Space is Next for LSU Senior Bri Robertson
October 28, 2021
President William F. Tate IV speaks with a top LSU student scholar, Bri Robertson. Bri is a senior in the Roger Hadfield Ogden Honors College studying physics in the College of Science and computer engineering in the College of Engineering. In this episode she shares how she is focused on artificial intelligence in medical settings and outer space, and how her scholarship opportunities have allowed her to make sure “no door was left unopened” during her time at LSU.
Bri Robertson is a senior in the Roger Hadfield Ogden Honors College, studying physics in the College of Science and computer engineering in the College of Engineering. Bri is a Stamps Scholar, the top scholarship opportunity for LSU’s Honors College students, and in 2020 was named a Barry M. Goldwater Scholar and an Astronaut Scholar. The Astronaut Scholarship recognizes the best and brightest minds in STEM who show initiative, creativity, and excellence in their chosen field. She has interned for NASA and the National Science Foundation. Following her graduation from LSU, Bri will work for SpaceX as a data scientist.
President William F. Tate IV: [00:00:11] Welcome to "On Par with the President." On this episode, I'm excited to be talking with Bri Robertson. Bri is a senior in the Roger Hadfield Ogden Honors College, studying physics in the College of Science and computer engineering in the College of Engineering. Bri is a Stamps Scholar, receiving LSU's top scholarship opportunity for select incoming students of the Roger Hadfield Ogden Honors College. And in 2020 she was named a Barry M. Goldwater Scholar and an Astronaut Scholar, which is awarded to the best and brightest minds in STEM. "On Par with the President" is a podcast that is focused on LSU's community members who are doing great things. A golfer who can play par golf is at the very top of the game. They're the very best of the best. And so the whole point of this podcast is to talk to the extraordinary people who are affiliated with LSU. Well, Bri, we're going to tee off right now with a couple of questions. You grew up right down the street in Slidell. Tell us a little bit about growing up in Louisiana.
Bri Robertson: [00:01:20] Yeah, sure thing. So growing up meant lots of fishing. So, I'm from Slidell, and we are right on Lake Pontchartrain, which is connected to the Rigolets, which is connected to Lake Catherine and Lake Borgne and all these fishing areas that me and my dad would often go out. And actually so much so that when I would go to school, if I had gone to school multiple days in a row and you know, not missing a day for several weeks, my father would come home from work and he'd say, "okay, Brianna, tomorrow, you're going to skip school, and we're going to go fishing and we're going to go catch some Reds.” And that was sort of what it meant for me being a Louisianian and growing up in Slidell. And then that along with the fostering of like Gumbo and Pastalaya and the community that's built on food. And that was so essential with Monday night red beans and everything that goes along with that.
President William F. Tate IV: [00:02:07] Okay. I'm getting hungry now. This is a real problem.
Bri Robertson: [00:02:10] Definitely
President William F. Tate IV: [00:02:10] It sounds exciting. It sounds like a great life, and you balanced it out really well with your great academics. When, when did you first become interested in space?
Bri Robertson: [00:02:20] So that actually is an interesting question. So when I was about four or five, I had one of two goals. So my first goal was to dig a hole to the center of the earth. And after about four feet and then hitting groundwater, I realized that, that wasn't feasible. So I started to look up at the sky, and I think that's where my first fascination with space came into play. And then growing up, I didn't really realize that being an astronaut or being associated with NASA was feasible for me. And it wasn't really talked about in my household either. And then when I actually got to college, one of my best friends talked about NASA, and that's where I really started to have that spark from childhood when I was interested in space, come back. And then that's what I've been following ever since.
President William F. Tate IV: [00:03:06] So why did you choose to come to LSU as a student?
Bri Robertson: [00:03:09] So that has to play into account of my scholarship. So luckily I was awarded the Stamps Scholarship, which is that top academic scholarship for incoming freshman. And that really just gave me the opportunity to explore everything that I could here at LSU, and also meant that I was an hour and a half away from home, so I can spend time with my parents whenever I could. And on top of that too, like one of the things that set LSU apart from the other universities that I was touring at the time is undergraduate research, which has been such a major part of everything that I've done here at the university. And when I came for scholars weekend for my interviews and for tours of the campus, what they did is they brought all of us prospective scholars to a bio, biology lab where a researcher was talking about his use of CRISPR and this gene editing tool and what that means for the university and for the future. And one of the questions that was posed is, "as a freshmen, can we get involved with research?” And he said, "yes." And that sort of set my mind to LSU and the scholarship came and it was a definite done deal.
President William F. Tate IV: [00:04:17] A true scholarship first moment as you well know.
Bri Robertson: [00:04:21] Definitely.
President William F. Tate IV: [00:04:21] Now, that's, that's exciting. So why did you decide to become an engineer?
Bri Robertson: [00:04:27] So that probably comes down to a couple of things. So I wasn't interested in engineering as a child, neither of my parents are in the STEM field and like really the STEM field came into play when I became a junior in high school, when I joined my high school robotics team. But prior to that, I was absolutely obsessed with Steve Irwin and all things related to reptiles and amphibians. And I actually wanted to go into herpetology as a full-time job, but after, you know, thinking about what I could be doing as a herpetologist, and then what I could be doing if I continue with this robotics thing, I decided to pursue the engineering route. Now that doesn't mean that I won't eventually turn back to herpetology maybe and do a little bit of research with engineering there. But yeah, junior year of high school is when I got involved with robotics and that propelled me forward in going into software engineering.
President William F. Tate IV: [00:05:21] Now you combine physics and engineering as a point of study. What, what made you decide to do both?
Bri Robertson: [00:05:27] So in high school, my senior year, I was supposed to take physics, and we had a teacher that left the school and went somewhere else. So, we were left without a physics teacher. And we still had the physics class, which ended up just being a study hall. And that upset me so profoundly, because I had been looking forward to finally learning physics, that when I was at scholars weekend and interviewing for the Stamps Scholarship, I decided to tack on physics. And, no one told me no. And sometimes I wish someone would have, you know, cautioned me about how crazy joining the two would've been, but now I'm at the end of it, and it's really been such a cool opportunity to see the complexity that physics and the equations that are associated with that field bring in and the problem solving and then uniting that with my interest in space and my interest in medical, artificial intelligence and those things that ultimately are given a boon, just from my physics background.
President William F. Tate IV: [00:06:24] This, this is a great segue for, uh, the golf framing that we use. You have to get to the green to score. That's a big part of what has to happen in golf. Now here at LSU, you're a Stamp Scholar, which means you received LSU's top scholarship opportunity for students who are incoming to the Honors College. Students like yourself in this scholarship program get the full cost of attendance for four years. You get all kinds of enrichment experiences that I understand are wonderful, like study abroad and research. What, what about that funding structure was specifically helpful for you?
Bri Robertson: [00:07:03] All of the above. Uh, so I took advantage of every possible opportunity that I could while here. So there, in the Stamps Scholarship, there's a stipend for leadership conferences, for undergraduate research conferences, for studying abroad, for these internships elsewhere. And, I have done all of those, and that would not have been possible if, once again, if it wasn't for that scholarship. So I've been to places like, my very first trip, I went to a leadership conference in Pittsburgh, which is where I, by the way, I found out that rice wasn't a universal thing in the United States. Um, which I didn't know prior to going to Pittsburgh. And then I went to Oxford university with the Honors College, and I learned about Victorian literature and classical antiquity. And later on, when I went on to do my internships at NASA, I pulled into that funding again, and I was able to afford my housing while in Cleveland, Ohio when I was working for NASA. So taking advantage of everything that I could and making sure that no door was left un-open.
President William F. Tate IV: [00:08:11] Love it. Now, this sounds pretty intense. Um, I, I love it of course, because I'm a scholarship first person. How do you balance your studies and being what people considered to be the typical college student? Now the word on the street... I'm going to tell you, is that you have built some electronic enhancements for your dorm room. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Bri Robertson: [00:08:33] Yeah, sure thing. So back when I had a little bit more time in the day, um, when I was a freshmen, I actually wanted a way to help wake me up in the morning. So I was interested in robotics from high school and that carried over into my freshman year. And what I built was an automatic blind opener. So, what it had, it had a motor on it that attached to the twist thing that's on the blinds. And when a light would strike that electronic circuit, um, I had a electronic component that would activate the rest of the circuit that would twist that blind open. And ,that was preliminary stages, got that working. And then eventually the time versus enjoyment trade-off no longer provided me ability to continue on that. But that was my early electronics thing. Later on, actually, too, um, I built a circuit using the same motor that had a, like a switch on it, so I could move my mouse, because I was downloading some software and I couldn't get my computer to stop shutting off.
[00:09:36] So I attached the circuit to the mouse, and it would just wave the cursor back and forth in order for me to download that. Um, but yeah. So, in terms of time management, that's been a real question over the past four years of college, because I have two degrees potentially by the time I'm done with this. How can I mitigate, you know, wanting to spend time with my friends and have a social life and going home and seeing my family, while at the same time, wanting to make the grades that I would find acceptable for what I want to do? And I haven't always been the best at that. I've spent many a late night at Patrick F. Taylor hall, the Engineering College here, um, at LSU, where at times my roommates would say that they wouldn't see me for weeks on end. And now that I'm older and looking back at that, like, I wish I could go back in time and tell myself, "It's going to be okay. You're going to be fine. Don't forget to take a break and go to the football games, and don't miss out on these really cool opportunities that are around you that aren't academic or research-based in nature."
President William F. Tate IV: [00:10:33] Wow. So you obviously love to create and engineer. How did you become interested in artificial intelligence, and what was your first experience like with that?
Bri Robertson: [00:10:43] In summer of 2019, I had a research internship opportunity with the National Science Foundation in Seoul, South Korea. And I was there at Seoul National University working in a biomedical research laboratory. And I got there wanting to work on a specific project, that I found out when arriving was discontinued. So one of the researchers in the lab mentioned that they were looking for a new quantification tool to be able to look at cells that were treated with these cancer drugs and seeing how their growth patterns were affected by the cancer drugs.And they wanted to do that tool using artificial intelligence, and since I had a software background, that was the role that I fell into. And so, I was in South Korea working with something that I had never even really heard about. Artificial intelligence is such a word that we hear, or words that we hear all the time, but I had no idea what it really meant in summer of 2019.
[00:11:41] So I did a lot of Googling. I spent a lot of late nights at the 24 hour cafe trying to figure that out, while also balancing that I need to learn Korean to be able to better communicate with my peers and with my lab members. So those two things combined ultimately led me to fostering this community of people who are learning artificial intelligence through SNU, through Seoul National University. I can go with them to go to these classes, learn the programming, and then slowly became more and more invested in that avenue of research to develop this tool. And that inspired me to come back. And I went on to not only do research and AI and deep learning and machine learning, which is what I'm currently working on and what I'm going to do with SpaceX later on, but I've also, like, went on to teach a lecture, actually, in one of the things that I worked with while at NASA later on, um, that was in artificial intelligence to my peers. So yeah, that opportunity with the National Science Foundation really was just so significant in integrating who I am and who I've become into where I want to be later on.
President William F. Tate IV: [00:12:46] Well, you have a double major. You, you, I know you speak English and you learned Korean. You're a real double eagle golfer. That means you, you really score well. The double eagle is the highest score, you know, you can get out there, just really make it happen. Well, other than a hole in one, which you're darn close. So, uh, I, I like to understand a little more. You know, you scored big as a Stamp Scholar and as an Astronaut Scholar and a Barry Goldwater Scholar, what does being a Goldwater Scholar mean to you?
Bri Robertson: [00:13:21] So every time I call LSU Transportation and Parking, uh, and I get put on hold, I hear that LSU had a Goldwater Scholar named in 2018. And that person is actually one of my closest friends. And so I hear that, and then I reflect on, well, at the time when I first started hearing it, I remembered wanting to be a Goldwater Scholar, and not really sure what that meant, but I knew that I wanted to be a part of that, so maybe LSU Parking and Transportation could talk about me on the phone line. And so moving on from that, um, and being part of that community, there's just a lot of connections there. So similar to the astronaut scholarship, there's a lot going on and I haven't fully tapped into it yet. But being able to bring that award, not only to my parents, but bring it to the university, so we show that we are at the top of our game here, and we're only just getting started. And we can see that by these awards that the students of our university are achieving.
President William F. Tate IV: [00:14:23] A big part of golf is not really about yourself only. You have to mind the flag. You hold it for someone else. You know, after you've scored big with all your scholarships, and you've double Eagle with every place you've gone, how do you think about, uh, giving back to others on campus in terms of just generally and in your research?
Bri Robertson: [00:14:45] The first thing I'd have to say in giving back, and it's been a huge pillar on the things that I've done here at LSU, is encouraging undergraduates to get involved in research. So, I got involved my freshman year. I went home, and I told my roommates about it. I told my dorm-mate about it. And every person that I had the opportunity to meet with, I said, "Hey, you really should get involved with undergraduate research. It's a cool opportunity. You can further your horizons and go on to do cool things." And that, I, definitely, every time I get the opportunity, bring that up.
President William F. Tate IV: [00:15:17] Part of your senior studies, you're working on a senior design project that focuses on the future of medical devices using artificial inteligence. Talk a little bit more about that project.
Bri Robertson: [00:15:29] So my senior year, uh, this is my eighth semester, but this is my fifth fall here, so I took a time off to do a co-op with NASA, and last year I worked on the coolest project I've had the opportunity to work on, which was a mobile device for the autonomous diagnosis of pediatric skin lesions using a convolutional neural network. Now that's the title. I've said that about a hundred thousand times, so that's why it just comes right off the tongue. But, what it, the purpose of it was to take a problem. So for instance, pediatric vascular anomalies are difficult to diagnose. And typically they present early on, cause they're congenital. Um, individuals are born with them. And they present themselves, and depending on which one an individual or a patient has, uh, it has varying degrees of progression. And if not caught early on in the healthcare process, this can lead to significant morbidity. Well, here comes artificial intelligence and ultimately convolutional neural networks and deep learning. And using those two technologies and, that, those algorithms that are associated with it, we were able to develop a portable device that could take a picture of one of these prospective lesions and output one of five diagnoses.
[00:16:44] And that was through leveraging the power of image capture and convolutional neural network, um, leveraging additional information about the patient and the lesion and combining those things together and developing a neural network architecture and this deep learning architecture to be able to predict what the patient would have. So we developed that. I spent a year along with my four teammates working on that project. And right now it is currently deployed, um, the prototype version of it at the LSU Health Sciences Center down in New Orleans. And we are quite excited to hear about the future of the device and what the next steps are.
President William F. Tate IV: [00:17:22] That's exciting. Now, I understand that one of your goals is to help colonize Mars. What do you think is the most important tool that we are still missing for life in space?
Bri Robertson: [00:17:37] Uh, there are a lot of tools, um, and I'm sure there are some more critical than the one I'm going to name. But, going along the lines of the medical technologies, if we have these long-term missions, we're going to need to have, uh, an astronaut surgeon. So we're going to have to have someone who is a medical doctor, who's going to be able to treat the astronauts that are on board. And as we get further and further away from Earth, we're going to have a longer delay in our communications. If something were to happen that's critical on that flight, we need to be able to have medical software and hardware that is capable of treating whatever issue arises for that astronaut patient. So the question with that would be, "Could we solve that problem using these algorithms, these artificially intelligent algorithms, so that we can provide medical care, even if we're on Mars, or if we're on this three-year journey? What is feasible for us to be able to protect, not just human life, but for the future of human life, as we continue on to colonize Mars?"
President William F. Tate IV: [00:18:41] So please tell me you're going to be a doctor after this.
Bri Robertson: [00:18:44] I'm going to be an engineer for now, but med school is always a question.
President William F. Tate IV: [00:18:48] Well... wow. Okay. Well, I think that's in your, in your future. After you graduate from LSU, you'll be working for SpaceX. Where will you be located? And what will you be doing there?
Bri Robertson: [00:19:01] So I will be moving to Seattle, Washington, uh, the Pacific Northwest. And there, I will be working on the Starlink program. And, Starlink has this goal of launching internet satellites in these large scale constellations. And, through my job as a data scientist, I will be answering the question of, "Can we improve these communications that we currently have from satellite to ground? Are there problems that I can autonomously detect in doing so? And through doing that, can we stay on top of the competition?" And hopefully in my career and in the next few years, I'll be able to answer those questions.
President William F. Tate IV: [00:19:37] Outstanding. Why should other students interested in a career in astrophysics or space attend LSU?
Bri Robertson: [00:19:45] Oh, our physics department is phenomenal here. We have individuals at our physics department that don't really get as much, like, spotlight as they really should, because we have published not only so many papers, but we've done such significant work in the future of physics and particularly with astrophysics and the naming of stars and being able to teach those classes here. So our physics program is great, and I can only see the future of it getting better.
President William F. Tate IV: [00:20:10] Well, thank you for your time.
Bri Robertson: [00:20:11] Yeah. Of Course.
President William F. Tate IV: [00:20:12] Is there anything you want to say that we didn't ask you about?
Bri Robertson: [00:20:15] I just wanted to say, uh, "Geaux Tigers." One piece of advice that I'd love to give for incoming freshmen or people who are already here is that I didn't figure out what I wanted to do until my junior year. So I went to my NASA internship spring of my junior year, and from that I figured out how I integrate with space. And then my senior year, I got into medical AI, so I'm still on the fringes of space and AI and medical technology. And I didn't know that was what I was interested in when I was in high school or when I was a freshman or sophomore. So, if they don't know what you're interested in or you don't know what you're really interested in yet, don't fret. It will come to you. And if it doesn't, then choose something and you have a long time to go ahead and choose something else later on.
President William F. Tate IV: [00:21:00] Thank you. That's tremendous advice, great advice.