Students look to new frontiers
They're boldly going where no UTS students have gone before.
Two Australian indigenous students are the first from Australia to attend NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), a world leader in robotic exploration of the solar system.
UTS PhD candidates Giovanni D’urso and Tui Nolan focus respectively on robotics studies and on statistics with applications to robotics. They are currently undertaking a structured 12-week pilot educational program at the JPL, Pasadena, California. They will have expert supervision and mentoring at NASA JPL and on their return to UTS where they will continue to work on their allocated tasks.
I've been interested in robotics since primary school and always loved the idea of space exploration, so going to JPL brings together two of my passions!
PhD candidate and JPL intern
Their work relates to RoboSimian, the limbed robot developed to assist in natural/man-made disasters such as the Fukushima nuclear plant explosion. As space exploration extends further to extra planetary bodies, more dextrous robots like RoboSimian are required for unstructured terrains.
Giovanni, of Kamilaroi heritage, conducts research into multi robot activity at the UTS School of Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering. His current project is on multi-robot balance work allocation, where a team of robots work together equally, effectively and efficiently at the same time.
“I’ve been interested in robotics since primary school and always loved the idea of space exploration, so going to NASA JPL brings together two of my passions! JLP is responsible for the most successful space robots to date, including Mars rovers that have provided major revolutionary results,” he said, describing this opportunity as a major stepping stone towards his goals.
“And it’s NASA!”
Gudjal man Tui is a methodological statistician whose research in the UTS School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences overlaps maths and computer science. Statistics underpin modelling to help reduce uncertainty and contribute to planning operations where the probability of failure has to be very low.
“I will be developing algorithms to help robots learn how to move and adapt to the different terrains they may encounter. They will need a set of instructions that set them up for exploration in situations where they may only have one opportunity to go out and collect data,” he said.
From NASA JPL he will go on to Cornell University as a 2019 Fulbright Future Postdoctoral Scholar, working on methodology and computing for functional data analysis in astrophysics.
For Tui, the NASA program allows him to work alongside the world’s best in statistics and mathematics, both propelling his career to the next level, and bringing knowledge and research back to Australia to inspire the next generation of students into STEM studies.
About the program
Noongar man Associate Prof Christopher Lawrence, Director Indigenous Engagement, UTS Faculty of Engineering and IT developed this pilot Australian Indigenous Education Program with NASA JPL to build skills, expertise and relationships to position Australia as a key participant in renewed interest in space exploration.
“This pilot program is a pathway for Indigenous students studying STEM to participate in programs at NASA’s JPL. It will help UTS to build new teaching and learning subjects, research partnerships with JPL staff, new research capacity in space robotics applications, and provide unique opportunities to Indigenous students,” he said.
Like Giovanni and Tui, Chris also had a childhood dream of space exploration; his current ‘dream’ is to establish a National Indigenous Space Academy - NISA - to send Indigenous students studying STEM to NASA to become space explorers or astronauts.
JPL has an annual commitment to encourage greater representation by First Nations people with fierce competition for the 90 places available each year. Giovanni, Tui and Chris are realising childhood dreams of sharing and acquiring knowledge, which, following the establishment of the Australian Space Agency in 2018, will strengthen space research links between Australia and the US.
For more information, contact Christopher.Lawrence@uts.edu.au.