Black in Robotics ‘Meet The Members’ collection: Nialah Wilson


The roboticist Nialah Wilson together with the modular robotic platform DONUts. [Image Credit: Scalable and Robust Fabrication, Operation, and Control of Compliant Modular Robots by Wilson*, Ceron*, Wilson, Horowitz and Petersen.]

The DONUts platform could appear to be a set of bronze-colored, futuristic espresso cups, however every part turns into clearer as they start to maneuver. The group of modular robots dance in a well-choreographed symphony as magnets activate and off permitting the modules to tug or push their neighbors. Utilizing these easy interactions, the modular robots can obtain complicated duties corresponding to vitality harvesting [1].

Nialah Wilson is likely one of the key roboticists who helped carry these modular robots to life. Her staff on the Collective Embodied Intelligence Lab from Cornell College wanted to:

  • Design the {hardware} utilizing versatile printed circuit boards,
  • Characterize the conduct of every module when the magnets had been utilized,
  • Create the movement planning algorithms, and
  • Implement the communication scheme which passes messages to neighbors saying to “activate” or “flip off” their magnets and thus entice or repel each other.

Benefiting from the suitable message, handed on the proper time, can also be one of many issues that led to Nialah’s profession in robotics.

One of many competitions that I did in highschool was by the NAACP, and I solely heard about that due to somebody in my church, and I solely knew about that as a result of I talked to them.

— Nialah

We’re excited to spotlight Nialah’s robotics journey in addition to the teachings she realized alongside the best way on this ‘Meet the Members’ submit for Black In Robotics.

Nialah’s trajectory

Nialah is from rural, Southwestern Virginia. A spot that she is bound to remind you is the South. Regardless of the agricultural setting, Nialah had a plethora of alternatives to maintain her curious thoughts busy.

I used to be at all times excited about taking stuff aside. My mother would at all times discover various things like pens … destroyed round the home.

— Nialah

Her mother was clever sufficient to channel younger Nialah’s knack for setting up and deconstructing gadgets right into a aggressive enviornment: robotics competitions.

“I used to be all-in” Nialah remembers when she talks about this time in her life. Initially, she was doing FIRST Lego Robotics League competitions in center faculty and, afterward, she was taking part in no matter competitions she might discover in highschool (one in all them being the longstanding custom hosted by Virginia Western). Nialah’s expertise made it a no brainer for her to resolve upon a level in Mechanical Engineering when she arrived at Howard College.

She leveraged Howard’s highly effective connections throughout the nation to acquire a summer season place at Sandia Nationwide Laboratories. Sandia had a long-lasting affect on Nialah; not solely did she produce nice work characterizing bellows programs that was later printed [2], however she additionally discovered an curiosity in attending graduate faculty.

I used to be excited about grad faculty earlier than [my internship at Sandia], however after that I used to be like ‘I gotta do a PhD.’ … I noticed that the individuals doing the main and pushing stuff ahead all had PhDs and so I used to be like ‘Oh!’ if I get a PhD, then this may be my life…

— Nialah

When the time got here to use to graduate faculty, her mentor from Sandia was one of many key suggestion letters that supported her robust utility.

Finally, Nialah picked the Collective Embodied Intelligence Lab at Cornell College for her PhD research. There, she has moved away from working with experimental fluid idea and now works on many facets of modular robots like those mentioned above. To make teams of those robots obtain duties in unstructured environments, she research learn how to plan the group’s motion utilizing gradient-based strategies in addition to learn how to make a gaggle strong if a person robotic fails. Sooner or later, she hopes to work extra on how teams of such robots or drones work together with people (i.e. Human Robotic Interplay).

A gaggle picture of the Collective Embodied Intelligence Lab at Cornell College together with an excited Ms. Wilson (high left).

Nialah’s challenges

With the help of her robust Sandia mentor and others in her life, Nialah was well-prepared for a lot of facets of graduate faculty however highlighted a number of challenges that she nonetheless needed to overcome:

  1. Creating the analysis abilities past what was required of her in her undergraduate expertise
  2. Understanding how publications work and contribute to your progress in a PhD
  3. Getting used to a brand new local weather (each socially and geographically)

What makes these challenges tough is that they’re usually all arising on the similar time.

I used to be determining [all of this] whereas taking totally different programs.

— Nialah

She really helpful that graduate college students attempt the next to forestall or overcome these challenges as properly:

  1. Learn as many analysis papers in your space as you’ll be able to!
  2. Ask your advisor, or discover a mentor, who can clarify what’s anticipated of you and the assorted milestones required to complete your PhD.
  3. Step a bit of exterior of your consolation zone to curate new friendships. Having a help system is essential!

Nialah’s phrases of knowledge

Lastly, Nialah provided the next phrases of knowledge for younger roboticists:

One factor that I’d say [to a younger version of myself] is: Look extra into the totally different facets of robotics, as a result of robotics is a extremely large discipline. And I didn’t absolutely get [that] till I acquired to grad faculty…

— Nialah

And some phrases for younger individuals basically:

…that’s the most important factor; discovering individuals which can be within the positions that I need to be in or are round these issues after which reaching out to and speaking to them. You study new issues and it opens doorways for your self as properly.

— Nialah

If you want to comply with extra of Nialah’s exploits, then be happy to comply with her Google Scholar profile or her private web site.


[1] S. Ceron, N. Wilson, L. Horowitz and Ok. Petersen, “Comparative Evaluation of Sensors in Inflexible and Deformable Modular Robots for Form Estimation,” 2019 Worldwide Symposium on Multi-Robotic and Multi-Agent Methods (MRS), New Brunswick, NJ, USA, 2019, pp. 252–258, doi: 10.1109/MRS.2019.8901072.

[2] Nialah Jenae Wilson, “Bellows Characterization for Dynamic Methods with Damping and Multiphase Stream..” United States: N. p., 2015. Internet.


Drafts of this text had been corrected and improved by Nialah Wilson, Sophia Williams, and Nailah Seale. All present errors are the fault of Kwesi Rutledge. Please attain out to him should you spot any!

Black In Robotics
addresses the systemic inequities present in our robotics group by specializing in three major pillars – group, advocacy, and accountability.

Black In Robotics
addresses the systemic inequities present in our robotics group by specializing in three major pillars – group, advocacy, and accountability.