Women in Energy: Nicola Ferrier
Nicola Ferrier received her doctorate from Harvard University in 1992. After postdoctoral fellowships at Oxford University and Harvard, she joined the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Wisconsin (UW)-Madison in 1996. She became an associate professor in 2003 and professor in 2009. She received the National Science Foundation CAREER award (1997), the UW Vilas Associates Professorship (1999) and the UW Honored Instructor Award (2009). Ferrier joined the Mathematics and Computer Science Division at Argonne in 2013.
Her research interests are in the use of computer vision (digital images) to control robots, machinery and devices, with applications as diverse as medical systems, manufacturing and projects that facilitate “scientific discovery” (such as her recent project using machine vision and robotics for plant phenotype studies).
What do you do?
Research — over the years, my research interests have changed; however, I have worked primarily on systems that use images to control robots or devices. For example, a medical robot might use images (CT, X-ray) to guide an instrument to the correct location within a patient, a device might use images to identify defects in a material, or a machine might use images to sort objects into bins.
What is the best part of your job?
There are many things I like about my job. I enjoy working on problems that have both a technical challenge and a practical application — for one, this typically means I have to “learn new things” (especially because I usually have to understand the problem domain, which is not in computer science but usually some other discipline). I also like working with other researchers. Research often involves students and postdocs. These “young” researchers are usually full of energy and new ideas.
When did you first consider pursuing a STEM degree?
In high school, it was clear that I enjoyed mathematics (and to a lesser degree science — I didn’t really “get” science until my college years). Back then (it was a while ago), the career choices for women (and encouragement from school counselors) were somewhat limited. I started off in “pre-med” because that was the most “scientific” of the choices that were presented to me (teaching, home economics, pre-law and pre-med were the suggestions — no one suggested science or engineering to me).
When you felt like giving up, what did you do? Who did you talk to?
I have been frustrated and overwhelmed at times, but never really felt like giving up. When I’m overwhelmed, I make lists (helps to prioritize and also helps to see some progress — I can do some simple things and get an item crossed off the list). When I’m frustrated, I talk to my husband, a close friend, and ordinarily I have a close co-worker who can relate better than others. During graduate school, I think it was common to feel lost — but everyone in my lab went through phases and we had each other to lean on.
How does your job make a difference?
I work on problems that ultimately will make “things” better — whether it is a manufacturing process, a materials synthesis operation, a medical intervention or a scientific lab procedure.
Does your job require travel? If so, where is the most unique/interesting place you’ve visited?
Travel is never as interesting as outside observers think (you go somewhere, sit in a meeting room and rarely breathe outside air, then go home). I did spend two days after a meeting in India and traveled to a Buddhist site (the Ajanta and Elora caves).
What would you share with a student who wishes to pursue a career in your field?
Just do it!
Are there any pieces of advice that were particularly useful to you?
When starting as a researcher (from a friend who was more senior): “You got here because you always got straight As. This job will make it impossible to get straight As. Choose carefully what you are going to get a B or C in. Don’t let it be your family.” And another friend told me (when I was expecting): “You have one year to be the mother of that newborn, you have the rest of your life to do your research.”