University of Pennsylvania’s Cynthia Sung On How We Can Increase Girls’ Participation in Engineering and Robotics

An Interview With Vanessa Ogle

Vanessa Ogle
Authority Magazine
10 min readMay 21, 2024

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Expose. We must also create more opportunities for students to experience and engage in engineering early. In my years of teaching, I’ve found many students are unaware of what engineering truly is. Providing hands-on experience with the engineering design process will provide students the opportunity to envision themselves in an engineering career in the future.

Despite the growing importance of engineering and robotics in shaping our future, women remain significantly underrepresented in these fields. This series aims to explore and address the barriers that discourage girls from pursuing careers in engineering and robotics. We are talking to educators, industry leaders, pioneering women engineers, and robotics experts who have made significant contributions to their fields, to discuss the strategies they believe can inspire and increase the participation of young girls in engineering and robotics. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Cynthia Sung.

Cynthia Sung is the Gabel Family Term Assistant Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics (MEAM) and a member of the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing & Perception (GRASP) lab at the University of Pennsylvania. She completed a Ph.D. (2016) in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, advised by Prof. Daniela Rus, and a B.S. (2011) in Mechanical Engineering from Rice University. Her research interest is computational design and fabrication for robotic systems, with a particular focus on origami-inspired and compliant robots. She is the recipient of a 2023 ONR Young Investigator award, 2019 NSF CAREER award, 2020 Johnson & Johnson Women in STEM2D Scholars Award, and a 2017 Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Award.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I have a really hard time keeping my hands still. When I have something in my hands, it is really difficult to resist the urge not to tinker with it, understand its shape, figure out how the parts fit together, etc. I think this is also what drew me to robotics and to research. I get to design, invent, and learn about new physical devices that are not only fun to build and figure out how to put together, but also have the potential to make a significant impact on our world.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

The path to my specific area of expertise — origami robotics — was roundabout and not at all what I expected for myself. When I was young, I enjoyed folding paper and discovering what interesting geometric shapes I could make, but as I progressed through high school and then started learning about engineering in college, I always thought that folding would become one of my side hobbies. But then I began graduate school, and suddenly my cohort and I were analyzing how to build custom robots — and it turned out that origami and folding could make robots easier to fabricate and assemble. So what used to be a hobby of mine became part of my core research, and it has continued to be a major part of the research we do in my lab. It has been very interesting and exciting to see the intersections between robotics and origami and how they can benefit from each other.

What inspired you to pursue a career in engineering or robotics, and how can we replicate that inspiration for young girls?

I have been fortunate to have the support and mentorship of strong women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) at every major point of my life. Beginning when I was young, my mother, who is a scientist herself, encouraged me to think critically and to really understand the math and science lessons we were learning in school.

I think having strong role models and mentors for young girls is the most important thing we can do to inspire them. These figures must not only inspire and encourage, but also support and advise along the way. My mentors were tremendous inspirations and role models for me, but even more important was that I knew I could always go to them for advice and that they were willing to help in any way I needed. Becoming an engineer is something that takes practice and hard work, and everyone fails at some point. Having people who can teach you how to deal constructively with failure is crucial.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

In college and graduate school, my research advisors, Professor Marcia O’Malley at Rice University and then Professor Daniela Rus during my time at MIT, were very successful women in engineering — and they each cared about both training their students to be good researchers and helping their students to grow as people and professionals. They each had different approaches but had both successfully pursued (and enjoyed!) a career in STEM, and they showed me that I could have that same success, too.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I read Robert Lang’s Origami Design Secrets when I was in high school, which had a huge impact on me because it was the first time that I saw how math could be used to design structures and how rules for different kinds of fold patterns could be combined together into something very complicated. I had no idea what engineering truly was at the time, but I was very inspired by the idea that by understanding something fundamental like geometry, it was possible to create something entirely new. Now, as I work in engineering methods to design new types of robots, I aspire to come up with approaches and explanations that are as clear and well thought out as what was in that book.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

“The value of an education…is not the learning of many facts, but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.” — Albert Einstein

In engineering, it is crucial to use facts and combine them to create something new. Every day, I work hard to think critically and teach my students to do likewise in their learning every day. I want them to ask themselves — does what they see or read make sense given what they already know or don’t know? And if it doesn’t fit with what they know, then what does that tell them about what they have been assuming is true?

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Over the last few years, we’ve seen robotics grow as a source of interest and inspiration for the general public, and I hope that we can take advantage of that excitement to bring more people into engineering. What drives my research is the pursuit of making robots easier to access and easier to use. The idea of personalized robots is transitioning from sci-fi fantasy to plausibility. And at the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing & Perception (GRASP) Lab, we have been developing new methods and software tools for helping non-engineers design custom robots, build them, and conduct experiments with these creations.

One of these tools is a program that we call Build-a-Bot, which is computer software allowing people to connect different robot components together, specify their motions, and analyze how they move around in an environment. The key is that all of the designs that people create can be fabricated, meaning if someone is happy with their design and wants to see it in real life, they can print or fold it themselves and produce a physical robot of their own within a day. The software is still a work in progress, but we have tested it with students at many levels to gauge how they interact with it, how they can learn from it, and whether they are excited. I’m hopeful that the software can eventually be used as an entry point for people who want to learn more about engineering to teach them about math, physics, control, and more, while grounding that learning in both a virtual and physical device.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this report, only about 16% of engineering positions in the US are held by women. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from Engineering and Robotics?

I suspect it is a combination of a number of specific factors for each person. But generally speaking, I believe that the women who choose not to pursue careers in engineering and robots simply don’t see themselves being successful or happy in that field.

This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should enter the Engineering and Robotics fields?

Engineering is ultimately a profession where we create things to solve problems that exist in the world and in society. In order to make sure that what we create will achieve its intended impact, we need to gather input from the people who will eventually be interacting with them and have them play a role in the design process. This includes women and people of all different backgrounds.

Can you please share “5 Things We Need To Increase Girls’ Participation in Engineering and Robotics?”

1 . Inform. We need to do a better job sharing and explaining what engineering truly is. Engineering is about problem solving, designing, coming up with creative solutions, and supporting those solutions with mathematical or scientific analysis. There are many girls who are gifted in these areas — yet , I suspect they may not understand just how much the engineering field needs their talents.

2 . Inspire. It’s so important for us to provide positive role models whom girls can look to and see themselves in. Seeing others accomplish big things will help girls to dream big and one day accomplish those dreams themselves.

3 . Encourage. Helping girls build confidence in their competence is also crucial. Mistakes or failures are inevitable while learning, but the key is to help girls understand that this is OK. Girls must understand how to learn from these mistakes so that they can become stronger engineers in the future.

4 . Advise. We need to provide constructive mentorship and advice, but this goes beyond merely giving blind encouragement. It also requires a thoughtful approach to share feedback when something is going wrong. Some of my most helpful mentors have been those who were honest enough with me to let me know when I was making a mistake. Providing students with people whom they can trust is key.

5 . Expose. We must also create more opportunities for students to experience and engage in engineering early. In my years of teaching, I’ve found many students are unaware of what engineering truly is. Providing hands-on experience with the engineering design process will provide students the opportunity to envision themselves in an engineering career in the future.

In your opinion, what are the most effective ways to introduce girls to engineering and robotics at an early age?

Having hands-on experiences is extremely important. Engineering isn’t just about seeing your role models, but also about doing what they’re doing, alongside them. At the GRASP Lab, we have multiple outreach programs, including with the Free Library of Philadelphia, where roboticists bring robots into the community. Penn Engineering’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion also runs a number of programs to introduce young people, including girls, to STEM. Reach out to your local university to see what programs they have for getting involved in STEM — you might be surprised by how many opportunities there are!

What advice would you give to girls who are interested in engineering and robotics but are hesitant to take the first step?

Go for it! You will never know if it is for you unless you give it a try.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can follow the robotics research we conduct at the GRASP Lab at sung.seas.upenn.edu.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

About The Interviewer: Vanessa Ogle is a mom, entrepreneur, inventor, writer, and singer/songwriter. Vanessa’s talent in building world-class leadership teams focused on diversity, a culture of service, and innovation through inclusion allowed her to be one of the most acclaimed Latina CEO’s in the last 30 years. She collaborated with the world’s leading technology and content companies such as Netflix, Amazon, HBO, and Broadcom to bring innovative solutions to travelers and hotels around the world. Vanessa is the lead inventor on 120+ U.S. Patents. Accolades include: FAST 100, Entrepreneur 360 Best Companies, Inc. 500 and then another six times on the Inc. 5000. Vanessa was personally honored with Inc. 100 Female Founder’s Award, Ernst and Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year Award, and Enterprising Women of the Year among others. Vanessa now spends her time sharing stories to inspire and give hope through articles, speaking engagements and music. In her spare time she writes and plays music in the Amazon best selling new band HigherHill, teaches surfing clinics, trains dogs, and cheers on her children.

Please connect with Vanessa here on linkedin and subscribe to her newsletter Unplugged as well as follow her on Substack, Instagram, Facebook, and X and of course on her website VanessaOgle.

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Vanessa Ogle
Authority Magazine

Vanessa Ogle is an entrepreneur, inventor, writer, and singer/songwriter. She is best known as the founder of Enseo