Barry McNamara  |   Published October 27, 2020

Alumna Working with NASA

Through fellowship, Emily Sheetz ’18 will assist with robotics for the space program.

MONMOUTH, Ill. – One of Monmouth College’s most accomplished students in the humanities helped bring one of its most accomplished science students to campus.

That science student, Emily Sheetz ’18, is now a graduate student at the University of Michigan, where she has secured a NASA Space Technology Graduate Research Opportunities fellowship, with a goal of helping to improve robotics being designed for space exploration.

EMILY SHEETZ: 2018 graduate poses with the TRACLabs TRACArm robot, which she worked with last yea... EMILY SHEETZ: 2018 graduate poses with the TRACLabs TRACArm robot, which she worked with last year during an internship in Webster, Texas.When Sheetz was a student at Lincoln-Way East High School in Frankfort, Illinois, she relied on advice in selecting a college from a former Lincoln-Way East student, Emma Vanderpool ’17.

“I really wasn’t sure about attending a small school, but Emma told me how great Monmouth was,” said Sheetz, whose friend studied classics and received many accolades, including being named Monmouth’s Student Laureate of the Lincoln Academy of Illinois. “Based on everything she said, I applied.”

Sheetz also applied elsewhere, but she said her interview experience at Monmouth was unique.

“Normally, I would get very nervous for those interviews, but my interview at Monmouth felt very natural,” said Sheetz, who met with faculty members Chris Fasano and Craig Watson. “We talked about big ideas and my hopes for the world. I realized I wasn’t nervous and it really made a lasting impression. It helped me decide that Monmouth was the right place for me to go.”

Like Vanderpool, Sheetz was an award-winning student at Monmouth. Among her achievements, the summa cum laude graduate received the sole first-place award at a meeting of the Illinois Section of the Mathematics Association of America and received the College’s Paul Cramer Prize for outstanding work in upper-level mathematics. She also completed Monmouth’s highly selective Honors Program, in addition to majoring in mathematics and computer science, with a minor in Spanish.

Robotics and AI

Now in the third year of her program at Michigan, Sheetz is pursuing a doctorate in computer science and engineering with a focus on artificial intelligence and robotics. Most of her first two years were spent in Ann Arbor, but she’s now working remotely. Next year, she is scheduled to travel to Texas as part of her NASA fellowship.

“It has to do with improving robotic manipulation,” said Sheetz of the fellowship. “In industry, you see robotics using what they call a ‘pick-and-place’ action, like you’d see on an assembly line. NASA is interested in having robots do more involved tasks than ‘pick-and-place,’ such as a screwing motion with a screwdriver.”

“Robots, for example, could do repairs on the International Space Station, or could collect samples on the Moon. If the robots can execute those actions, it will keep the astronauts safer.”

Making things safer for astronauts is the chief appeal of the project for NASA.

“Robots, for example, could do repairs on the International Space Station, or could collect samples on the Moon,” said Sheetz. “If the robots can execute those actions, it will keep the astronauts safer.” Emily Sheetz

Sheetz is especially interested in improving the skills of a robot named Valkyrie.

“Valkyrie is a very cool, almost humanoid robot,” said Sheetz. “Her hand is almost like a human hand. “What I’m working on is what sort of information Valkyrie needs to know to accomplish those more involved tasks. I’m writing controllers that will help her perform these more complex motions, like the screwdriver motion.”

Part of the fellowship is a visiting technology experience that will take Sheetz to the Johnson Space Center for 10 weeks. She was previously in the Lone Star State for an internship in 2019, working with TRACLabs, a software company in Webster, Texas, a few miles away from the space center.

“Because of TRACLabs’ proximity and working relationship with the Johnson Space Center, the internship got me thinking about how robots can assist with space exploration, and ultimately helped me earn the NASA fellowship,” said Sheetz.

Her future path

While the end goal of her fellowship is to help astronauts through robotics, Sheetz is not yet sure about the end goal of her Ph.D.

“To be honest, I’m still deciding,” said Sheetz, who expects her doctoral program will take a total of five to seven years to complete. “I’ve done a lot of teaching and tutoring at Monmouth and in my graduate program, and I would be interested in pursuing a career in academia as an engineering professor. But my work has also shown me what an industry job could look like, doing applied research.”

“I would tell prospective students that Monmouth College is a great place to try new things – different areas of research, different classes. … I would tell them that all these new experiences will really be helpful in pushing you to being the person you’re going to be and the path you’re going to take.” Emily Sheetz

Sheetz believes Monmouth prepared her well for her graduate experience, “providing a variety of research opportunities for me to draw upon.” Many of those opportunities were on campus, including high-speed imagery work she did with one of her advisers, Michael Sostarecz. Sheetz, who also worked closely with her other adviser, Logan Mayfield, also had impactful off-campus opportunities, participating in Research Experiences for Undergraduates programs at the University of Arizona and Auburn University.

While still a student at Monmouth, Sheetz had glowing praise for the education she was receiving.

“I would tell prospective students that Monmouth College is a great place to try new things – different areas of research, different classes,” she said. “I never thought I’d be looking at getting a Ph.D. I would tell them that all these new experiences will really be helpful in pushing you to being the person you’re going to be and the path you’re going to take.”

Like Vanderpool did for her, perhaps Sheetz’s advice will influence another outstanding student that Monmouth is the right place for them.

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