I first met Yoky as an undergraduate student in a class she taught at Carnegie Mellon University called Human Systems and Control. I became fascinated with how our body coordinates movement for our more than 200 muscles with such grace and lack of voluntary input. Even recreating a seemingly simple task, like grasping a glass of water, took years of research to recreate in robotics and we’re still working on mastering such tasks. After her course, I was lucky enough to spend a semester doing research in her lab, mostly fabricating small wearable pods for a portable motion tracking system another one of her graduate students was working on. Yoky was one of just two female professors I had during college, and the only one I could “see” myself in. She went to UC Berkeley on a tennis scholarship, was a snowboarder, and had a wine and cheese party at her house near campus during the holidays. As a college athlete, a fellow snowboarder, and budding wine enthusiast, she made me realize for the first time that I didn’t have to choose between my passions. I could play sports and do engineering. I could study biology and robotics. Her work hard play hard attitude and spirit were unique to me among authority figures I had at the time and are both qualities I continue to develop in myself. When I graduated, she gave me and the other undergrads from her lab small parting presents. Mine was a book called The Bad Girl’s Guide to Getting What You Want. Coolest. Professor. Ever.
Since then she has moved on to establish a lab and career at the University of Washington, received a MacArthur genius grant, and become a wife and mother.
I last spoke with her over email on July 26th, when I congratulated her on a recent $18.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to establish an Engineering Research Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering based at the University of Washington. She will be the director of the program. She responded with just a smiley face and said she was 7.5 months pregnant with their 4th kid! So by now I assume she has an infant to take care of on top of the rest of her responsibilities.
So, Yoky, thank you for being an inspiration to me and I’m sure to countless other young women you have been in touch with. Work hard, play hard, and next time I’m in Mountainview or Seattle or wherever you happen to be, we’ll take your kids snowboarding and talk about robots.