Dropping Robot webBefore beginning her robotics PhD at Carnegie Mellon University, Catherine Pavlov ’08 interned at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) where she designed, built, and field-tested a robot called Volcanobot. Catherine designed Volcanobot to enter and map volcanic fissures to help scientists understand the nuances of volcanic eruptions on Earth, Mars, and the Moon.

The results of Catherine’s field testing were published in the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research earlier this year, but Catherine feels most accomplished by the construction of the robot itself.

“Seeing the robot actually drive around under my control for the first time was really cool,” said Catherine. “I have a parental feeling towards these robots; they’re like my children.”

Considering the amount of time and labor it took to design the robot, Catherine’s strong attachment is justifiable.

“I had never built a robot before this internship, so I had no idea what I was doing,” said Catherine. “It was a little bit scary at first because there was a big complicated system that I had to learn, but the other engineers helped me break it down into smaller design problems which made it easier to digest.”

Catherine initially applied for an entirely different internship position at JPL, but when they saw her electrical engineering and 3D modeling experience, they asked her to build Volcanobot.

“It was a low-budget project, so they couldn’t pay a regular employee, which meant I got to do the full job of a JPL engineer,” said Catherine.

She happily accepted the position and embarked on her first task: learn how to build a robot. As Catherine built the robot, she also built her skills, spending whole days teaching herself how to program embedded systems and doing 3D modeling of various parts which she then 3D printed and tested.

“It was definitely an iterative process to figure out how to put all of these pieces together,” said Catherine. “The first versions were really rough.”

Thankfully she had lots of help from the other JPL engineers whom she regularly consulted for advice.

“They were happy to help out, explain concepts to me, and teach me how to design better,” said Catherine. “I really enjoyed working next to real engineers which allowed me to see what they were working on and talk about their ideas.”

Catherine’s JPL internship experience ignited her interest in robotics and clarified her career aspirations to develop robots for exploration of extreme environments, particularly space, for which Catherine is currently conducting research on planetary rovers. She would also love to work at JPL again where she was inspired to further her robotics education to the PhD level.

“I want to take more classes,” said Catherine. “I’m not done learning.”

Her curiosity and quest for more knowledge stems from her days as a Nueva student.

“Nueva was really good about encouraging doing things because they’re interesting and being creative. I learned to not be scared of big questions.”

When Catherine was an eighth grader, the newly built I-Lab opened on Nueva’s campus and with it a whole new world of hands-on learning for Catherine and her classmates.

“I was lucky to be there at the time when the I-Lab was still growing, so I had a lot of independence,” said Catherine. “I loved the freedom we had at Nueva to explore both physically outside and in the classroom.”

She also treasured the time she spent discovering the forests around campus and being on the Tech Challenge team.

“Though I didn’t realize it at the time, Nueva was what got me into science and tech in the first place,” said Catherine. “I loved Nueva.”

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