Getting into Robotics: Roger Gassert

Roger_GassertI was one of these children with an enormous interest in technology. I would draw futuristic machines that, in my fantasy, would improve people’s lives. And, I would take everything apart I could get my hands on, rarely getting it back together, or at least not without some crucial leftover parts.

Among my favorite toys, I remember a Draisine, whose mechanics fascinated me, and large bags of LEGO. The Draisine was a little robot that came with a remote control that I could programme to perform certain movement sequences. At the age of 11, when my family moved to the USA, I had my first experience with computers, which furthered my interest in technology. Besides this, I have enjoyed travelling and exploring new places and cultures as long as I can remember. This taught me that the way we perceive and interpret things is not absolute, but relative to our culture and experience – a lesson that I feel has often been valuable in interdisciplinary collaborations.

I consider myself extremely lucky to have had the chance to turn these interests into a career, developing and using technology to improve people’s lives. Looking back, I realise that my path was influenced by a number of close people. My dad, a mechanic, raised my general interest in technology, explaining to me how machines around us work. My mom encouraged me to follow my dreams and taught me to work hard and fight for them.

My special interest in the interaction between hand and brain was peaked not only by piano lessons, but also greatly influenced by my grandfather, who was a hobby magician. I was fascinated by the dexterity with which he manipulated cards and other objects, and how he could focus and divert the attention of the viewer to make magic happen. Another highly influential person was my uncle, who despite his early blindness became a mathematician and computer scientist. From him I learned one of the most important lessons for my work: technology can help reduce barriers, but it can also create new ones. By helping him set up and try out novel technologies, I learned a lot about both of these aspects.

So, how did you get into robotics from there?
I can’t say I always wanted to get specifically into robotics – until I began my studies probably most of the robots I had seen came with a face, although I remember visiting a factory with industrial robots once. My interest was more general in devices combining mechanics and electronics and that could be programmed, and I thus moved to Lausanne to study “microtechnique” in 1997. Back then, there were three tracks to select from and the robotics track was the one that best fit my interests. The lab where I would carry out my master project was a pioneer in physical human-robot interaction and I realised there was a lot of potential for this technology in medical applications.

Did you always know you wanted to study robotics or did you at any point consider other career paths?
My passion has always been in using technology to improve people’s lives. While the focus on rehabilitation robotics would come only later in my career, I was always fascinated by the ability of humans to learn complex movements, and the devastating consequences of diseases such as stroke, and I remember thinking a few times about pursuing a medical education. Luckily, I have found a field that allows me to combine my interests in engineering and medicine.

What made you branch out into working in rehabilitation robotics?
The focus on rehabilitation robotics only came later, with my postdoctoral training in London and Vancouver. My master thesis had brought me into contact with researchers exploring how the brain controls complex movements. For this, we developed robotic interfaces that could be used together with non-invasive neuroimaging to assess motor and brain function at the same time. By the time I completed my PhD on this topic, the group I had worked with had started a project on robot-assisted rehabilitation of hand function. I decided to join this project and also investigate the use of the technology from my PhD to learn more about the mechanisms of recovery following stroke.

What has been the most rewarding experience of working in this field?
Have you seen patients recover in a way you had previously not thought possible? The most rewarding moments for me are those when I can convey my passion for my research area to students, when we work together intensively towards a common vision, and when I can learn from them. I also find developing research questions together with colleagues from other disciplines highly rewarding. I have indeed seen patients recover way beyond what was predicted, but this was unrelated to our intervention. At the same time, I have seen patients recover much less than expected. Such cases taught me that there is still much to be learned about recovery following neurological injury and much potential for technology to help in this process. My dream is that, in the long term, some of the knowledge we generate and the technologies we develop will make it to clinical application, thus benefiting a large number of patients. We are working hard in this direction.

What have you found the hardest thing about you career?
Overall, I have been extremely fortunate in my academic career. I’ve had the chance to work in different countries and across disciplines, and I was given great trust and independence to develop my own ideas from very early on. But of course there were also difficult times. The hardest phase was definitely the last two years of my non-tenure-track assistant professorship. The long uncertainty of whether I could keep my position at ETH or would have to move abroad was especially tough on my family, but also on my research group.

If you could build any robot in your imagination and money, resources etc were completely unlimited, what would it be like?
One of the conclusions in my talks on rehabilitation robotics is that “Robots are not the (only) problem”. We can design extremely efficient robots for specific tasks such as car manufacturing, because we know exactly what each part does in a car and how they work together. In rehabilitation robotics, we don’t fully understand how therapy influences recovery, except that more is usually better. Only once we understand the mechanisms of neurorehabilitation can we develop better rehabilitation robots. So I would spend those resources on learning more about how humans can acquire motor skills and the mechanisms of recovery after neurological injury. Robots are great research tools for this purpose. And, of course, there is also potential to build better robots. We would greatly benefit from actuators that are better adapted to interaction with human movement.

What advice would you have for those who would like to consider studying robotics in the future?
Whatever you choose to do in life, focus on something you’re passionate about. Robotics is and will continue to be a very exciting field, continuously finding new applications. There are many ways to get into this field, and still many problems to solve.

..and to those who which to follow an academic path?
Academic careers are difficult to plan. Follow your heart, grasp opportunities, and work with people who believe in you and support you. For those of you reaching the end of your PhD, I found the prospective researcher fellowships of the Swiss National Science Foundation (now called Postdoc.Mobility) to be an excellent instrument to carry out research abroad. But there are also numerous opportunities at other career stages – ETHZ has put together a nice website that I encourage you to browse through.  Finally, every academic career also requires one additional ingredient – I wish you best of luck!

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