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Ruzena Bajcsy, Surviving Robotics

Elizabeth Moss
Elizabeth Moss

Ruzena Bajcsy, a longstanding professor at UC Berkeley, as well as the previous director of CITRIS, talked to FEM Tech members about growing up in war-torn Slovakia, being the first woman to get a PhD in Electrical Engineering in the country and eventually her journey to the U.S., where she most recently won the IEEE Robotics and Automation award for her innovation in robotics, among other honors.

Bajcsy is a short, humorous woman with stark white hair. She wears a black and white animal print sweater, a turquoise collared shirt underneath that brings out the sea-blue depths of her eyes. A jocund smile delights her face as she pads around the white screen that flashes the facts of her life.

Born in Bratislava, Slovakia in 1933, Bajcsy would grow into a Nazi regime that would kill 40,000 Jews in her hometown – including her parents.

“In those days girls didn’t play with these robots, or circuits. It was the boys.”

Bajcsy went on to detail how she left behind a family – a son and daughter – to pursue a career in the states. Her years were filled with sexism and inequality, (at one point coworkers tampered with a project, a high gain amplifier, she had been working on to make her look bad) but Bajcsy stuck with her passion.

“In those days girls didn’t play with these robots, or circuits. It was the boys,” she said.

She has worked in a number of engineering roles over the years, as well as professorships at the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford before joining Berkeley faculty in 2001. She has taught here ever since and currently takes on seven to eight PhD students.

She offered students a key piece of advice: “you have to find your passion.” She continued, “you want to have a job that every morning you are happy to go to. 

“I’m 83 and I’m happy to work, I’m happy to come here.”

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