Marita Cheng continues remarkable journey in robotics

Marita Cheng continues remarkable journey in robotics

She’s had a remarkable life and she’s still in her mid-twenties.

In 2012 Marita Cheng became Young Australian of the Year after founding a female-friendly robotics culture, while still an undergraduate mechatronic engineering student.

Today Robogals is a global organisation, teaching robotics to girls in schools, and encouraging more girls to pursue engineering.

Fewer than 1 in 5 (19%) of engineers in Australia are women. (Source) And the number of women in robotics is even smaller – in research, development, and the commercialisation of robotics.

Perhaps because there is a serious lack of visible female role models in Robotics and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in general.

The solution would be for women in STEM to be equally represented at conferences, keynotes, magazine covers, and stories about technology.

Marita is now working on her own robotics startup. #GirlsCanDoAnything

Tell me a little about your background – was this your high school dream job?

This was my dream job, working in robotics and making a difference in the world. We didn’t have many robots in Cairns. I read a lot of books and I thought robots sounded incredible and they’d be part of our future.

Is the interest in AI (Artificial Intelligence) these days partly because of your work in robotics?

Possibly – I learnt a lot about artificial intelligence when I was in America in 2015. It seemed a really new thing back, and then I started a new company with my friends which uses artificial intelligence.

How did your career start? Who influenced your decision to enter your industry?

When I was in year 12 I found out about an engineering camp in Brisbane. And over 4 days we built robots out of Lego, and learned about mining engineering. So I went along to that and I thought it was great how engineers use maths and science to solve big problems in the world and make a difference.

In 2013 a friend won a scholarship to an intensive residential experience at NASA Research Park. I asked him lots of questions. He was very excited about going. It was a 10 week course that cost around $US30-40K. I thought I’d go if I could get a scholarship.

The following year I was too busy to apply and another girl from Australia won the scholarship. And that made me think about how much I really wanted to do this, so I cleared my schedule and applied for scholarships in 2015 and I received a scholarship.

So I got to go to NASA and learn about all these new technologies, AI, genes technology, nanotechnology. We’re all encouraged to use our skills to improve people lives. Most people who do this course have set up their own companies.

The best thing about the course is the people I met. They encourage me, inspire me, and advise me. It’s a great peer network.

What challenges/barriers did you encounter?

It was difficult to find other people in Australia to talk to and learn from. I had to look all over the world in order to find mentors I could ask for advice and learn from.

Are there any barriers women who want to follow you into Robotics might face?

Societal pressure to do things a certain way. You need to be strong and stand up for what you believe in so you are not swayed.

What is your daily role like?

I want to learn about all the different aspects of running a tech startup. So I try to learn and understand everything so that I know what’s going on.

I’m really excited about the brain-controlled robots I’ve helped develop. My company aubot (formerly 2Mar Robotics) has created the world’s first commercially available brain-controlled telepresence robot for people with a disability.

What are some of the personal requirements required for your career?

It requires a lot of grit! With a robotics startup in particular, you need to be prepared to try lots of new ideas, think about different solutions to problems. Have plan b’s for designs and prototypes, because you will have to start again at times! Keep at it to achieve your objective.

What are the educational requirements needed to become a robotics engineer – or can you be self-taught?

Most people get a degree in mechanical engineering or electrical engineering or mechatronics engineering. I chose the University of Melbourne despite attending a UQ engineering camp because after taking a tour it seemed perfect – everything I was looking for.

Some people are self-taught. Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway, was basically self-taught. He didn’t graduate because he didn’t complete enough course credits. His inventions have helped the world.

Are there any reasons women for women not to have a career in robotics?

You have to be passionate about it and have a lot of grit. Having a lot of support around you is very important. My mum is very supportive of me and the things that I do, that makes it a lot easier. I try to surround myself with like-minded people so that we can help each other.

Have you ever had a moment of hesitation – the thought “Why am I doing this? Is it really what I love?”

Oh yeah all the time! I usually discount that thought as soon as I have it. I immediately think to myself, it’s ok, just keep going.

Who were your role models when you were growing up?

I admired a lot of male technology entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. I thought what they achieved was quite incredible. And I thought I want to do something like that one day. My mum encouraged me too.

What would you do differently in your life knowing earlier what you know now?

Yes I’d do a lot of things differently! But you know, you can’t change the past so you just have to make the best of what you’ve got. I wouldn’t have learned if I did it right the first time.

What advice would you give for other women considering a STEM career?

Just get involved. Put your hand up and don’t be afraid to be wrong. Ask lots of questions, always be keen and try to contribute. The more you contribute the more you learn and the more you gain from the experience.

What do you feel needs to be done in order to see an increase in females pursuing a career in what is normally considered a male dominated industry?

People need to know why people study STEM, regardless if you’re a women or a man. If you know why you are pursuing your engineering studies or whatever studies you are doing, then you have a much stronger motivation to use your skills, to build say robotic arms or prosthetic limbs. If you’re intrinsically motivated then that will lead your career in STEM.

Have you been back to your old school in Cairns to give a talk to the students about your career?

I do a lot of that. Not just to Cairns, but all over!

Robogals teaches 12 000 girls a year. It’s a lot of fun. I resigned from the Robogals board recently. Now, I’m the founder and ambassador and special advisor to the board.

Find out more about Robogals here

Find out more about aubot here and here

Yolanda Floro
Yolanda has travelled along many different paths over the years. She has most recently worked as a media lawyer specialising in film, television and digital media law, and recently completed a Masters degree in Law, Media and Journalism – focusing on new media; aka a Masters in Twitter and Facebook. Yolanda holds a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Australian Popular Culture and Aboriginal Literature, as well as degrees in Education.
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