Look Who's Talking!
M. Bernardine Dias. Aspiring,
inspiring, and ready to take on anything, newly appointed Robotics faculty
member M. Bernardine Dias shares her work, life, and passions.
Bachelor of Arts (liberal arts) with dual major in Physics and Computer
Science and a minor in Women’s Studies; Masters in Robotics; Defended
my Ph.D. in Robotics on January 7, 2004.
New Job Title: Special Research Faculty, Robotics
Goal: To get some of the best motivated, educated,
and brilliant people here to spend some of their energy and thoughts on
how to innovate technology to make the world a better place for the people
at the bottom of the economic pyramid—the poorest people. If I can
make at least a few lives better because of my efforts, I will be happy.
Can you tell me a little about yourself? Let’s
start with where you’re originally from and your background.
I’m from Sir Lanka. I was born and raised there, second of six children.
I came to the US when I was a little over 19, to do my undergraduate degree.
It was the first time I left home, so it was quite an adventure! [Laughs]
What sort of research are you into?
That’s a complicated question. I’ve done all sorts of robotics
research because when I came here, I didn’t know anything about
robotics, so I wanted to get a better feel for the field of robotics.
I was very excited because it’s such a new and exciting field, and
you really feel like you’re a part of designing the future. That,
to me, is one of the biggest excitements about being in robotics.
I’ve worked on a lot of different projects. My thesis work is on
getting groups of robots to work together: so if you have a complex mission
that robots need to work together to accomplish, the question arises how
do you decide who is going to do what, and when, etc. To figure this out,
we have an approach in which you create a virtual economy. The robots
are traders in this economy, and the tasks to be done are the commodities
they trade, and the robots have virtual money, and they hold auctions,
etc. and that’s how they decide who’s going to do what. That’s
basically my dissertation. But as faculty, my long-term goal, and what
I’m mainly interested in is how innovative technology can play a
role in sustainable development. So part of the reason I was hired was
to start this new program where we build partnerships with developing
communities around the world, different impoverished neighborhoods, and
look at how we can help with technological tools to empower them to come
up with their own solutions, etc. It’s kind of a newly emerging
field of research, which is what I’m mostly interested in.
Do you currently teach any classes?
I taught a class called ICT4B last semester. It’s “Information
Communication Technology for the 4 Billion people at the bottom of the
economic pyramid”. So half of the world’s population lives
on less than $2 a day, and we were really trying to give people a feeling
for what it’s like to live that kind of life, what differences can
we make with technology, etc. It was kind of an experimental class we
taught, and we’ve gotten a lot of interest in it—I taught
it with Rahul Tongia and Raj Reddy from here, and then three professors
from UC Berkeley—it was a videoconference class, and we had students
from both universities.
What’s your favorite thing about CMU?
I think my favorite thing is how easy it is to work with people from many
departments—so interdisciplinary work is very easy. There’s
very much a feeling of cohesiveness that you don’t find in other
places. I’ve been to several other universities, and there’s
a lot more competition in other universities as prestigious as Carnegie
Mellon. Here, you can walk into someone’s office, and they’ll
actually tell you about somebody else’s research in a positive way.
There are so many brilliant people here, it’s amazing! If you talk
to anybody here, you’ll learn a lot, and they aren’t very
arrogant about it; there’s a lot of respect, and a lot of effort
to work with people across boundaries. I think that’s where the
future is—breaking out of the boundaries we’ve created for
ourselves—“this is physics,” “this is engineering,”
“this is computer science”—there are just so many things
that we can do across these fields that we can benefit from each other,
and breaking these boundaries is what’s going to help us to come
up with new and creative innovations.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
5 years? Wow, that’s a long time—I’ve kind of realized
that you can never plan that far ahead! [Laughs]
But, let’s see…in 5 years, I hope to be more established in
research; I certainly see myself teaching more classes; I see myself in
a position that’s in the middle of administration and academia.
a day in your life like?
It’s actually very different on different days…I find that
I plan my day, and then there are a 150 new things that come up demanding
my attention, so I have to re-plan! But depending on the day, I will either
work from home or come to CMU in the morning. Usually the morning is spent
catching up with emails, and corresponding with all the different contacts
I have to keep in touch with. Depending on the day, I might have to teach
class or meet with students, faculty, or staff.
I make a lot of time for my friends too—that’s very important
to me. People are very important to me, and so I usually have lunch or
dinner (or both) with friends, and then in the evenings sometimes I try
to do something fun. I love to dance, so I’ll either take a dance
class or go dancing or hang out with friends. Most recently my evenings
have been spent working, but that’s life! [Laughs]. I used to take
Salsa classes on Wednesdays, so that forced me to dance at least once
a week. I hope that will continue. I’d like to dance more Tango
too. And I also do Sri Lankan dance performances. I’m thinking of
teaching that too, so maybe I’ll try that. I’ll be traveling
a lot this semester though, so I don’t know how things will work
out—we’ll see :-)
long have you been dancing?
I studied Sri Lankan dance for 8 years when I was in school. Then I gave
it up for about 4 years, maybe longer. Then I came to the US, and when
I was an undergrad, I was the only Sri Lankan on campus, and I felt that
I needed to share my culture with other people, and so I started dancing
again. That was the first time I’d really done my own choreography.
I love to dance, and I love all kinds of different dances…so I tend
to do more fusion-type dances now, where I infuse other dance forms I’ve
learned…but it’s still mostly Sri Lankan.
What advice would you give to undergraduate women thinking
about going into research in technology fields?
I’d say if you want to do it, you should really go for it. I think
in life, a lot of people will tell you not to follow your dreams—there
are a lot of people who are afraid to follow their dreams—but I
think in life in general, you should pick something you are really passionate
about, and go after it. Life is too short not to be passionate, and not
to wake up every morning feeling energetic and wanting to go out there
and do whatever it is you love doing. So if you love doing research, don’t
let anyone tell you otherwise. You’ll make it. Find mentors, find
people who are like you, find good friends who will help you through the
hard times—because no matter what you pick, there will be hard times.
It’s important to actively look for mentors because they don’t
always come knocking on your door…unless you’re lucky!
Do you think the image of the stereotypical computer
scientist is changing?
I hope so! I really hope so because I never saw myself as that image.
I don’t know—stereotypes are kind of funny things because
they have this partial truth in them, but the danger is people believe
them to be the entire truth. I think it’s important for people to
feel free to be who they are. There’s nothing wrong with the stereotypical
“geek,” or computer scientist, if that’s who you are.
But it shouldn’t be a requirement to be in computer science!
Let’s shift gears a little now…onto the
more personal side…from all the experiences you’ve had at
CMU, what’s been your most cherished memory?
I’ve had a lot of great memories at CMU, but in some ways, the most
cherished memory for me here has been the whole process of getting this
job, and maybe my job talk. That day was pretty incredible for me, because
my family was here, which was great, and I was able to stand up in front
of a group of people I really admire and talk not only about the research
I’ve done in robotics (which to me, is pretty incredible because
when I came to the US at the age of 19 ½, I’d never even
really used a computer very much), but also to be able to share my dream
of the direction in which I think we should go in research and where we
can make a difference. It was amazing to be able to stand there and talk
about my passion—and that they believed enough in me and in my vision
to give me the job right out of grad school. That to me has been the pinnacle
of my career here. I’m very thankful everyday about how blessed
What hobbies or passions do you have outside of work?
I love to sing and dance, I like reading; I love cooking—I’m
a really good cook! [Laughs].
I really enjoy people. I enjoy meeting new people, hanging out with good
friends, discussing philosophy and life. I think there’s just so
much you can learn from different people. I enjoy drawing, I draw once
in a while—I haven’t done that in a while. I love taking walks,
except when it’s icy! I don’t like the cold very much!
If you didn’t go into academics or administration,
what would you have done in another life?
I think I would have danced. Maybe have my own dance troupe, and do very
unique stuff—a fusion of all kinds of world dances. Either that,
or medicine—maybe a doctor :-)
Complete this sentence: when the going gets tough I…
The going is always tough! [Laughs]. No, I keep going…you know…you
It’s also a good time to stop and think – it is very important
to make time to think in life – I am certainly a thinker; I think
a lot about everything :-)
When’s your birthday?
Are you married and do you have and children?
No and no [Laughs].
How does it make you feel to be so much younger than
your co-workers, yet only a few years older than the students you teach?
Does it hinder you, or does it encourage you to work harder?
I don’t think age has ever really bothered me in my career—I’ve
always been in mixes of groups where I was much younger or not that much
older, or whatever it is. I’ve never been fazed by age. I think
the harder thing is that I was a student here, and so people sometimes
still have this impression that I’m still a student. But to be honest,
at Carnegie Mellon, it doesn’t really matter, because as a student
I did so many things that at most other places you wouldn’t be able
to dream of doing as a student.
your favorite place in the world?
Sri Lanka…but I’m biased! [Laughs]
More specifically, my favorite place is this deserted beach in the south
of Sri Lanka where you can sleep under the stars and watch wild elephants
walk by to their water-hole – it is incredibly serene and beautiful.
What’s your favorite food?
Crab curry and stringhoppers! I love seafood in general :-)
What’s your favorite holiday or festival, and
I think it’s Christmas. I grew up Catholic, and still am Catholic.
What I love most about Christmas is that it was always a time for family,
getting together, and it was a time for thinking about things that were
bigger than your life. For me, it’s very much a spiritual season,
it’s also a season for giving. So it was always fun finding different
ways to be extra nice to people, giving people gifts…it’s
not only just friends…for my family, it was always finding a poorer
family that we could share with, or something like that. To me, it’s
always this time where I just really am reminded of how good humans can
be, and how beautiful love and giving is. It’s a time when I’m
usually very happy.
What motto or philosophy do you live life by?
Follow your dreams and be passionate in all you do.