What Makes You So Smart, Maja Mataric? - Pacific Standard

What Makes You So Smart, Maja Mataric?

After leaving Serbia for the United States as a teenager, Maja Mataric became one of the world's top robotics experts. She tells Noah Davis how and why it happened.
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Maja Mataric. (Photo: University of Southern California)

Maja Mataric. (Photo: University of Southern California)

Maja Mataric's journey from Belgrade to sunny southern California, where she spends her days developing robots, involved stops in Kansas and Cambridge. The professor and Chan Soon-Shiong Chair in Computer Science, Neuroscience, and Pediatrics, and co-director of the University of Southern California's Robotics Research Lab, took a while to gravitate to engineering, but she's now one of the top people in her field. "I cannot think of a single paper dealing with group robotics which does not refer to Dr. Mataric’s work," George Bekey, founder of USC’s robotics program, told MIT Technology Review when it named her one of the top innovators under 35. She talked to Pacific Standard about the realities of the cynical immigrant work ethic, how women can create space for themselves in leadership positions, and why knowing your path is overrated.

You were born in Belgrade but eventually immigrated to the United States. When was that and how did it affect your education?

I came over when I was 16 and did my junior and senior years of high school in the United States. It was very different here.

What influence did your early schooling in Belgrade have?

It's hard to answer that in any statistically meaningful kind of way because I only have my one-person perspective, but certainly primary education is much more intense in Europe. We had two to three times as many classes. Not all of those classes were particularly useful, but we get a lot more math and a lot more languages than people do here. I don't think it influenced what I did, but it prepared me better. When I came here, I didn't know I was going to go into engineering. I'm not a person who grew up tinkering with robots in my basement. I was looking at psychology and arts. When I decided to go into engineering, it was fortunate that I had a really solid background. It facilitated things and allowed me more choices.

"I think that eventually you find your passion, and my passion has to do with understanding what makes people tick. I found that in robotics, but I imagine that I would have found that in another field as well."

Did you feel like you were way ahead of your peers when you got here?

I was way ahead. I was told that because of the classes I had, I could have already graduated from high school. But then I would have gone to college at 16, which people thought was not the smartest idea. I wouldn't have been socially or emotionally ready, especially as an immigrant with a thick accent. In retrospect, I'm happy that's what happened. When I was in grad school at MIT, I saw kids who were 15 years old. Being in grad school then did them no favors. They stayed forever in order to grow up as people.

I had breadth and depth in my education, which gave me some advantage back then. But by the time I was in grad school, that advantage was gone. All of my peers had taken the classes in college. The difference goes away. People catch up.

Was there a moment when you realized you were smarter than most of the people in the room?

Oh no. I prefer not to think that, and it certainly hasn't been the case since I've been in college. In college, I was in something called the Scholarship Hall. We were there because of our academics. I prefer not to be in rooms where I feel like I'm the smartest person.

In high school, they wouldn't put me in honors English because I was an immigrant. I was in basic English. I don't think that the kids weren't smart, but they had no work ethic. There were kids who couldn't be bothered, who did horrible things, who threw pies in the teacher's face. What world is that? People should never behave like that. If they do, and they are acting stupid, then yeah, they aren't going to learn anything and their life outcome is going to be terrible. I prefer to think about it as how much effort people put in, rather than who's smarter to begin with.

Did your parents push education?

Of course. My mother is a Ph.D. My dad died early, so he didn't get the opportunity, but he was very hardworking. Obviously, there's a cynical immigrant ethic from the ethnicity I come from, especially when it comes to education, but it's not that different from some of the other communities that are very education focused. For me, there was never any question that I would work hard and get all A's. It was just not a question. That's what you do. Numerous numbers of kids could do that if they applied themselves, but they don't. There are many kids who don't have the opportunity because they have to work or they are surrounded by an environment that doesn't push them to work hard, and that's a sad thing. I'm a believer in hard work. That's part of the immigrant ethic, but you work hard.

That's a good life goal for anyone, immigrant or not.

It gets you by. I do a lot of work with technology for the elderly. I see that when people lose things that they are working for, they get more signs of dementia and aging. It's not just work for the sake of work; it's giving them meaning. You can have all the social relationships in your life, and that's very important, but having the reason to get out of bed is so important. I think that's a big lesson. There's this idea that we're going to sit back and relax. Yeah, you sit back, relax, and lose the will to live.

How did you end up in robotics?

I was interested in A.I. because I was always interested in the brain and how it works. I took computer science because it was employable. I was instructed by my family to do something employable. My advice to every single child today would be to go into engineering. You can always get a job. If you want to be an artist, you can be an artist later after you study engineering, but you can't study art and then be an engineer.

When I went to grad school, I wanted to learn more about robotics. I was smart enough to apply to the top places, so when I got into MIT, I went. When I got there, I looked around and the most interesting and compelling research was in robotics. In retrospect, it seemed like an obvious decision because my advisor is known around the world and a leader in the field. But I could have done a lot of things. I tell younger students that if they are choosing among good places and they like what they get into, that's fine. I'm pretty sure that if I had gone to a completely different program at a different place, I might be doing something completely different, but I could do it well as long as I loved it. I wasn't born into robotics; I found a niche in it. I think that eventually you find your passion, and my passion has to do with understanding what makes people tick. I found that in robotics, but I imagine that I would have found that in another field as well.

There are very few people who know exactly what they want to do early in life.

I envy them. But you just don't know. I know kids who are good at art and engineering, and they feel like they have to choose. They feel torn. I tell them it doesn't matter. Who knows where the future of engineering is? It has a kind of art. Stop worrying. You'll get to define it. I think that's fine. But yeah, it must be nice if you're born and you know that you're going to be a doctor.

But in some ways, that seems very limiting.

Things are never what they seem. You might imagine being a doctor as one thing, but it's actually this other thing. That speaks to finding your path later. I don't say that lightly. I think we get to define new fields and new ways of being. I see this in every realm of life. As we push the boundaries and change them, we get to figure out where they go. But also, I think about this as a woman who is getting into positions that are traditionally male. The reason something is defined the way it is is because it's defined by people who did it before. But the people who did it before me are very different. We have to change that. It's not easy. Change is hard, but if you're at a reasonably friendly institution, you can change that as well. You hear certain people saying, "I don't want to do that because that's what it's like." It doesn't have to be like that. When you do it, it can be different. To say "I don't want to have this leadership position because it involves me having this kind of practice or this kind of meeting" is wrong. You can do it your way. That's something that takes a long time for people to understand.

What Makes You So Smart? is an ongoing Q&A series.

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