June 11, 2020

Exyn Team Spotlight -- Denise Wong, Ph.D., Principal Robotics Engineer

Hear from Denise Wong, Principal Robotics Engineer, about her passion for robotics and the not-so-straight path that brought her to Exyn.

By Justin Lehmann, Marketing Coordinator

At a robotics company, it's easy to get lost in the technology when we talk about ourselves. But behind every eye-popping LiDAR scan and software update is a dedicated team of professionals pursuing perfection in each of their individual crafts. 

To highlight more of the human side of our robotics equation, we're starting a new blog series featuring some of the incredible people who are helping to break new ground in artificial intelligence, autonomous robotics, and epic pre-COVID bike rides for pizza. 

First up is a long time member of the Exyn team, Denise Wong. She has been studying robotics for over 10 years, starting with mechanical engineering during her time at Cornell University and continued with her Ph.D. with Exyn co-founder, Vijay Kumar at the GRASP (General Robotics, Automation, Sensing & Perception) Labs at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Interviewing her is me , Justin Lehmann, a Philadelphia native and recently hired Marketing Coordinator. My background is in Computer Science and Communications, graduating from Penn State Abington. Needless to say, I'm thrilled to be working right next to some truly incredible technology and the people who are dedicated to making it great. Now let's get on to the interview!

Hey Denise! Thanks for volunteering to go first here. How did you get interested in robotics? 

I grew up in an engineering family. My mom encouraged my sister and I to take things apart, fix them, really work with our hands. I can remember her asking us to rewire the plug for her hairdryer and other appliances around the house. I never shorted anything! And my parents always checked our work. It's simple when you think about it, there are clear, color-coded instructions and you're just connecting wires and screwing them down; kind of like Tinker Toys, but with a bigger risk and also greater reward of doing something useful! 

I was never pressured to go into any specific fields, but I was always interested in making things and seeing how they worked. As I got older that naturally transitioned to a passion for robotics.

Younger me would have loved to mess around in a robotics lab. So how did you see yourself playing a larger role in the field of robotics?

Robots have the potential to keep people out of dangerous situations and make things safer. 

Like my mom, my older sister also went into chemical engineering and had a really great experience in undergraduate research so she recommended I look for something similar in robotics. This is where I got my first taste of what it would be like to work in a robotics lab, and I was immediately hooked. 

I started my undergraduate work at Cornell studying mechanical engineering and working in robotics research labs. The first lab I worked in was a biomechanics and locomotion lab where we studied how you get a robot to walk dynamically. A robot like the Asimo has these big flat feet that take one step at a time, but humans don't walk like that. Human walking is much more dynamic, you can think of it as falling and catching ourselves all the time. So how can you teach that to a robot? It was so much fun to watch all these videos of other research, develop and test our own theories, and apply what we learned.  

At some point, you have to think about a career so I focused my undergrad work on becoming a manufacturing engineer. I thought -"I like to make things, and now I can get a job doing just that. It'll be great!" I got an internship, then a co-op, and eventually landed a job in industrial lighting. About 6 months in, I realized how much I missed research and working in a robotics lab. That was the point when I decided to go back to school and apply specifically for a robotics program. 

Denise (bottom left), and the Exyn team preparing to go underground for a drone test

Never underestimate a droid! What brought you to Philadelphia? 

Several GRASP Lab professors visited as guest speakers while I was at Cornell and that sparked my interest in applying for my graduate work there. The GRASP Lab is unique in that it allows and encourages interdisciplinary research to really explore your knowledge base.

My Ph.D. research was in the intersection of biology, microfluidics, and robotics. I was able to take advantage of the resources and knowledge across campus, by collaborating with biologists and sharing their wet lab space, which you wouldn't typically have access to in a robotics lab.   

After seeing some of our work with controlling microstructures, we were approached by researchers studying surface tension. They wanted to manipulate objects automatically, causing different interactions and assemblies at the microscopic scale by changing surface tension. They focused on the theory and we worked on the control aspects. It was fun to work on ideas across departments like that and bringing together different ideas to create something completely new! 

It sounds like an awesome opportunity. Is that where you learned about Exyn?

Exactly. My thesis advisor is Dean Vijay Kumar, the founder of Exyn, and that's how I heard about the company. 

What drew me to Exyn was their intersection of cutting edge technology with a real-world application. In academia, I was solving interesting problems and answering questions at a fundamental science level. But as an engineer, I always wanted to do things to make an impact and be useful. And even though I didn't know much about the company when I interviewed -- they were in stealth mode  -- I had an idea of the potential applications for their technology.

What was it like to join a startup that early?

It was dynamic and exciting. At the time, it didn't feel like it was that early. The company had been around for over a year, they had a custom-built prototype robot running algorithms that we're still running on the robot today!

The office at the time was very small,  just a single room with a ping pong table in the middle that doubled as a conference table. For my interview, everyone there just turned around and we talked about my research and some of the work they had been doing.

The old "conference table" now living its best life at Exyn HQ!

Everyone there was incredibly smart and very collaborative. I was drawn to the team because they embodied some of the best parts of being in an academic research lab. When I joined Exyn, we had just moved to a coworking space where we got spoiled with amenities. When we finally moved to our current spot on Washington Ave we had to build and take care of everything ourselves. That created a great collaborative DIY mentality at the company. No one was going to do anything for us, if we wanted it done right we had to do it ourselves. This mentality is where the tradition of building your own desk got started - when we have a new employee, one of their first tasks is to assemble their own desk and chair. 

Good to know I wasn't being pranked on my first week. What do you like to do outside of work?

I like to be outside riding my bike. I'm part of a Philly-based amateur W/T/F/NB cycling team. I dabble in bike racing and our team's mission is to make the cycling community in Philly more inclusive. I've met a lot of different people (non-engineers) through cycling, and it's a great way to meet new people who share a common interest. 

two cyclists on the boardwalk at the end of a long ride
Denise (right) with Dennis Ding (left), former Exyn employee, at the finish line of the American Cancer Society Bike-a-thon after they rode from Center City, Philly to Atlantic City, NJ!

Philly is great for cycling. Within the city, there's a growing network of bike lanes for commuting, and for longer rides, you can pretty quickly be next to cows and riding through farmland within the hour. We love to plan a mid-ride stop at a farm stand or a lunch spot. It's easy to indulge when you wedge it in the middle of a 50-mile day. There are also lots of great trails in Fairmount Park and the Wissahickon for off-road riding and hiking!  

My partner and I are also really into cooking. Now more than ever during the global pandemic. We've been going through our cookbooks looking for the most involved and time-consuming recipes we thought we'd never have time for. And yes, we're making sourdough but my partner has been making it for a while (not to brag!). He got into it a while ago and I just let him run with it. Now that we're locked down and have more time, I've started to learn as well. Let me know if you need some starter!

Obligatory sourdough glamour shot

I've succumbed to the sourdough craze and I don't think I'm ever going back! What are you reading recently? 

I'm definitely a fan of reading science non-fiction about engineers or scientists making breakthroughs or shaping their fields in some way. It makes those amazing accomplishments more human and makes them more relatable in a way. Like the three female African-American pioneers featured in Hidden Figures, or JPL's 'Rocket Girls' who helped get us to the moon.

It's easy to see successful people and think, "Oh they've been groomed for this their entire life. I have no chance of achieving what they have done." But when you read more about their journey you realize many of them didn't take a straight clear path. It's more meandering and all these different experiences build towards where they are today. I love those types of science stories.

For example, Mike Massimino came to speak at our company retreat last year and at first I wasn't sure how it would relate. But when I read Mike's book I empathized with passion for space as a child, which faded in college but came roaring back later in life. And his struggles with the NASA qualifying exam, which even he failed the first time. It made me think of my own life goals and challenges, and that it's OK to wander a little and let these experiences build on each other.

If you have questions for Denise you can join her upcoming talk -- virtually of course -- at the Women in Tech Summit happening July 14 - 30. Denise will be in the Tech Now and in the Future track on July 28th, presenting Journeying Into Uncharted Territory with Flying Robots: An Intersectional Perspective on the Drone Industry

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