case, that meant the exterior lighting of passenger vehicles for GM. Each product development team included two core members — a program manager who managed the entire project from timing to finance, and an R&D engineer who was in charge of technical design. R&D engineers like myself worked with other contributing team members like a Computer Aided Design (CAD) engineer, simulation engineer, electrical engineer, etc., and made decisions on how to implement any discussed design for various aspects of product development.

What did that experience teach you about what gaps there were with robots already being used in the industry?

Like other manufacturing companies, there has been significant effort to automate the assembly process. I got to see the trials and errors of adopting cobots (cooperative robots) to either replace or help the operators. The robots' lack of vision limited the ability to identify target objects properly, and they were not dexterous enough to handle the object as intended. Engineers could surely fine tune the system to improve the robots' overall effectiveness, but it was still not robust enough.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about robotics?

The biggest misconception is robotics is a single field. Instead, robotics is at the intersection of other core engineering subjects, such as mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and computer science. The industry is in need of engineers who are well versed with all of these relevant core topics. I'm looking forward to the MSR program giving me that training.

Why did you decide Northwestern's MSR program was the right option for you?

I really liked the idea of the cohort model, where a handful of students get to work together throughout the program. I also loved the theory that the Associate Director, Jarvis Schultz, explained to me that people will learn more by making, breaking, and doing things than by reading books and writing a thesis. As I came from a professional background after my Bachelor's degree, I needed a program where I could work on hands-on projects to learn, not just to obtain the degree. Plus, having Program Director Todd Murphey and Jarvis as advisers is a huge plus. They are really supportive and knowledgeable.

How would you describe your first few months in the program?

It has been tough, without a doubt. There have been many nights I had to stay up late to do assignments or get ready for a quiz, but overall, I'm happy that I decided to join the program. I can tell I'm learning a lot as I break through those assignments and projects. I have great advisers and a cohort that is willing to help as well. All that's left for me to do is work hard.

What do you hope to do professionally after receiving your degree?

I am honestly open to challenge myself on anything. The more I learn about the things we are studying, the more I'm interested in many different aspect of robotics and the ways they may positively impact the world we live in. It could be with autonomous driving vehicles, or smart Cobots automating manufacturing, or medical robots, and the list will go on. I'll make up my mind at some point, though.

How do you think NU's MSR program will help you get there?

I can't emphasize how great of a setup we have here for the program under this cohort system. Students get to know each other and work with each other the whole time. We ask for help and we help others. That, more than you imagine, motivates me a lot. Plus, we are able to work with a common toolset; we all have identical laptops running Linux, we all use Git for version control, and we are all using the Robot Operating System for our projects. Whether it be working in the industry or academia, those are all hugely relevant skills to have in the field of robotics.