Julia Di

Tactile Sensing and Control for Robotic Applications
Stanford University
Tell us a bit about yourself – what stage of your PhD are you in and what’s your project about?
I am based in the U.S., doing a combined master’s and PhD program. In this program, I am entering my third year, which in Europe would be the equivalent of entering the first year of PhD studies. My project is exploring how to give robots the sense of touch, and how to use that additional sense to make robots more useful in tasks such as dexterous manipulation and coordinated maneuvering.

What does a typical day or week look like for you?

I usually split my time between working in the robotics lab, and working from home. There are also some days where I take classes. Research is really just like any other full-time job; you work a normal full-time workload at least, and sometimes do overtime to meet deadlines. Academia is a slightly different setting than industry, but I find my typical day or week looks similar to the typical day or week of a full-time robotics engineer.

What’s one thing that you’ve enjoyed the most during your PhD?
I love the wonderful people in my lab and within my social network who give guidance and support when I need it most.

What’s been the most challenging part of it?
All parts of the PhD are challenging, but I think I have a tie between two. The first challenge I had was dealing with mental health in graduate school, which I had found was not talked about as often. A PhD journey can sometimes be a very isolating process, working long hours in a lab, unable to seek advice in a narrow field outside of one’s immediate labmates and advisor….I had a lot of trouble adjusting in the first 1.5 years of graduate school. The second challenge is with motivation. Obtaining a PhD is an incredibly long process, around 5 – 6 years for people in combined master’s / PhD programs like myself. Finding a topic that can sustain your interest for multiple years can seem like a daunting task, and many people don’t know what their thesis topic really is until the very end.

Where do you see yourself 5 years after completing your PhD?
I would like to try either working at a startup full-time, or pursuing my own robotics startup. But as long as I’m in a place where I feel like I’m still learning and growing, I think I will be happy!

What’s one piece of advice that you’d offer students that are thinking of doing a PhD?
Know that a PhD is going to be a lot of hard work. It’ll require introspection at times. Before you start one, assess why it is that you’re doing a PhD, and stick to that reason. Do you want to do it because you want to invent something cool? have a fancy degree? learn more things? be the first in your family to pursue a PhD? Any and every reason to pursue a PhD is perfectly valid, so long as it’s truly something that you want to do.

What makes your university a good place to study?

It is in the heart of Silicon Valley and has a very laid-back campus culture compared to other schools.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I love working on art (visual arts, mechatronics, and writing), supporting marginalized genders around the world through my work with the Women of AeroAstro (@woaaofficial) and the Brooke Owens Fellowship, reading, hiking, and learning new things.

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