Blood, Sweat, Tears, and Cheers

Ana Huamán trades Peru for Robotic Prototypes

Photos by Jillian Morn

Ana Huamán has “sweated blood” to be where she is today. The Georgia Tech robotics Ph.D. student grew up with little access to computers or Internet in her native Peru. As an undergraduate, she engaged in a massive student-led strike and near-daily battles for pertinent library books to complete her studies -- all to realize her dream of creating robots that will help those who need it most.

Huamán is developing an innovative framework to enable fast and easy robotic identification of household objects. Her objective is to help robots capable of performing household tasks and, eventually, other important responsibilities. Industry and academics alike are laboring intensively to create such assistive robots, which one day could help the elderly or disabled with household tasks.

“I like the idea of having my work out there in the real world,” Huamán said. “It is exciting.”

It’s especially impressive when you consider her roots.

Huamán, a Peruvian, is a first-generation college graduate. Although she was always gifted academically, Huamán initially had interest only in more traditional career paths like becoming a lawyer or doctor. Having limited computer and Internet access prior to attending Universidad Nacional de Ingenieria, Peru’s premier engineering school, it’s perhaps not surprising that she didn’t consider a computing career. Her eventual undergraduate major of mechantronics engineering had only been available in Peru for barely a decade at the time. But the 10-line description in the college’s course catalog encouraged her to dive into the exciting new discipline.

When Huamán arrived at the university, she immediately had better access to computers and the Internet, but many of the resources she needed—i.e., analog media oftern referred to as “books”—were still located in the library. So, Huamán and her classmates often would have to show up early to snag the books they needed before anyone else. Her university’s rigorous standards made such behavior an implicit expectation.

Getting those books got harder for Huamán when a massive student strike broke out in her second year. The strike was a response to perceived corruption in the re-election of the university rector. Around 100 students closed the main entrance to Huamán’s university in protest. Police responded by dispersing tear gas, and the protests accordingly amplified. Huamán eventually joined the six-month protest in a supporting role. Even though the rector never resigned, the strike had a profound impact on the previously puritanical Huamán.

“I learned to get out of my shell and find that there were other people on the world who shared the same ideas as me,” Huamán said. “I learned that studying was important, but that things like ideals, friendship and hope were also worthy to fight for.”

The milestone paved the way for a major leap of faith. Huamán embarked for the U.S. to further her education. Lacking research experience, Huamán first completed an extended internship at Carnegie Mellon University to prove her investigative abilities. Her Peruvian university generously funded all expenses. She later applied to Georgia Tech purely based on the recommendation of Carnegie Mellon roboticist Howie Choset.

“I deeply respected his opinion,” said Huamán. “As I verified later, he was right: This is a great place to be.”

Huamán was the antithesis of a typical Ph.D. student upon her arrival in Atlanta. She hadn’t decided on a thesis topic and even with the Carnegie Mellon internship, her research experience was limited. Consequently, Huamán had concerns about how she’d fare at Tech.

“Luckily for me,” she said, “I found great people at Georgia Tech, and they made the difference.”

Her advisor Mike Stilman was the prototype. Huamán was drawn to research under Stilman because of the young professor’s unbridled enthusiasm for robotics. Tragically, Stilman passed away in May 2014.

“Although these were not happy memories, I remember those times with a smile, because the hard times showed me the best of people,” Huamán said. “Georgia Tech taught me to grow, no matter what circumstances.”

Stilman’s untimely death also inspired Huamán to live a more deliberate life. She volunteers weekly with FurKids, Atlanta’s largest no-kill animal shelter. “Quite different from my normal day-to-day with my robot.” Huamán also is learning Italian and piano. She’s still a “library rat” and often makes time to dance Argentinian tango.  

“You never know when it will be your time to go,” Huamán said. “When in doubt, just do it and follow your impulses.”

Now, Huamán is focused on finalizing her research as she graduates next spring. Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines Executive Director Henrik Christensen, who took Silman’s place as her advisor, believes she’ll be ready for whatever happens next.

“Ana is a passionate and dedicated student,” Christensen said. “I’m confident her work will make an impact on the future of robotics.”