At age 6, when Jessica Van Brummelen was growing up in the mountains of British Columbia, she built a robotic dog. Or rather, a kid’s version of a robotic dog—a cardboard box filled with loose screws, bolts, and circuit boards. She drew a pair of eyes, gave the box a good shake, and “hoped it would magically become a dog.”
Her early interest in engineering, which was celebrated at home as she taught herself 3-D modeling and computer illustration, was seen differently by her peers. “I was bullied a lot. The girls said, ‘You’re that weirdo who doesn’t like to play with dolls.’” It was isolating, and Van Brummelen hid that side of herself in public. In 11th grade, she enrolled in her school’s woodworking class. When she walked in the door and saw a sea of teenage boys, she dropped the course.
Once she got to college at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, however, she found herself among peers passionate about all sorts of things. “That freed me to be who I was,” she says. And so, when she entered a 3-D modeling class, she let herself fall in love with the material. She soon switched her major from science to engineering, a decision that would lead her to a graduate program at MIT in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab.
Van Brummelen works with Hal Abelson PhD ’73, the Class of 1922 Professor of Computer Science and Engineering. Her current research revolves around the capabilities and ethics of conversational artificial intelligence—devices like Alexa and Google Home that rely on voice commands to direct a computer. “There’s all this AI technology out there,” she explains, “but lots of people don’t know what it can do.” Van Brummelen focuses her research on empowering young people to understand what’s behind the algorithms “to help make a better future.”
To date, she’s run six workshops teaching Boston-area high school students how to use App Inventor, a program maintained by MIT that’s intended to democratize software development. She built an easy-to-use interface and back end so that students can program Alexa to do something socially useful. One team of students developed a memory aid for people who have trouble recalling words. Another got Alexa to type responses, making it useful for the hearing impaired.
Van Brummelen gets especially jazzed when she notices girls and young women in her workshops. “Seeing that girls are engaged as they create these apps has been really exciting,” she says, noting that MIT has been a special place for her to offer the kind of support to young women that she would have treasured herself years ago. “I can help students feel OK with being who they are as they pursue their interests and passions without being afraid of others’ judgment,” she says.
It’s a trajectory made possible by the Jacobs Presidential Fellowship, a grant given to at least 15 graduate students in the School of Engineering each year. The funding stems from a $30 million gift provided by Irwin SM ’57, ScD ’59 and Joan Jacobs that’s intended to help recruit stellar students to MIT from across the globe. Van Brummelen says that the fellowship has given her a lot of freedom. “I could do basically any kind of research I was interested in. So, I’m very, very thankful for that,” she says.
Van Brummelen has come a long way from trying to transform a cardboard box into a dog. Today, she’s doing something arguably more magical—helping transform young women and men into visionaries and innovators. “It’s not technology itself that changes the world,” she says. “Rather, it’s what we do with technology that changes the world.”