Senior to continue her passion for robotics after graduation

5/8/2012 9:48:00 AM

So, what is Zoe McCarthy’s goal after graduation? By the time she receives her PhD, she would like to have a robot cook her dinner.

Zoe McCarthy
Zoe McCarthy
McCarthy has worked extensively with robots in her undergraduate classes and research, and now the senior in electrical and computer engineering (ECE) will head to University of California, Berkeley for the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science PhD to pursue her passion for robotics.

“We’re not just talking making mac and cheese,” McCarthy said. “I want to build a framework to make it easy for robots to learn new things, and cooking me dinner will be just one of those things. I’m guessing it’ll be one of the more popular things people will want to use robots for.”

Upon graduation this month, McCarthy will leave the University of Illinois with a wealth of experience and knowledge in control theory, robotics and advanced mathematics from her engineering classes and undergraduate research work, as well as a 4.0 GPA. 

She has been part of two research projects funded by the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) projects, one of which produced two papers accepted to the International Conference on Robotics and Automation.

“I want to change the world with robotics,” McCarthy said. “It’s definitely at the stage where it’s going to change the world, and I’m really glad that I’m involved with it now. I was born at the perfect time to make an impact.”

McCarthy’s undergraduate accomplishments were recognized with the Lisle Abbott Rose Memorial Award, which is given to an outstanding senior in the college who most nearly approaches the ideal of technical excellence combined with cultural breadth, depth, and sensitivity.

“I basically was able to do what I wanted to do in college, and now everyone’s telling me how awesome I am,” McCarthy said with a laugh. “I’m very honored by everyone’s appreciation of my work.”

Initially, following her passions brought McCarthy on a different path that still ultimately brought her to the University of Illinois. As a freshman, McCarthy came to campus intending to major in psychology before deciding to transfer to the College of Engineering.

“This whole time, I’ve been able to take classes that I found to be really interesting, and then go from there,” McCarthy said. “I took classes I wanted to take and not necessarily the recommended classes first, and then went back to take what I had to. The College was supportive of it and totally allowed me to do it.”

McCarthy’s first REU research experience brought her to the University of Nebraska between her sophomore and junior year, working with a group of five students on advanced mathematics.

“I honed my math skills, especially in a research setting, which really helped for when I did other types of research later,” McCarthy said. “I became more confident in being able to say that I think this, and then go on and explore it further.”

A spring research class McCarthy took with assistant professor Timothy Bretl (aerospace engineering) and ECE professor Seth Hutchinson the next year expanded into an opportunity to stay at the University of Illinois the next summer with the Information Trust Institute.

“The research that I did for that class and over the summer was much more mine than the past summer,” McCarthy said. “I got the chance to work on my own on the research with two professors, as opposed to working in a group of five with one professor. I created more ideas and investigate them for myself.”

McCarthy’s research focused on robotic movement, and along with the two papers that were accepted to the International Conference on Robotics and Automation, McCarthy has a paper to the Workshop on the Algorithmic Foundations of Robotics.

Outside of her classes, McCarthy has also performed two different plays as a member of the New Revels Players playgroup.

“I made friends and honed my public speaking skills, which is incredibly useful,” McCarthy said. “A lot of engineering students don’t get a lot of practice with their speaking and presentation skills, and engineers need to disseminate technical information to non-technical people all the time. I think speaking skills are one of the most important skills for engineers, so it’s helped me a lot.”

McCarthy credited the College of Engineering with helping her pursue her passion for robotics with helpful courses and knowledgeable faculty.

“I’ve really loved it, and I’m making a career out of it,” McCarthy said of robotics. “I can’t wait to do more, and being on the cutting edge of it all is really awesome. I’m living my dream. I get to work with robots every day, it doesn’t get much cooler than that.”

Writer: Jay Lee, Engineering Communications Office.

If you have any questions about the College of Engineering, or other story ideas, contact Rick Kubetz, editor, Engineering Communications Office, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 217/244-7716.