Interview With MIT Professor Dr. Julie Shah

Aarthi Gunasekaran
5 min readOct 1, 2023

by Aarthi Gunasekaran

Please describe the technical field of expertise that you studied in college and/or grad school.

“I initially majored in Aero and Astro Engineering at MIT with a concentration of what was called Information Technology because during this time there was a large focus on the challenges involved with software development. For my masters degree, I continued at MIT and did my thesis work on Human Factors Engineering. My PhD was in Artificial Intelligence: Planning and Scheduling. These are very different fields and subfields to move between, but they were very consistent for me. As I learned more about Information Technology and Autopilot Control of Aircraft, I very intrigued by how the software was designed. For my Masters Degree, I was then interested in learning more about the human aspect engineering. This includes what we currently know about what humans are capable of modeling, and how you design for them. Then, with that knowledge, I did my PhD in Automotive and Autonomous AI. My research career was focused on how you can design for both sides. Both the increasing the intelligence of machines, and also for human capability.”

Photo by Possessed Photography on Unsplash

What is your current job title?

“I am currently the Slater Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).”

Please describe your particular job and duties.

“My job has a few components to it. One component includes teaching because I am a professor, research since I run a research lab at MIT, and the last is service to the academic and professional community. Academic service work includes setting up meetings, workshops, events, and peer review process among students and staff. I typically teach two classes a year, one in the fall, and one in the spring. I teach Real Time Systems and Software in the fall to undergraduate students, and in the spring, a class on Human Machines: Supervisory Control to graduates. ”

Photo by Behnam Norouzi on Unsplash

Please describe your schedule for a typical work day (include items such as time spent designing, testing, in meetings, etc.)

“My typical day of work starts with getting my kids up for school, driving them to school, and making my way to my office. I usually have the first hour of the day to get ready for the day, but on days that I have a lecture, on Monday and Thursday mornings, I take time to prep for my lecture. After the lecture, I take time to talk my students about the material, any questions they have, or to simply hang out with them. In my afternoons, I run a lab with twenty graduate students, and so I meet with them individually to discuss their research. Sometimes we discuss in small groups to about how everyone's’ research is coming together in order to build systems. I also meet with the sponsors of my lab. For example, if I am working with the AirForce, I set up a meeting with the pilots or the workers there, and I’ll describe what my students are doing. Then, in the late afternoons, I have time that I block where I could do my thinking work such as grading papers, talking to students about their paper, or write proposals. Everyday is always pretty packed, but each day ends up being very different.”

Starting with high school, please describe your educational background chronologically (include things such as the types of courses taken, extracurricular activities that may have influenced their choice of career, etc.).

“I did a lot of activities in high school. I used to play field hockey at Homdel High School, so that I still have the connection back to my hometown friends. I was involved in the Civil AirPatrol because I was interested in Aerospace and Aeronautics at the time. Volunteering at this nonprofit, influenced my choice of career because I enjoyed it a lot. Another extracurricular that I enjoyed was Search and Rescue, a nonprofit organization that made me go through a lot of training to be able to simply put Search and Rescue. Back then, there were air planes and boats had something called ELT, emergency locator transmitter. If a plane had crashed or a boat went underwater this transmitter would sense vibrations or flip in the water and send off an emergency radio signal at a particular frequency. However, sometimes the transmitter would send out signals in non-emergeny situations, and it was a cognitive puzzle for me to figure out why this was happening. These are the main extracurriculars that inspired me to major in Aerospace and Aernautics. My husband and I, took math classes over at Brookdale called the HEADSTART program. In senior year, I interned at AT&T where I learned a lot about electronics integration ,and how cell phones were made.

If you had it to do over, related to your career or education, would you do anything differently?

“I have been pretty happy how my career has turned out. As an Undergradate at MIT, one of the things that I regret which I pass on to my students today, is to reach out for help when you need it. This doesn’t mean to ask for help when you don’t understand something first try, but if assignment is taking you a long time to understand it reach out to one of your peers or teachers. You should be using your time as effectively as possible. There have been times where I would struggle on a problem for more than ten hours. If I had asked for help, those ten hours could have been reduced to just a few minutes. Because High Tech, had such a group based environment, I always reached out. I might have been intimated because I was at MIT to ask a question, when it felt as if everyone around me seems to understand what was happening.”

What advice would you give to me as someone interested in pursuing a career path similar to yours?

Photo by Eugenia Ai on Unsplash

“I would say that you should follow your interests even if it seems surprising to other people, do what you enjoy. Try to grab as many different experiences as possible, and don’t plan your whole career that is ahead of you. Specifically, look for experiences where you can try something new, is very valuable. Use the Scientific Method to gain data to understand what field is right and exciting for you. I utilized my summers to explore my interest by working at startups, NASA, and nonprofits. From there, I would decide what I liked about each job, and at the end discovered that I wanted to be a professor. ”

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Aarthi Gunasekaran

A highly motivated high school student passionate in delving deep into biomedical, mechanical, and agricultural engineering and through real-world experience.