Solutions lie at the intersections

Posted: April 9, 2021

New College of Engineering Dean Ayanna Howard on the leaps and bounds possible with convergent research

Dean Ayanna Howard holds a small robot.
Ayanna Howard joined the College of Engineering as dean March 1. Her startup, Zyrobotics, uses robotics to help children with special needs achieve their educational and therapy goals.

Sitting in his wheelchair with a robot-equipped stuffed animal on his lap, the young boy beamed when he realized his movements, as taxing as they were, caused a character in the game to react. He was in control. It was a gift — for the boy with cerebral palsy and for Ayanna Howard. “At that moment, I realized we’re doing the right thing,” she says. “We are definitely doing the right thing.”

Howard, who traces her devotion to engineering to a childhood fascination with the “The Bionic Woman,” is now dean of Ohio State’s College of Engineering. And what was once the premise of a sci-fi TV show is now the life’s work of an accomplished roboticist and educator. Howard’s career spans higher education, NASA and the private sector. Most recently chair of Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Interactive Computing, she also is an entrepreneur whose company, Zyrobotics, develops robots to help children with special needs achieve educational and therapy goals.

“Dr. Howard is an innovator whose skills and passion are a perfect fit with Ohio State’s focus on convergent research and discovery,” says President Kristina M. Johnson. “To attract a leader of her caliber shows both the strength of our engineering program and the acceleration of the university’s overall research mission.”

Howard joined Ohio State March 1, succeeding David B. Williams, who led the College of Engineering for 10 years.

The term “convergent research” may be new to some readers. How would you describe it, and how does it apply to your startup, Zyrobotics?
Interesting solutions happen at the intersection of disciplines. The hard problems we face as humans exist at the interface, the intersection of multiple disciplines. There are problems no one has ever found a solution to. Why is that? Well, because the right researchers weren’t in the room to really think about them in different ways. Engineers are driven by exploration, we’re driven by knowledge — and convergent research provides both.

I’ve stayed in academia because I love being challenged by new knowledge. For example, the company I started is the convergence of robotics, artificial intelligence, clinical therapy, science interventions and early education. Those intersections have enabled us to develop interactive STEM games and learning tools that adapt to each child’s capabilities.

What affect can convergent research have on the world’s complex challenges? 
Think about water as a resource. We all take it for granted, at least in countries like the United States, where you just turn on the tap and there it is. Well, what happens if you are going into a place with few resources? How do you build a low-cost infrastructure such that it is sustainable — and able to be sustained by individuals in that community who are not engineers? That’s an engineering problem within the context of the environment, within the context of economic challenges and perhaps within the context of political issues. For grand challenges like water, health, education access and others, solutions can result from the convergence of disciplines.

What are your early impressions of this type of work at Ohio State?
Our engineers are pursuing solutions at many intersections. For instance, those involving engineering and medicine are very exciting. Engineers are focused on the fundamental principles of devices and design, and if you think about medicine and the fundamental principles of the human as a system, it is a perfect blend.

In order to ensure that engineers are upholding our responsibility — which, essentially, is to improve the world — we have to converge with other disciplines.

original article appeared in The Ohio State Alumni Magazine Spring 2021 issue