Physicist, Roboticist, Engineer...Coach?
When the decision is made to redirect one's career path, it is often in response to a subliminal calling or subtle nudge from a teacher or mentor. For Penn's Electrical and Systems Engineering professor and GRASP Lab director Daniel Lee, it was a red alert inside a nuclear reactor that sparked a change.
While deep into his doctoral research in condensed matter physics at Brookhaven National Laboratory late one night, a power outage forced the Long Island reactor into lockdown mode. As alarms shrieked and control rods lowered toward the reactor's core, Lee called upon his inner Hollywood stuntman; his narrow escape to the outside was made with an acrobatic drop and roll underneath a massive closing door. Once safely back at MIT in Cambridge, Lee began to explore research in fields that didn't require large amounts of time in nuclear reactors.
With his MIT Ph.D. in hand and a B.A. in Physics from Harvard in his toolkit, Lee was encouraged by friends and fellow former physicists to join them at the illustrious Bell Labs. When Lee began his career there as a postdoc in 1995, Bell Labs had been home to 11 Nobel Laureates and could claim 26,000 patents filed under its aegis. Lee remained at Bell Labs for six years as a researcher in the departments of Theoretical Physics and Biological Computation. Then, while not as dramatic as a nuclear reactor alarm, the changes in the culture at Bell Labs after the telecommunications bubble burst signaled another career change for Lee.
As a witness to the synergy created by the cross-fertilization of disciplines at Bell, Lee did not limit himself to the field of physics as he considered opportunities in academia. And where better to explore the intersection of scientific, biological and engineering disciplines than Penn Engineering, home to the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Lab.
GRASP was founded in 1979 by Ruzena Bajcsy, then a Penn Engineering faculty member in the Department of Computer and Information Science and a pioneering, award-winning researcher in machine perception, robotics and artificial intelligence. GRASP has grown into a $16 million research center that draws upon the collaborative energies of computer scientists, mechanical engineers and electrical engineers, among others.
Lee came to Penn in 2001 as an assistant professor in Electrical Engineering and soon found his intellectual home in the GRASP Lab, working in concert with other faculty and students. He describes his research as centered around "learning representations that enable autonomous systems to efficiently reason about real-time behaviors in an uncertain world." In April, he was appointed director of the Lab, following Kostas Daniilidis, professor in Computer and Information Science and Associate Dean for Graduate Education at Penn Engineering. Citing Lee's "energy, creativity and commitment to collaboration," Eduardo Glandt, Nemirovsky Family Dean, foresees him leading GRASP to new heights.
The Affable and Youthful Lee is a Self-described "Coach"
Lee's natural talents as a teacher can best be observed during robotic team competitions between Penn and other universities. The affable and youthful Lee is a self-described "coach," who has been known to sleep on the floor while traveling "on the cheap" with his teams. He has led aspiring engineers and roboticists in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) autonomous vehicle challenge and RoboCup, the international robotic soccer competition. While Lee sees the success of "Little Ben" in the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge and Team DARwIn, Penn's winning RoboCup humanoid soccer-playing robots as exciting and rewarding, he is just as proud of the ways in which the challenges and ensuing solutions benefit the larger scientific community. Importantly, his hardworking students learn to manage the stress inherent in competition and come to appreciate the rewards of collaboration as they raise the bar of innovation.
And what of Lee's own life lessons learned as a grad student after almost being trapped in the Brookhaven nuclear plant all those years ago? The harrowing experience has come full circle with an ironic twist: one of his projects these days is to develop robots that can perform search and rescue operations in disabled reactors.
View the full the article in Penn Engineering magazine: "Physicist, Roboticist, Engineer...Coach?," by Patricia Hutchings.