Assistant professor intends to bridge gap between humans and robots

Katie Fitzsimons joins the Department of Mechanical Engineering to uncover knowledge on human motion and behavior to build better assistive robotics

Credit: iStock/ipopbaAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Katie Fitzsimons will join the Penn State College of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical Engineering (ME) as an assistant professor in January 2021. 

Through her research, Fitzsimons plans to advance robotics, powered by a greater understanding of human motion and behavior. 

“My interests lie at the interaction between humans and autonomous systems — thinking ‘how can we design robotic interfaces from a software standpoint to help novice users interact with them?’” she said. “A person’s ability to benefit from robotics shouldn’t require a degree in computer science.”

As wearable sensors, automated systems and virtual reality become more integrated in everyday life, the impacts of enhancing human-computer interaction could be boundless. Fitzsimons is particularly inspired to improve the mobility and independence of people with physical disabilities through technology, a motivation that she explained began early in her childhood.  

“I was drawn to this work initially because of my brother, Matt, who is a quadriplegic,” she said. “I realized biomechanics and robotics were one way to more fully include people with disabilities.” 

As one of eight siblings, she explained her family was able to help her brother complete daily tasks and enjoy shared experiences, such as summer trips to a waterpark. 

“However, not everyone has a community around them that is able to do that,” she said. “That was the first motivation that got me into robotics.”

At Penn State, her research will explore two complementary goals: finding novel ways to sense and understand human motion and applying that data to ultimately enhance human-robotic interactions. To accomplish this, she will pursue mathematical explorations to recognize how a person adapts to a robot’s assistance and learns to use it. Equipped with this knowledge, she can begin developing algorithmic tools and machine learning models to optimize the software.

In particular, Fitzsimons hopes to improve the use of haptics, which is communicating information through a physical experience such as a vibration on a fitness tracker. 

Fitzsimons will be joining Penn State after earning her doctorate in mechanical engineering from Northwestern University in the coming months. As the newest ME faculty member, she said she is excited to contribute to the department’s expertise in biomechanics and controls.

“I’ve always been a part of the Big Ten, this feels like home to me,” she said. “Especially at Penn State, it has such a young and vibrant ME department. There is a groundswell of young faculty who are excited to try new things and grow the program.” 

Inspired to begin this journey by a passion to help her brother, she is now looking forward to using that compassion to fuel her research and teaching. 

“I once received a piece of advice that stuck with me and has only become more relevant these days,” Fitzsimons said. “If I want to make my classroom a more inclusive place, it always comes down to empathy — that’s my teaching philosophy.”

Katie Fitzsimons, assistant professor of mechanical engineering Credit: Katie FitzsimonsAll Rights Reserved.

Last Updated October 01, 2020