Featured Engineer

Interview with Laura Bica

Laura Bica

Laura Bica - Undergraduate Student in Computer Engineering at Santa Clara University

How did you get into electronics/ engineering and when did you start?

I grew up in a home that fostered my interest in technology. My dad is an engineer and from what I remember I’ve always had some amount of fascination with what he does. When I was really young my sister and I would play with the big satellite phones that he would bring home from work for testing, so in a way I guess I’ve been interested in/involved with engineering for a long time.

I also went to a high school called High Tech High (in San Diego, CA) which promoted my interests in technology even further. Through my school I was able to get a year-long internship with SPAWAR’s robotics department during my junior year. During my internship I got to work with a robot that utilized a Segway platform and program it to do interesting things (at least for a high school student) like following me around the company’s campus. That internship also peaked my interest in soldering. When I started at Santa Clara and got involved with the school’s robotics lab, I knew that I had chosen the right major and school to be able to pursue my interests in technology.

What are your favorite hardware tools that you use?

Definitely soldering irons. That is not to say that I’m any good at soldering or that I solder often, but for some reason I really enjoy it. When I worked at SPAWAR I always wanted to help the tech with her soldering jobs, and would proceed to get “USE MORE FLUX!!!” yelled at me for the next hour. I even told my parents I was going to become a professional solderer and start a business dedicated to it. Luckily they convinced me to go to college first.

What are your favorite software tools that you use?

That varies day to day. This year I’ve learned how interesting and powerful MATLAB can be, and have enjoyed learning how to use it in conjunction with my senior project. Until this academic year I was under the impression that MATLAB was an easy way out of programming for non-computer programmers, but I’ve become especially impressed with its ability to allow programmers to import Java libraries. I’ve been able to enable some useful database and SSH functionality for my project by doing this. If I’m in a more web-based mindset, a combination of Photoshop and Dreamweaver tends to be my software of choice.

What is the hardest/trickiest bug you have ever fixed?

The compiler that we had to build in my compilers class last quarter was probably one of the toughest projects that I have ever worked on, and with it came some of the toughest bugs I’ve ever had to fix. I don’t know if I can come up with anything specific, but the majority of our class spent some long hours in the computer lab last quarter trying to make our compiler… compile. By the end we sort of took shifts- one person would finish their project and then stay to help until the next person finished, who would stay until the next person finished, and so on.

What is on your bookshelf?

Quite literally the things that are on my bookshelf at this very moment are: my compilers book from last quarter (which gives me chills just thinking about it), Essentials of Software Engineering by Tsui Karam, O’Reilley’s 802.11 Wireless Networks- the Definitive Guide, Programming the World Wide Web by Sebesta, Unmasking the Gender Effect in the Engineering Workplace, The Art of Computer Systems Performance Analysis by Raj Jain, Content Networking by Hofmann and Beaumont, Beginner’s Guide to Text Editing (which I just noticed has a copyright from before I was born), a Dilbert book called Always Postpone Meetings with Time-Wasting Morons, some coloring books, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (which I’m embarrassed to admit I still haven’t read… but I do know the significance of 42!), and my cat has conveniently placed himself on the bottom shelf, probably for the sake of this interview.

Do you have any tricks up your sleeve? (special way to analyze circuits, special process you use to make something, etc.)

Well, right now most of my “tricks” are associated with helping me in my classes. As of last quarter I have decided that imagining technical problems as non-technical pictures, shapes, or processes is a great way to understand concepts. For example, when converting regular expressions to finite automata, I started thinking of everything in terms of spaceships… A regex that allows for 0 or more would look like a spaceship with a top and a bottom, whereas a regex that allows for 1 or more of something looks like a spaceship with only the top completed. To understand assembly code I actually imagine each of the instructions happening; a person actually has to physically move a value from one register to another, shift the bits left, etc. I think that imagining each instruction as a task being performed by an actual person makes me more conscious of whether or not I’ll be able to get the desired outcome with my code. I’m realizing how crazy all of this sounds as I’m saying it, though. Another skill that I’ve been using a lot this year is pair programming, where one person programs and another looks over the programmer’s shoulder to quickly catch mistakes and typos. I’m also a strong supporter of using caffeine (in the form of coffee) to promote productivity, if you want to consider that a trick.

What has been your favorite project?

I’ve gotten to participate in some really interesting activities during my time with the robotics lab on campus. The lab is responsible for operating multiple NASA spacecraft, which leaves a lot of interesting opportunities open for the student-run mission operations team. Some of the things that I’ve gotten to participate in with regards to satellite mission operations are actually operating and communicating with the satellite from the lab’s homemade ground station, helping with the creation and maintenance of mission dashboards, as well as other mission-related tasks. Getting to be involved with such a large-scale project like that has been a really unique and exciting experience for me.

Do you have any note-worthy engineering experiences? (blowing up things, getting shocked, etc.)

When I worked at SPAWAR one of the first projects I worked on was programming the Segway RMP robot to follow me. My mentor convinced me that there was no way, given my program, that the robot would get within five feet of me during testing. So I stood there and waited for the robot to detect and start following me. It found me, but I guess I didn’t make the importance of the five foot boundary very clear, because it ran right into me a couple seconds later.

Also, when I first started taking electrical engineering classes at Santa Clara I was actually determined to start a fire. I never managed, and I guess that explains why TAs for those classes always watched me a little more closely than everyone else. But, a couple years ago I decided that at the end of one of my EE labs I would start pulling components out of the proto board while it was still powered, which definitely resulted in getting a nice little zap.

What are you currently working on?

Right now my main project is “Project Graduate”. I’m about two weeks away from graduation, so I’m trying to get everything in place before then. The main component of this is my senior design project, which is in conjunction with the Robotic Systems Laboratory on campus that I’ve been working with since freshman year. The lab is in charge of being the sole ground operators for multiple NASA spacecrafts. This has left us with a lot of different responsibilities, from creating ground station software and hardware to communicating with the satellites regularly to maintaining public web-based mission dashboards for each mission.

My project aims to improve the system used for creating/maintaining the mission dashboard. The original dashboard design was a static HTML page that displayed values that change frequently. Because the lab is involved with so many tasks related to the mission, maintaining and updating the dashboard doesn’t always happen as often as it should. I have created scripts that automate the updating process, so that the data displayed on the dashboard is always up to date. I’ve also incorporated some of the lab’s anomaly detection data and automated the production of plots displayed on the page so as to make the new version of the dashboard even more useful as a data dissemination mechanism than the original version.

What direction do you see yourself heading in the next few years?

This summer I have an internship with Cisco, which I’m really excited about. I haven’t found out what department I’ll be placed in, but I imagine that this will be a chance for me to really apply what I’ve learned over the past few years. After the summer I’ll be going on to grad school at Santa Clara for a master’s in computer engineering for a year. I’m planning on taking the networking track for my degree, as I’m really interested in the computer engineering side of networks and I think that it is a constantly evolving topic in the technological world right now. Once I’m done with grad school I’m hoping to get a full time job in industry, somewhere in California if possible.

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