Wired for Excellence

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

As a child, Madeleyne Vaca would do anything to avoid household chores. Her tactics typically varied little from those of other children. That is, until 5-year-old Madeleyne promised her mother that she’d build a robot to complete all of their housework.

Vaca, BS CS/EE ‘17, is crazy about robots. She enjoys all aspects of a robot’s lifespan, from conception to completion. Vaca’s parents are both engineers, so her desire to build and create may not be surprising. However, where she got her start is. 

The Stone Mountain native attended Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology in metro Atlanta, which U.S. News and World Report consistently names as Georgia’s best high school and a top school nationally. Vaca was active in the school’s Robotics Club and participated in multiple international competitions throughout her high school career.

Vaca’s school also required students to complete internships during their junior and senior years. Luckily for Vaca, there was a leading robotics institution just down the road. First, she interned with Professor Ayanna Howard, director of the Human-Automation Systems Laboratory in Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Vaca drove to campus a few times each week to help develop a touch-based gaming controller for the disabled.

“Even then, her inquisitiveness and intelligence as a student shown through,” Howard said. “Madeleyne’s determination and love of education makes her destined for success.”

For Vaca’s second internship, Howard recommended her to Associate Professor Andrea Thomaz in the Socially Intelligent Machines Laboratory in the School of Interactive Computing. This time, Vaca used Microsoft’s Kinect to collect raw skeleton data and map movements to motor encoder values that could be used to control a humanoid robot.

And that wasn’t the full extent of Vaca’s connection with the College of Computing. As a high school freshman, Vaca had begun attending Institute of Computing Education (ICE) summer camps. By the time she was a senior, she had become an instructor in those same summer camps.

Vaca’s impressive resume made her a hot commodity amongst top universities nationwide. She traveled across the country (and just down the road) to visit the crème de le crème of the nation’s technical schools. Georgia Tech even named her a President’s Scholar. But Tech stood out for another reason.

“I chose Georgia Tech because of the community,” Vaca said. “It was the only place that felt like home.”


Vaca at HackGT last fall.

That community hasn’t disappointed. Vaca is constantly engaged with a variety of scholarly and extracurricular activities. She’s an assistant expedition leader and rock-climbing instructor-in-training with Outdoor Recreation at Georgia Tech. As an assistant expedition leader, she has traveled to neighboring Southeastern states and beyond. She’s a frequent hackathon participant, placing in the Top 10 of the Fall 2014 HackGT event. Vaca also flings Frisbees for WRECK, Tech’s women’s club Ultimate team. And yes, she still helps her younger colleagues see that computing is cool through ICE camps and workshops.

This summer, Vaca is an intern with Microsoft in Seattle. Her office building also houses Microsoft’s after-hours innovation factory, a perfect neighbor for Vaca’s maker-minded nature. Vaca is planning to try out for one of Seattle’s great women’s Ultimate teams, too, and recently completed a new personal climbing best.

Where does it all lead? Well, Vaca is planning to earn her Ph.D. in robotics before a career in academia and/or industry research. She’s focused on developing robots that enhance lives (including that chore-performing robot that someday will be ready for her mother).

Vaca credits Georgia Tech for making it all possible.

“Tech has taught me a lot of things about myself and has helped me form a clearer picture of what I want my future to look like,” Vaca said. “It’s where I’ve met my closest friends, celebrated my most meaningful accomplishments, and it’s a place from which I will be proud to graduate.”