Meet ML@GT: Joanne Truong is Developing Robots for Complex, Real World Situations

The Machine Learning Center at Georgia Tech (ML@GT) is home to nearly 100 talented students from across campus, representing all six of Georgia Tech’s colleges and the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI).

These students have diverse backgrounds and a wide variety of interests both inside and outside of the classroom. Today, we’d like you to meet Joanne Truong, a second-year machine learning Ph.D. student focused on combining robotics and machine learning to help people with varying needs and abilities. In 2020, Truong was named a member of the National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship Program and received the Google Women Techmakers Scholarship. Truong is also a former intern of Facebook AI Research.

Advisor: Dhruv Batra and Sonia Chernova

Hometown: Brooklyn, NY

Major/year: Second-year Robotics Ph.D. student

Previous degrees earned and from what institutions: BS in computer engineering from Northeastern University

Tell us about your research interests. Where might people be impacted by them in everyday life?

My research focuses on developing robots that are capable of working in complex, real world environments. From robotic assistants in homes improving the quality of life for the elderly, to rescue robots performing dangerous search and rescue operations, these intelligent robots can revolutionize our day-to-day lives.

What drew you to wanting to research these areas?

During my undergrad, I joined the Robotics and Intelligent Vehicles Research (RIVeR) Lab under Taskin Padir. Our lab competed in robotics competitions (RoboCup, Toyota Research Institute competitions) that focused on developing autonomous service robots. I really enjoyed participating in these competitions, and enjoyed the challenge of developing a system that combines many different research areas (vision, language, robotics, etc.).

Are you a part of any labs? If so, tell us about them and why you chose to work in those labs.

I’m a part of the CVMLP Lab led by Dhruv Batra and Devi Parikh, and the Robot Autonomy and Interactive Learning (RAIL) Lab led by Sonia Chernova. I wanted to be co-advised by Dhruv and Sonia because it seemed like the perfect combination of machine learning and robotics research.

What motivated or inspired you to pursue your Ph.D.?

While interning at a robotics company, I worked closely with someone who had a Ph.D. I really admired how knowledgeable he was, and I wanted to develop the same deep expertise in robotics. From there, I joined the RIVeR lab to get more involved with robotics research, and decided to apply to Ph.D. programs.

What has been challenging, rewarding or unexpected about the experience of earning a Ph.D.?

I was very intimidated when I first joined Georgia Tech. Although I had robotics experience, I was still pretty new to machine learning, and was scared that I didn’t know as much as my peers. However, Georgia Tech is a great environment for learning. Now having been here for over a year, I’ve learned so much through my classes and research, and even ended up TA’ing for the Deep Learning course this semester.

What attracted you to Georgia Tech as the place to earn your doctorate degree?

My advisors! I was pretty set on pursuing my Ph.D. at another university, until I came to Georgia Tech for the visit days and met Dhruv and Sonia. I felt that our research interests matched perfectly, and I’m very grateful that they agreed to take me on!

What have you been up to during quarantine?

I spent a couple months at home with my family throughout the quarantine. It was nice getting to spend time with family for an extended period of time — I hadn’t spent this much time at home since high school!

In which television show’s world would you most like to live in and why?

The anime Detective Conan. I love detective shows, and I’d love to go around solving mysteries.

What’s the most random app on your phone?

Toreba, which is an app that lets you remotely play crane machine games.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?

Be a sponge. Absorb information from people around you. Observe how others do things and adapt or incorporate into your own life. This advice was shared during a lab retreat, and I think it’s a great mentality to have during your Ph.D. and throughout life.

What is your proudest accomplishment so far?

My undergrad graduation because my parents were able to come and celebrate the moment with me.

Do you read reviews or just go with your gut?

I just go with my gut if the decision only concerns myself. However, if it’s something for someone else, I am usually more thorough and make sure to do a bit more research.

What is the best place you’ve ever traveled to and why?

In 2019, I went to Sydney, Australia to participate in the RoboCup competition. It was awesome getting to compete in a robotics competition with universities from around the world, and I also managed to squeeze in some time to explore the city a bit.

Truong works on a problem while competing at RoboCup 2019 in Sydney, Australia.

What are some of your hobbies or things you are passionate about?

I love to bake! I like to make cakes for family and friends on special occasions. Last year, I flew back to Boston and surprised my former supervisor with a cake I made for Christmas. 

Tell me about something that brings you joy.

Video calls with friends from high school and undergrad.

What’s something someone would be surprised to learn about you?

I can understand a lot of Japanese (but can’t speak or write it). A couple of Japanese people have found it scary to learn just how much of their conversation I could <silently> understand.

What would your last meal be?

I love desserts, so I’d have to say cheesecake.

Why do you think embodying Georgia Tech’s motto of “progress and service” is important, especially in regards to ML and AI?

As AI researchers, we’re developing transformative technologies that will impact people’s day-to-day lives, and it’s our duty to ensure that these technologies are being created for the benefit of the community. This could be through the goal of making people’s lives simpler with technology, or even to use research demos to introduce younger students to the field and inspire future researchers.

Connect with Joanne at https://www.joannetruong.com/


Press Contact:

Allie McFadden | Communications Officer | allie.mcfadden@cc.gatech.edu

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