Victoria Wu Takes Her Robotics Skills From UMKC to NASA!

UMKC grad and NASA intern Victoria Wu recently shared more about her research with her mentor Dr. Rao, how she got involved in robotics, all of the cool things she gets to work on at NASA, and more!

Congratulations on your many accolades! Tell us more about your research with Dr. Rao.

During my junior year, I was an undergraduate research assistant under Dr. Rao focusing on the area of query optimization for federated SPARQL queries using cardinality estimates.

SPARQL is a query language for RDF (resource description framework) data. RDF is a neat, machine readable way to represent knowledge in the form of a triplet (subject-predicate-object) such as sky – has_color – blue. A wide variety of information, including abstract concepts, can be encoded in this way, forming a giant graph made of potentially interrelated statements from various sources, or endpoints. Federated SPARQL queries can gather RDF data from several databases across a network, providing a powerful tool to aggregate data from various endpoints. Optimizing the queries formed can result in faster execution time. The work I did focused on reordering service calls to different endpoints using cardinality estimates, or assumptions about the number of “answers” to a query.

How did you get involved in robotics?

I have to thank one of my classmates, Sarah Withee, for getting me started with robotics. It was at her persistent invitation as the software lead that I finally joined the UMKC IEEE robot team late my freshman year. The robot team was a great way to get involved in an engineering project, from contest description and robot requirements, to development, integration, and testing. It was also a fantastic environment to get experience working both in a large multidisciplinary team, as well as a smaller subteam (software and hardware team). And finally, it was incredibly fun! I’m extremely grateful for the experiences I had with my teammates and the wonderful support of Mrs. Debby Dilks, our robot team sponsor/coach at the time.

What was your experience like at the 2015 Grace Hopper Celebrating Women in Computing Conference?

I had the opportunity to present a poster there thanks to my undergraduate research advisor Dr. Praveen Rao. It was a wonderful experience to see so many others like me, that shared my interests. Normally in a CS/tech degree, there are only a handful of women students, but to see so many all at once, and especially to see women industry and academia leaders who had already gone ahead, was very inspiring.

There was a sense of camaraderie that made it easier to meet and talk to others. I’m happy that I had the opportunity to meet many wonderful people through this conference. I think that is the most valuable thing I got from my experience at GHC – the relationships that were made. I highly recommend for everyone to attend at least once. They do offer scholarships that you can apply for.

I hear you’re an intern at NASA! What kind of work do you do there?

I just started last spring as a Pathways intern at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in the science data processing (587) branch. One of the projects I worked on was for RRM3 (Robotic Refueling Mission Phase 3), starting development on a CFS (Core Flight System) application in C for interfacing with and configuring a wireless access point, and passing along video telemetry. It was my first industry/non academia internship, and it was a great learning experience for me. I got to look at the project requirements document to see what was expected of my app, do development work with those requirements, test on different platforms, and learn their build environment. It was a great place to work, and I’m really happy I had this opportunity. I highly recommend applying for NASA Pathways (co-op) internships through USAJobs for those interested in working here after college; you can also apply for internships through NASA’s OSSI website.

What advice would you give to other women who are beginning to pursue their degree in computer science?

My main advice is to spend time thinking about what your career/life goals are, and then take every action you can to get closer to that goal. If academia and research sounds interesting, apply for REUs (Research Experience for Undergraduates), funded summer long research programs at various universities in a wide variety of topics. Conducting longer term research as an undergraduate research assistant is also a great way to get experience. If you want to go into industry, pursue internships at companies and ask classmates and professors about opportunities or people they know that work at companies similar to the ones you want to work for.

I would also encourage seeking leadership roles in student clubs and extracurricular activities that interest you. They are a great way to develop soft skills and build relationships with other students and professors. When I served as secretary, then chair for our ACM student chapter (Association for Computing Machinery), I got to develop my public speaking and networking skills. I also greatly benefited from the support and encouragement of our student chapter sponsor, Professor Brian Hare.

If this field is something that you like, and enjoy doing, seek out and pursue as many related opportunities as possible, keep trying, and don’t be discouraged – it’s easier to be at peace when you know you did your best, whatever the outcome.

What made you choose UMKC?

I attended UMKC because of its affordability as a public school, scholarships offered, and its location nearby. It was also a good size for me – not too small, but also not too big where you get lost in a sea of students. The school size makes it much easier to get involved in extra curricular clubs.

What are your plans for the future?

After I complete my master’s, I hope to return to Goddard full time. From there I look forward to working on more neat projects!

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