Carnegie Mellon University

Henny Admoni Interview 

Henny Admoni





Women@SCS: So could you tell us a little bit about your background and your journey before you came to Carnegie Mellon?

Admoni: Sure. My background really starts where I grew up, which was on Long Island (in New York). I went to a really wonderful public high school that had a research science program, and I got to do science research as a high school student one class a day. That took me to college. I went to college at Wesleyan University, which is a small liberal arts college in Connecticut. And there I got to really kind of broaden out and explore my interests. I started college thinking I was going to be a journalist.

In my freshman year, I quickly realized that computer science was pretty cool. I took an intro programming class and that led to an intro CS class - and that led to CS2. And that kind of brought me into computer science. So I came to computer science quite late (relatively to a lot of people). In college I made up my own major because I was unsatisfied with the majors that were offered to me. Not that they weren’t great but I wanted something that was kind of new at the time, which was bringing together computer science and psychology, or computer science and cognitive science. So I designed the major. I had support from the administration and from the faculty to do that which was really wonderful.

And when it came time to choose where to go, I went to grad school because I thought I really liked research and I could keep investigating the cutting edge of this field (which was part AI and part intelligent agents; part computer science, part cognitive science). I picked a robotics lab for my PhD. And that was somewhat of a naïve choice at the time because I thought, hey, robots are just like intelligent agents in the real world. How hard can it be? Turns out it’s hard but totally worth it.

I did my PhD at Yale in the social robotics lab, where I did a lot of research on how robots can help people through social interaction. Then I came to CMU for a postdoc and worked with people here for about a year and a half on manipulation and how human in-the-loop manipulation or how human robot interaction around manipulation could work. And now I’m brand new faculty here. That’s my very long journey.

Women@SCS: Yeah. That’s awesome. So I guess my next question was going to be: were you always interested in robotics? And you kind of touched upon that.

Admoni: Yeah.

Women@SCS: So what attracted you to robotics? You said it was because they were social agents in the real world.

Admoni: Yeah. I didn’t know very much about robotics even in college. My computer science program did not have a robotics class. So it wasn’t really until grad school when robotics became an area that I was interested in. I came to robotics from the AI perspective. I was interested in AI because I cared about people, and I thought computer science was a really lovely mathematical way of describing the world. And maybe AI could be a mathematical way of describing intelligence, what made people unique.

Turns out that’s still an open question. It’s really hard. But along the way I discovered that AI and robotics can be a way to also help people, not just learn about them. And so that’s kind of what drove me to robotics - this idea that we could use it with the tools, the mathematical tools that we have like computer science to understand human beings and then also to make their lives better.

Women@SCS: That’s awesome. Yeah. So it seems like you’ve always had an interdisciplinary approach to computer science or robotics. So can you tell us about the current research projects that you’re working on?

Admoni: Yeah. Absolutely. And interdisciplinary is exactly right. I work under the broad umbrella of human-robot interaction. The current research projects I have are all focused around assistive robots, robots that help people. And they can help you in usually two broad categories. One is socially assistive robots that help people through social interactions like conversation. These are your robot tutors, your robot coaches, robot therapy assistants that motivate people to engage in dialogue, get people to stick to an exercise schedule, that kind of thing.

And then the other half of the projects I worked on are physically assistive robots. These are robots that manipulate the world, that help people maybe with motor impairments to pick up objects in the environment like a glass or water to take a drink. And these kind of robots have to deal with the physical environment, computer vision, grasping, locomotion, navigation, motion planning. Even though these are two very different areas--the social side is much more about dialogue and engagement and the physical side is much more about manipulation--what underlies both of those is the need to understand the people that are involved in the interaction and intent recognition, reading human cues and using those to improve the robot’s policy of the robot’s actions. And so, what really ties all of my research together is this idea that we can read human behavior to understand what kind of help people need and when they need help. And by doing that, we can actually make assistive robots more effective than just having them blindly help people without closing that loop.

Women@SCS: Yeah. That’s very interesting. So why did you choose to go into academia? You said that you were interested in research.

Admoni: Yeah. I was – I had been interested in research for a long time, since high school basically. But even at the end of college I wasn’t totally sure that I wanted to go into academia. I graduated from college and I sat down my senior year with my college advisor and basically outlined five different things I could do after college. One was go get a PhD. One was stay at Wesleyan for another year and do a master’s degree and then figure – and then you’ll get a PhD. One was go to industry, get a computer science job somewhere. One was join the Peace Corps. And the last one was do nothing for a while and try to figure it all out. And doing nothing is an option. It was not the option I chose.

The option I chose was staying at Wesleyan for a master’s, a fifth-year master’s degree before going to get a PhD. And the reason that I eventually made that choice is I looked at my skill set and my training and decided that the way that I could make an impact in the world most effectively, most uniquely to me is by taking the research abilities that I had and the training that I had and using it to develop systems that helped people. So for me research is a way of asking interesting questions, of giving back to humanity, of expanding the breadth of our human knowledge while doing something that I feel like is going to make the world a better place in the future.

Women@SCS: That’s awesome.

Admoni: Yeah. You should totally – yeah, it takes a long time to find a purpose like that.

Women@SCS:  Right. Yeah. Definitely.

Admoni: But that was what spoke to me the most strongly. And that’s what makes day to day rigors of research worth it, that I have that vision in mind. 

Women@SCS: Wow. Yeah. It’s like a very bold vision. 

Admoni: Yeah.

Women@SCS: Yeah. So you say you’re pretty new to CMU faculty, right? I guess that’s sort of what’s keeping you here?

Admoni: Yeah. I’m delighted to be at CMU. I love CMU.

Women@SCS: [Laughing] That’s the right answer.

Admoni:  [Laughing] No. I did my post doc here. I’ve been at Carnegie Mellon since December of 2015. But I’ve only been a faculty member since July of 2017. So there was a year and a half where I was a post doc. And I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life afterward, applying to all of these faculty jobs. And in the end, I decided to stay at CMU because it just – the culture and the people here really resonated well with me. The people here are of course brilliant and doing really, really wonderful things. And that includes the faculty but also the students.

But also, the culture of Carnegie Mellon, the idea that it’s not necessarily just a technology school, that you can be good at technology and drama and art and history. That the school encourages kind of interdisciplinary and seemed to really also encourage the kind of big picture vision of making the world better. Those were the things that convinced me that I wanted to stay. I think the most motivating thing was seeing the support from the administration for projects that had a bold vision of improving the world, that it wasn’t just kind of a slogan that was pasted on a lab somewhere. But it was actually where they spent their time, where they spent their money, where they spent their efforts in publicizing events and stuff like that.

Women@SCS: Cool. I can definitely see all of that too. That may cover this next question, which is “what’s your favorite and also least favorite part of your job?”

Admoni: Of my job.

Women@SCS: Yes.

Admoni: My least favorite part has to be scheduling. I schedule so many people – and I’m sure that as I become more senior and more important this will only get worse. But I feel like I schedule meetings constantly and then I reschedule meetings constantly. And not the meetings themselves but just the process of figuring out times that work for people. This is probably the least favorite part of my job.

My favorite part is mentoring students. I think that beyond anything else I do, the idea that I get to work closely with a new researcher who is kind of building their research identity and figuring out what they want to do. That kind of one-on-one relationship is the thing that I think keeps me in academia, and would keep me in academia long after research and teaching which I also love. But the one-on-one mentorship, to me, is probably the most exciting part of this new job that I get to do.

Women@SCS: Yeah. That’s awesome. Because I’m sure you can kind of see like your own trajectory within those students.

Admoni: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. And I had fantastic mentors. I really benefited from some really solid mentorship and guidance kind of along the way. So it’s nice to be able to give that back.

Women@SCS: Yeah. Ok. So switching gears a little bit, what advice would you have for women in such a male dominated field, obviously.

Admoni: Yeah.

Women@SCS: Like computer science.

Admoni: I have two pieces of advice that are sort of related. One that I gave at lunch is don’t ever say no to yourself. Make other people say no to you. We know from research that women will apply to fewer jobs that they feel unqualified for. That they will be more hesitant to reach out for opportunities that they don’t think they fit perfectly. And I say there’s no point in you deciding that you don’t fit an opportunity. The best thing to do is to apply anyway, to email the professor, to submit the application, to do the interview, whatever, and let them tell you that you don’t fit. Because sometimes you’re surprised by the idea that you do.

So that’s one thing: never say no to yourself. Make other people say no to you. The other is take advantage of all of the “women in CS” opportunities. I think there’s an upswell recently, but over even the last ten years, of this idea of awareness about the need for diversity in computer science.

Women@SCS: Right. 

Admoni: And women have benefited from that a lot. And we’re seeing huge changes because of that. CMU’s incoming undergrad class is 50 percent women in computer science. Like that’s fabulous. We have work to do in other underrepresented minorities. But that’s ok. We’re getting there. My advice is to take advantage of every opportunity that you can get. Every mentorship opportunity, every lunch, every conference, whatever opportunity there is for women in CS.

Grab them because those opportunities are making up for 100 of the missed opportunities that were invisible to a woman in the past and that you might not necessarily even be aware of in the present. So don’t be shy. Don’t feel like you don’t deserve it. Take the chances. Take the opportunities that you are given and use them well and do good stuff with them.

Women@SCS: Definitely. Should we move on to the last one?

Admoni: Sure. 

Women@SCS: So I think you briefly touched upon this during the lunch too. Like how at Yale, for example, there were tons of clubs and other extracurricular opportunities. So how did you historically manage your time and organize your schedule for everything you did.

Admoni: That’s a good question. And I said this at the lunch. It’s super important to maintain balance in your life. And that balance doesn’t have to be over the course of a day. There will be days that are more work heavy and days that are less work heavy. But when you look at your life over weeks and months, you have to be happy with the balance that you’re striking. For me, it helps to have a goal.

For example, exercise for me is really important, so I usually pick some sort of exercise goal. Like two years ago, I ran the Pittsburgh marathon. And that took a lot of time to train. I ran it very slowly, but I finished it. It took a lot of time to train but it was a goal that I could work toward. I made commitments to myself, and I put workouts on my calendar the same way I put meetings on my calendar and block that time off. And those became part of my job. Part of my job was to run this marathon just as part of my job was to get a faculty job. So the way that I usually end up finding time for myself is by committing to a particular goal and then treating it like any other meeting or commitment that I’ve made.

It’s also important to find things that are fun for you. So extracurriculars or whatever shouldn’t be boring. I really enjoy swimming. I swam in high school. So a few years ago, I picked up triathlon because that was another – like it was a way for me to interact with people to go on group bike rides, to keep swimming, to do running which was really good for me. It crossed off a lot of things on my list as once.

Women@SCS: Nice! I guess this is a more specific question. How was your undergrad experience? What other kind of extracurricular activities besides exercise did you do besides research?

Admoni: Good question.I played the cello. I played the cello all throughout high school and even college in orchestras. And that was something that was really important to me to grow up with this connection to music. I love board games, too, so for me a great night is having a bunch of friends over and playing whatever the most recent board game is.

Women@SCS: That's awesome.

Admoni: College was a little more organized, so my extracurriculars were kind of like related to clubs. Gosh. It was so long ago. What clubs did I do? I honestly can’t even remember. I’m sure there were lots of them. But these days honestly my extracurriculars are things like going hiking. I joined Venture Outdoors which is a Pittsburgh based nonprofit that takes people outside and they run multiple events a week of hikes or kayaking or outdoor adventures. And so, I’ve gone on a bunch of activities with them too. I like being outside. I love eating. I love exploring Pittsburgh through the food which is very really fun to do. This is a good city for it. Yeah. And I love kind of curling up with a good book sometimes too. I still read for fun a lot.

Women@SCS: Yeah. And I guess for each of those activities do you do the same thing where you like block out a time?

Admoni: Some I do. Things like Venture Outdoors are nice because they have specific events that happen at specific times. So you can go to that event and you kind of commit to it. Others I kind of do to fill in my time. But I definitely block off time on the weekend that I commit to not working. Like on the weekend I say I’m going to work this many hours and then I’m going to spend the rest of my time guilt free reading this novel. And I allow myself to do that because I recognize that that recovery time – like in exercise recovery time is just as important as training time.

Women@SCS: That makes sense. Thank you so much for your time!