For his first two years in grad school, Chen joked with his advisor Professor Vineet Kamat that he only went to three places: his apartment, his lab, and Kroger. That was before his girlfriend, Shasha Li, a junior high school classmate who he’s been dating since their undergraduate years, arrived as a doctoral student in the College of Pharmacy. He describes, “After she came, we found more interesting places to go, like Pictured Rocks in Northern Michigan and Florida. When she came everything became much better.”
He’s all about his research, regardless. A doctoral candidate who recently defended his dissertation successfully, Chen says his research is “trying to make the Wall-E robot really work in construction sites.” More specifically, Chen researches ways to introduce automation and robotics techniques into construction sites. He explains, “There are safety and productivity issues in the construction industry. It has the largest number of occupational injuries and fatalities and its productivity is stagnant compared to other industries. How you build a house is almost the same now as it was 20 years ago. There have not been gains from robotics like in the manufacturing industry. I’m trying to introduce and develop better technology to this field.”
There are inherent challenges to overcome, most particularly around the unstructured and unpredictable environment in construction that is replete with hard to replicate situations. Chen says, “I’m employing a technique called computer vision to help or alleviate some of these issues. For example, in a normal day, a bricklayer lifts the equivalent of two SUVs. This can result in occupational health problems for workers, and I’m trying to introduce a robotic manipulator on site to alter this demanding job.”
His girlfriend isn’t his only hometown connection. Chen came to the University of Michigan from China at the suggestion of his college friend who was two years ahead of him. Suyang Dong came to the Department of Civil Engineering as a doctoral student in the Laboratory of Interactive Visualization for Engineering. “He introduced me to what he was doing in the lab, and I thought it was very interesting because it aligned with my research and goals. He introduced me to his advisor, and it was a really good match for me as well. His advisor is now my doctoral advisor and we’ve become really good friends,” he recalls.
As he moves beyond Rackham, Chen will begin a postdoctoral position at Mitsubishi Electric Research Labs in Cambridge, MA at the end of the summer to continue computer vision related research. He’ll maintain a collaboration with the advisors in his U-M lab and introduce computer vision technology into the construction field more broadly. On this role, he says, “I want to pursue a job in academia, so the industrial postdoc at Mitsubishi is a great fit. This is a good position because if I want to find an academic position, I can switch later on. I get to do research and publish while getting industry experience and staying close to academia through connections to U-M and nearby MIT.”
Chen feels quite at home in Ann Arbor, telling friends the only difference he really feels between here and China is that he speaks English here. Many international students have some challenges based around language, but he says, “My dad has good language skills and I inherited mine from him.” While from Southern China, he enjoys the climate here, saying, “The best thing I like about Ann Arbor is the cold weather. I can think when it’s cold, but I can’t think when it is hot.”
He was thinking clearly last winter, when he faced a critical deadline that forced him to work through Chinese New Year. He says, “I was doing an experiment and prepping for a conference but I didn’t have time to celebrate the New Year since I spent the entire week in the Digital Fabrication Lab working on the robot. I called my mom to celebrate, that was it.” The sacrifices made in the name of research can be tough, but Chen says, “It was worthwhile. I won a best paper award when I presented my research at the conference. My friends have created a start-up company based on the techniques used in my research. My research goal is to make machines see. If a machine has good perception ability, it will make an impact and change a lot of things in robotics. My research is trying to give them eyes.”