Thinking about a career in robotics? Insights into some stand-out careers

Changed on 21/02/2020
Every two years, the National Robotics Research Days (Journées Nationales de la Recherche en Robotique - JNRR) bring together the community of robotics researchers in France. The event is an opportunity to catch up with the latest developments in the main fields of robotics being worked on by the community in France. The 2019 edition is being co-organised by Olivier Simonin, a professor at the INSA in Lyon, and François Charpillet, an Inria director of research, and is set to be held from 14 to 18 October in Vittel. The event will run in tandem with Young Robotics Researcher Day (Journée des jeunes chercheurs en robotique - JJCR) and a day of tutorials on the theme of Learning and Robotics.

We thought it would be a good idea to let the PhD students organising the JJCR event interview some of the researchers participating at this symposium. Interviews with Caroline Chanel, Serena Ivaldi and Anne Spalanzani, who speak about their career choices and their passion for robotics.

Interaction homme robot
© Inria / Photo L. Phialy

What have been the key steps in your professional career?

Caroline Chanel: I’ve been fortunate enough to study in two countries: Brazil, where I’m from, and France, tackling different subjects within the field of robotics. These techniques that can get objects to function by themselves have fascinated me ever since I was a child. My end of studies project and PhD gave me the chance to learn more about automation, robotics and artificial intelligence, fields that are useful to my current research.

Serena Ivaldi: My PhD work in robotics helped get my career off the ground, but it was my two postdocs that really kicked things into gear. For the first one, managing to get an EU project really helped launch my career. Through the second I was able to meet colleagues who would go on to support me, dispensing valuable advice to help boost my career as a researcher.

Anne Spalanzani: I have taken an interest in a range of different themes: robotics is such a wide field! I discovered cognitive science through my DEA (Diploma of Advanced Studies), before getting into IT during my PhD in speech recognition algorithms and evolutionary robotics during my postdoc. What this means is that I can now be a bridge between the different subjects my team are working on and work with colleagues from a range of different fields, whether it’s IT, automation or psychology.

Why did you opt for academic research in robotics? Why not work in industry?

Caroline Chanel: The worlds of industry and academia, which I discovered during my studies, don't move at the same speeds. What I enjoy most is developing a real understanding of a scientific subject, studying it and exploring it in depth: the rhythm the industrial world moves at is too quick for that. Teaching, combined with research, gives me the opportunity to pass on my knowledge. That’s one aspect I really enjoy.

Serena Ivaldi: Because of the passion I have for my projects, almost all of which I have worked on in positions in academia. I followed my dreams, one of which was to develop a forward vision. One area of my current research into humanoid robotics is still quite a long way from practical application - at the moment, it wouldn’t have its place in the industrial sector.

Anne Spalanzani: As interesting as it is to create or produce things, I still feel that the challenges in academic research are far more interesting than in the industrial sector. I like to see projects through to their completion, to really get stuck in to designing and developing them. I also appreciate intellectual support, something the academic world is really good for. I’m really flourishing in this environment.

To what extent has your PhD work influenced the rest of your career? How much flexibility do you have when it comes to choosing your research subjects?

Caroline Chanel: My years as a PhD student were really important - and not just from a scientific point of view! I was able to build up a network of colleagues, researchers and engineers that I am still working with today, linking up with them for collaborative research projects. These projects meet the objectives of the ISAE-SUPAERO road map, which guides our research, but we still have total freedom when it comes to the subjects we put forward.

Serena Ivaldi: I view a PhD as an introduction to scientific research. It is there that you learn how to structure your thoughts, set realistic, attainable objectives, build a bibliography, solve a given problem, explore different avenues and present your results to a community: it provides comprehensive training. The only limits on my current research are related to funding. Projects in robotics, which involve various human and material contributions, always require a compromise between what we want and what we're able to do. It’s up to us to strike that balance.

Anne Spalanzani: The only limit on our imagination is our capacity to find sources of funding for our ideas. Other than that, I have total flexibility when it comes to developing and running my projects. My PhD work was pretty far removed from robotics, a field that wasn't nearly as developed then as it is now. That said, the concepts I was studying - how to adapt automated systems to changes in their environments - are central to my current research. Nothing goes to waste.

What advice would you give to young scientists just starting out in their academic careers?

Caroline Chanel: Find a subject you’re passionate about and which you want to devote time and energy to - research takes a lot out of you. The intellectual opportunities offered by a subject are vast. Make sure you don't spread yourself too thinly either - remember, professional achievement isn’t the only source of fulfilment. Finding a balance in your life and doing things you love outside of scientific research is also part of a good career.

Serena Ivaldi: A subject you find interesting is essential, but it’s not everything. The intellectual or human environment of a team or a laboratory are perhaps just as important: you learn a lot from your peers, who will often give you a brilliant idea or some useful advice. Bear in mind as well that the life of a researcher doesn’t just revolve around their scientific work - they have a lot of other responsibilities as well. Some might seem off-putting, but they are part of the job. Becoming a researcher is something that happens over time. In your first years you will be asked to do a lot of work and a lot of adapting. You might even have to make one or two sacrifices.

Anne Spalanzani: Feed your curiosity and your imagination! Robotics, like many other disciplines, is very broad: don’t just concentrate on one subject. If you're able to, take the time to go to conferences in other fields. Keep your mind as open as possible!

*Rahaf Rahal, Jessica Colombel, Benoit Antoniotti, PhD students at Inria in Nancy or Inria in Rennes.

Perfect role models for young researchers in robotics


Caroline Chanel

Caroline Chanel is an automation engineer. After a PhD from the University of Toulouse in 2013, which she worked on at France’s National Aerospace Research Centre (Onera), Chanel joined the ISAE-SUPAERO (the French Higher Institute of Aeronautics and Space) in Toulouse, where she currently works as a researcher and teacher in robotics and automation. Her work focuses on ensuring autonomous systems are able to run effectively and on how humans and systems interact with each other.

Caroline Chanel's webpage

Serena Ivaldi et le robot iCub

Serena Ivaldi is a research fellow at Inria Nancy. Holder of a PhD from the Italian Institute of Technology, she joined the LARSEN team in 2015 after two postdocs in Germany and France. Her focus is on machine learning and optimal control, the aim being to apply these methods to collaborative robotics.

Serena Ivaldi's webpage

Anne Spalanzani

Anne Spalanzani joined Inria Grenoble-Rhône-Alpes in 2002 and the CHROMA team in 2016, after getting her first professional experience working in a start-up in the Annecy area. Holder of a PhD and accreditation to supervise research, her work focuses on how autonomous systems adapt to their environments and how robotic systems take the human environment into account.

Anne Spalanzani's webpage

To find out more:

Onera: The French National Aerospace Research Centre

ISAE-SUPAERO: The French Higher Institute of Aeronautics and Space

LARSEN: Life-long Autonomy and interaction skills for Robots in a Sensing Environment

CHROMA: Cooperative and Human-aware Robot Navigation in Dynamic Environments