Inspiring the Next Generation of High-Tech Explorers

Susan Hackwood tells students about what it's like to design robotics systems for NASA missions

6 October 2009

Like many people who witnessed the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, Susan Hackwood vividly remembers where she was at the time. “I was at home in Liverpool, England—a very rainy, gloomy place,” she says, laughing. “I stayed up all night with my sister to watch it. At 14 I was completely blown away by the ability of man to walk on the moon.” After the inspirational event, she became determined to one day become an astronaut and move to the United States, where she says, “the best stuff going on in space was happening.”

Although Hackwood never became a space explorer—NASA rejected her application because she was not a U.S. citizen—that didn’t stop her from reaching for the stars. For the past 14 years, the IEEE Fellow has been executive director of the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST), a not-for-profit composed of 150 science and technology leaders that advises state officials. She is also a professor of electrical engineering at the University of California, Riverside, and an expert on the robotics that were crucial to Apollo 11 and space missions since then.

Hackwood was a keynote speaker at Moonfest, a celebration in July to honor the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 that was sponsored by the NASA Ames Research Center, in Mountain View, Calif. In a speech to a group of students that was designed to inspire them to pursue pioneering careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), she reviewed some of the innovative technologies, including robotics, which made the Apollo 11 mission possible.

“It’s so important to our future to get young people excited—rather than frightened—about STEM fields,” she says. “To do that, we need to give youngsters a better understanding of engineers’ accomplishments.”

As a child, Hackwood loved building things and tinkering. “I built stables for my toy horses and was always trying to rewire devices in my house—almost electrocuting myself,” she says with a laugh.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in combined science in 1976 and a Ph.D. in solid-state ionics in 1979, both from De Montfort University, in Leicester, England. As part of her postdoctoral work, she spent a summer as a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. She says it was everything—and more—than she had expected.

“I got a taste of the country’s fabulous research institutions and their equipment,” she says. Her dream of moving to the United States came true in 1979 when she became a researcher for Bell Laboratories in Holmdel, N.J.

“I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” she says. “There were so many brilliant people working there.” Among them was her future husband, researcher Gerardo Beni.

Starting out in device physics and display devices, Hackwood soon became interested in the then-emerging field of robotics. In 1984 she was named head of Bell Labs’ robotics technology research department. Later that year, she decided to try something new and moved to academia, taking a job as a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Her interest in robotics continued, and she was eager to get her students involved in the field, but there was a problem: Few universities had robotics programs. So she, along with her husband and colleagues, submitted a funding proposal to the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Research Center Program to establish a robotics center at UC Santa Barbara. The program makes grants to establish research centers that focus on innovative technologies and emerging fields. The NSF awarded the funding and in 1985 the university’s Center for Robotic Systems in Microelectronics opened its doors. For the next five years, Hackwood and Beni were its directors.

She left UC Santa Barbara in 1990 to become both the first dean of the new Bourns College of Engineering at the University of California, Riverside, and an EE professor. Five years later she decided to try something different again and joined CCST.

As executive director, she advises California officials on policies dealing with alternative energy, intellectual property rights, stem cell research, and other hot-button topics. “Advising government officials is hard,” Hackwood says, especially on such difficult issues as reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. But just as she was at 14, she remains confident in—and in awe of—people’s ability to accomplish great things, she says.

“I think we can reduce greenhouse emissions to the level they were in the 1980s,” she declares. “Mankind is truly remarkable, adaptable, and creative.”

Meanwhile, she is hard at work trying to boost the number of students in STEM programs—something she is passionate about. “We need to get young people inspired by the wonder of science and technology,” she says, “and we need to get them interested at younger ages.”

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