CLOSE
Rice University
Rice University

Dr. Lydia E. Kavraki: A Woman Making Robots Work

Rice University
Rice University

Dr. Lydia E. Kavraki’s list of accomplishments, accolades, and titles is almost too much to process—the computer scientist is currently the Noah Harding Professor of Computer Science and Bioengineering at Rice University, but she also holds an appointment at the Department of Structural and Computational Biology and Molecular Biophysics at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, in addition to sitting on a number of advisory boards for various publications, holding fellowships and memberships at a whole mess of associations and institutions, and running her own lab at Rice. It may sound a bit dry, until you realize what Kavraki’s work consists of: She makes robots work. It’s not bad work if you can get it (or, alternately, you’re brilliant enough to do it).

Kavraki’s work is incredibly complex (to put it mildly), but her robotics work essentially boils down to path planning for robots—making sure they have a collision-free path to follow. Her method, the Probabilistic Roadmap Method (PRM), is hailed for providing a paradigm shift across the robotics community, as it utilizes randomizing and sampling-based motion planners to path plan, a simpler technique than had been previously used (one that meant that all applicable path space had to be explored and taken into account). Kavraki also helped write the book on the subject—literally: Her Principles of Robot Motion is the preeminent text on the subject. She also developed the Open Motion Planning Library, part of the Robot Operating System, which is referred to as “the Unix of robotics”—it’s that essential to modern robotic movement. Kavraki’s research is highly applicable across all sorts of robotics, including previously unsolvable problems like how to dock an airspace shuttle to an orbiting space station and “teaching” robots how to tie knots when suturing in a surgical environment.

Kavraki’s expertise also extends to the world of bioinformatics, and her work there applies to the structure and flexibility of molecules, just in case she didn’t have enough to do already.

In 2000, Kavraki won the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Grace Murray Hopper Award for her technical contributions, an incredibly special award that only goes to a computer professional who makes a single, significant technical or service contribution at or before age 35. (How special? On five occasions, the award wasn’t given out; their standards are just that high.) She’s also got a Sloan Fellowship, an NSF CAREER award, recognition as a top young investigator from the MIT Technology Review magazine, a “Brilliant 10” designation from Popular Science, and a 2002 inclusion from Technology Review on annual list of 35 innovators under the age of 35, just to keep things interesting (and lauded).

For now, Kavraki continues to teach at Rice University, with her own Kavraki Lab bent on researching the two prongs of her scientific interests: robotics and bioinformatics and biomedicine. By all accounts, Kavraki’s brilliance in the lab translates to the classroom, as she is a recipient of Rice’s own Duncan Award for excellence in research and teaching. Kavraki’s dedication to the advancement of not only her research, but her students and science in general, is clear enough already, though beautifully minimized with one line on her Rice website linking out to still more accomplishments and awards, those of others dear to her, reading simply, “I am most proud of the accomplishments and awards of my students.”

nextArticle.image_alt|e
arrow
History
The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Wikimedia Commons
11 Forgotten but Important Moments in Women's History
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

From Sojourner Truth speaking about equality to Elizabeth Cady Stanton writing the Declaration of Sentiments, women have fought for respect and equal rights throughout history. Most textbooks cover pivotal moments in women’s history, such as Marie Curie being the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and Susan B. Anthony working to get women the vote. But there are a wealth of lesser-known yet incredibly important moments in women’s history that you might not know about.

1. ADA LOVELACE RECOGNIZES THE POWER OF THE COMPUTER.

Soon after Ada Lovelace was born, her mother and her father—the poet Lord Byron—separated. Determined that their daughter would not grow up to be like Byron, Ada's mother made sure she spent her time studying math, logic, and science. As a teenager, she met Charles Babbage, a mathematician who conceptualized the first automatic calculator, which he called a Difference Engine. In the early 1840s, Lovelace helped him translate (from French to English) an article about another idea of his, a digital computer that he dubbed an Analytical Engine. But Lovelace did more than translate. She also added her own extensive notes and wrote an algorithm for the Analytical Engine to compute Bernoulli numbers. While historians still hotly debate how much of this was her work versus Babbage's, it's agreed that she was the one who recognized that what they were working on could be more than a calculator and is credited with the movement from calculation to computation.

2. SEPTIMA CLARK PETITIONS ON BEHALF OF BLACK EDUCATORS.

We’re all familiar with Rosa Parks’s status as the mother of the Civil Rights Movement. But historians consider Septima Clark, an educator who helped pave the way for Parks and other Civil Rights activists, to be the movement’s grandmother. Born in Charleston, South Carolina to a former slave and a laundress, Clark earned her teaching credentials. But as an African American, she was not allowed to teach in Charleston’s schools. In 1919, she successfully petitioned to allow black teachers and principals to work in the city's black schools, collecting enough door-to-door signatures from black parents that the ban was overturned the following year. Clark later worked with the NAACP to secure equal pay for black teachers and teach literacy workshops to African Americans, all while battling racism, getting fired, and being arrested on false charges.

3. FIRST LADY EDITH WILSON TAKES CHARGE OF PRESIDENTIAL DUTIES.

Although the U.S. has yet to have a female president, First Lady Edith Wilson essentially ran the country for 17 months after her husband, President Woodrow Wilson, suffered a severe stroke in 1919. Because Wilson's Vice President didn’t take charge (the 25th Amendment wasn’t passed until the 1960s), FLOTUS stepped up. With her husband partially paralyzed and bedridden (but still lucid), she served as the gatekeeper for all incoming communications and gave orders on his behalf relating to important matters such as the Treaty of Versailles. Although some contemporary critics disparaged Edith, calling her role in the White House a "petticoat government," others praised her solid work for the Executive Branch.

4. SUSANNA SALTER IS ELECTED THE FIRST FEMALE U.S. MAYOR.

By Unknown photographer (Kansas Historical Society), via Wikimedia Commons

In 1887, Susanna "Dora" Salter was a 27-year-old wife and mother living in Argonia, Kansas. To share her belief that alcohol has deleterious effects, she became a prominent member of Argonia’s Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Before Argonia’s April 1887 city election, a group of men who opposed the movement decided to play a nasty joke on the WCTU. They secretly nominated Salter for mayor, thinking that the notion of a female mayor was so preposterous that it would make a mockery of the WCTU and its message. On Election Day, Salter was shocked to see her name on the ballot, but a group of supporters decided to make the most of the stunt by actually voting for Salter, thereby turning the tables on the men who nominated her. Salter won the election, banned hard cider, and served her one-year term as Argonia’s mayor.

5. FATIMA AL-FIHRI FOUNDS THE WORLD'S OLDEST UNIVERSITY.

Fatima al-Fihri lived with her wealthy family in Fez, Morocco during the 9th century. After her father, brothers, and husband died, she decided to use her inheritance to make a positive impact on her community. In 859 CE, al-Fihri funded the construction of the Al Qarawiyyin mosque and an adjoining madrasa, which became a locus of scholarly and religious activity. Besides personally overseeing the extensive building project, she attended and graduated from the university, which would have Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish students. Today, the University of Al Qarawiyyin is the world's oldest continually operating, degree-granting university, and visitors can see al-Fihri's wooden diploma in the school's library, which was renovated in 2016.

6. WYOMING PASSES THE FIRST WOMEN'S SUFFRAGE LAW IN 1869.

Ratified in 1920, the 19th Amendment gave all female U.S. citizens the right to vote (in theory, if not in practice). But women in the territory of Wyoming had been voting since 1870, when approximately 1000 women there voted in their first election. In 1869, Wyoming’s legislature passed laws giving women the right to vote, sit on juries, and own property, as well as equalizing male and female teachers' pay. The reasons that Wyoming’s legislature, led by William Bright, gave women these rights half a century before the 19th Amendment are complex. Perhaps the territory’s lawmakers wanted to attract more women settlers (men greatly outnumbered women and children) or they were responding to the almost-ratified 15th Amendment, which gave black men the right to vote. Some historians think Democrats passed the law as a partisan prank, hoping to humiliate the Republican governor. Still others argue that Bright, influenced by his wife Julia, genuinely believed that women were just as capable as men. Regardless of the reasons that the law was passed, Wyoming (which became a state in 1890) is fittingly nicknamed The Equality State.

7. DAISY BATES PROTECTS THE LITTLE ROCK NINE.

With her husband, Lucius, writer Daisy Bates founded The Arkansas State Press in 1941. The weekly newspaper focused on African-American civil rights issues, and the couple published editorials supporting immediate desegregation of Arkansas schools. As a president of the Arkansas NAACP and vocal opponent of segregation, Bates faced threats and abuse from the community, but she didn’t let that stop her. In 1957, after the courts ordered the Little Rock School District to integrate its schools, Bates helped the Little Rock Nine—the nine black students she recruited to enroll at Central High School—enter their new school safely, despite being blocked by the Arkansas National Guard. She arranged for ministers to escort and protect the children, helped parents enroll their children in the school, and provided her home as a safe place where parents could bring their children before and meet them after school. After the Little Rock Integration Crisis, Bates moved to Washington, D.C. to fight poverty in President Johnson’s administration, and today Arkansas has a state holiday dedicated to her memory.

8. KATHARINE BLODGETT INVENTS "INVISIBLE" GLASS.

Whenever you look through non-glare glass, you can thank Katharine Blodgett. As the first female engineer at General Electric's Research Laboratory, Blodgett pioneered ways to transfer monomolecular coatings onto glass in the 1930s. Her technique for creating "invisible" glass involved applying a coating that canceled out reflections coming off the glass. Her glass coating was used to improve cameras, cinematography lenses, eyeglasses, and military periscopes. Besides working with glass, Blodgett also made breakthroughs in smoke screen technology and meteorology.

9. EDITH COWAN IS FIRST WOMAN ELECTED TO AN AUSTRALIAN PARLIAMENT.

Born in 1861, Edith Cowan experienced tragedy as a teenager when her father was executed for murdering his second wife. Transforming this experience into good, Cowan devoted her life to fighting for women’s and children’s rights. She helped to found the Karrakatta Club, an Australian women’s group, and she founded the Children’s Protection Society, a group that helped create juvenile courts, so children wouldn’t be treated as legal adults. In 1921, Cowan became the first woman in an Australian Parliament when she won a West Perth Legislative Assembly seat in the Western Australian Parliament. In her elected role, she built on her previous work by supporting legislation that benefited women and children.

10. CATHAY WILLIAMS ENLISTS IN THE U.S. ARMY.

Born to a free father and an enslaved mother, a young Cathay Williams worked on a plantation in Missouri and in a support capacity for the Union Army. In 1866, Williams enlisted in the 38th U.S. Infantry, becoming the first documented African-American woman to serve in the U.S. Army. Because of the military’s requirement that all enlistees be male, Williams posed as a man named William Cathay. Although it’s unclear how she passed the army doctor’s examination, she served for almost two years alongside her male cousin and friend, who kept her gender a secret. Williams, who enlisted to earn income and be independent, was discharged after a doctor treating her discovered she was female. In 1876, she told her story to a journalist, who publicized her account in a Missouri newspaper. Around 1890, shortly before her death, Williams applied for a military disability pension, but her application was denied, despite her nearly two years of service.

11. MARGARET HAMILTON WRITES CODE THAT ALLOWS HUMANS TO LAND ON THE MOON.

Born in Indiana in 1936, Margaret Hamilton studied mathematics and became a programmer, writing software for military and weather-related projects at MIT. But it was her work as the lead software engineer for NASA’s Apollo program that cemented her legacy. She and her team wrote the code and algorithms for the spacecraft’s in-flight software, which included instructions for everything from how to run it to how to detect and troubleshoot problems. Hamilton’s work contributed to Apollo 11's safe moon landing, and she also coined the term software engineering before the field was a respected, discrete discipline. After her work for NASA, Hamilton founded her own tech companies and, in 2016, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios