Student Essay Contest

Dr. Olga Koroleva: Swarming the Field of Mathematics

2004 AWM Essay Contest: Honorable Mention in the Grades 9-12 Category

By Diana Jue

When she was five years old, Dr. Olga Koroleva wanted to be a ballerina. She loved the music, the graceful movements, and the beautiful costumes she saw at the Russian opera. However, her mother only had to say one thing to talk her out of this child’s dream: “Ballerinas – they don’t know math.”
Dr. Koroleva remembers the experience like yesterday because it defined her destiny of work with mathematics. Now 29 and sporting an “IEEE Women in Engineering” pin on her lapel, Dr. Koroleva works at Jisan Research Institute (JRI), an organization in Pasadena, California, that teaches high school students how to conduct computational research. As the head of the Swarm Robotics research group, Dr. Koroleva works with students to build swarm robot hardware and to write their software.
When speaking about her research in swarm robotics, Dr. Koroleva’s face lights up. Excitedly, she describes the swarm that will one day repair the woes of the world. A swarm is a large group of simple robots with a very limited vision that can only move about to pick up and drop off building materials. In the near future, swarms will be sent to Mars, the moon, and under the ocean to build energy generators and possibly cities for humans to live in. Because each robot is inexpensive and independent of the large group, financing the building plan will be inexpensive in the case of one robot’s malfunctioning. The expedition will also be safe for human life because no one will need to accompany the robots into the life-threatening and unknown environments. So far, research at JRI includes computer simulations of robots “clustering” building materials into piles and moving these clusters into shapes that will serve as the columns of buildings. Currently, research is being done to build “walls” between these columns. Dr. Koroleva and Dr. Sanza Kazadi, the founder JRI, have high hopes for their swarms to literally go where no man has gone before.
Dr. Koroleva is in charge of building the prototypes of robotic hardware, which will be the first non-computational simulation of swarm robots based on research at JRI. The variety of tasks that she explores in her research is why Dr. Koroleva loves her job. One day she may fit the robots with range detectors that tell the robots how to change directions. On another day she will add a gripper arm to the robots that will allow them to pick up and move or building materials. On weekday afternoons, Dr. Koroleva works with her students, teaching them how to write programs for the robots and how to download the programs onto the control boards.
For most of her life, Dr. Koroleva knew that her tendency toward mechanics and mathematics would lead into area like robotics. Born in Russia to an engineer and a mathematician, Dr. Koroleva grew up enjoying “guys’ toys like cars and legos.” When she was eight years old, Dr. Koroleva did not play with her talking doll like most girls her age; rather, she took the doll apart to find out where the sound came from.
The Russian school system gave Dr. Koroleva the opportunity to focus on mathematics in her teenage years, and she naturally continued her education at a university where she received her engineering degree. Later she became a Candidate of Technical Sciences, which is equivalent to a PhD in the United States. Dr. Koroleva came to the United States to receive her PhD in mechanical engineering from University of California at San Diego, and she has remained in the U.S. since.
At her university in Russia, Dr. Koroleva was the only female in her twenty-five student class. When the math became difficult, she learned that she had to rediscover her passion for the subject to keep her going. In retrospect, Dr. Koroleva proudly speaks of her love for the subject and prides herself in her unrelenting attitude toward mathematics: “Math is like a good book: it becomes more interesting as you continue through it, even though it becomes more difficult.”
Mathematics has definitely gotten Dr. Koroleva far. Her knowledge and ample application of electrical and mechanical engineering are based in a strong mathematical background. Daily, Dr. Koroleva applies logic to computer programming and trigonometry in programs that include robotic movement. Her next project, in which a robot calculates the diameter of a pile of building materials in front of it, requires basic geometry. Another upcoming project for a power floor to provide energy for the swarm will include electromagnetism.
Dr. Koroleva’s number one piece of advice for any young person pursuing a career in mathematics is to be constantly motivated. She has seen too many students with potential not apply themselves in school and other work. While Dr. Koroleva knows that working with robots is both exciting and enticing, she says that in order to reach this step, “you need to do electronics, which needs complicated math, which requires you to learn the multiplication tables.” She believes that In order for a student to become a master, the student must spend time building up his or her arsenal of knowledge.
Young people can see Dr. Koroleva as a role model in the field of mathematics because of the perseverance and passion in her pursuit of the subject’s mastery. For her, mathematics is alive – numbers speak to her; theory daily manifests itself as relevant. Humble in the face of her accomplishments, Dr. Koroleva shows us that anything can be achieved with enough heart put in the effort.
About the student:
My name is Diana Jue, and I am a senior at Westridge School for Girls in Pasadena, California. I am also a student at Jisan Research Institute. Last year, my group’s paper, “Reduction of Fuzzy Systems through Open Product Analysis of Genetic Algorithm-Generated Fuzzy Rule Sets,” was accepted to the FUZZ-IEEE conference in Budapest, Hungary. My group attended, and I had the opportunity to present the paper to other fuzzy logic researchers. Currently I am working on a project that combines my previous work and an evolutionary algorithm called Directed Exhausted Search. Mathematics has always been an interest of mine, and I love everything from the multiplication tables to calculus to linear algebra.