Estilla Hefter, Plymouth Pioneers
  • Designing intelligent robot platforms to overcome social challenges
  • From her native Hungary and beyond – passionately encouraging girls into STEM
  • Ambassador for the Association of Hungarian Women in Science

Enhancing lives with social technology

Estilla Hefter

1. Who are you? And what is your passion?

I was born in Hungary and grew up on sci-fi. I loved watching Star Wars and Star Trek. Having always been drawn to robotics, it became my passion when I realised it could be used to help people. I’ve taken this passion and immersed myself in this world and created tools to improve people’s lives. But my dream very nearly didn't happen.
When I was fourteen, we had a work shadowing week in school, and an engineering academic successfully talked me out of working in STEM. He said, 'as a girl, I don’t really have a chance'. If a professional says that you shouldn't do it, at that age, it really has an impact. This experience made me change my mind from wanting to study engineering physics, to choosing economics and psychology.
Fortunately, two years later, I returned to robotics because I realised it was what I really wanted to do – I shouldn’t have listened to that lecturer, I should have just gone for it. Economics was never my passion.
Since then I have become a science ambassador in the Hungarian Women in Science Organisation. I have gone into schools and talked to primary school girls about working in STEM. I've taken them on site visits and to big tech companies, so they could see what it was like to work in those fields. 
A lot of these same girls have now become ambassadors in the organisation, as well. In Hungary, most girls don’t see engineering as an option, so it feels amazing I can help others skip over any negative experience and inspire them to go into engineering too.

It's so important to dispel the myth and reveal the truth that girls are equally as capable at studying to be a successful part of this industry. Robotics is for everyone and increasingly has the power to improve a lot of people's lives.

Estilla Hefter, Plymouth Pioneers

2. How does Plymouth lead the way in robotics?

Plymouth offers a very broad range of topics to choose from. The course is very versatile. We study robotics, as well as electronics, computing, mechanical engineering, and telecommunications. I'm here to study social robots, the more psychological-based aspects of robotics. But others may come and find their passions in industry and manufacturing.
We move from modelling to the build stage, gaining a range of skills enabling us to choose to specialise in whatever route we desire. We can then apply this knowledge to solve the problems we are passionate about.
Our tutors are great at connecting us with the relevant company or expert in the field. So we’re already networking while we’re studying. I went on a placement in Belgium and helped to create intelligence robot platforms to provide solutions for customers. These projects included programming and developing systems for home assistant and care robots, focusing on the elderly and children. 
 I developed a robot system to help children learn how to read and study another language. Many of my projects are now currently used by the company. 
Placements are a great way to familiarise yourself with the unknowns of industry, test the theory learned in the classroom, and perform a role in a career you've always dreamed of.

3. What is a fear you’d like to conquer?

When I first moved to the UK, I was scared of all the changes and adapting to a new environment. So I decided to take this fear and see it as a challenge instead. 
If you focus on a fear, it is just going to grow and grow and negatively affect your life. But if you take a moment to work out how this problem might be solved, you give yourself the chance to transform this fear into something much more empowering.
Coming from Hungary, the UK is very different from back home, but I soon adapted. After four years here, there are still differences, but I’m much more able to cope with any challenges that come my way.
From this experience, I’m no longer afraid of moving to different countries to work and study, because I have done it so many times. In fact, I really like doing it. Every time I move to a new country, it is no longer a fear, it's simply a new challenge.
Adapting to a new culture, to different kinds of people and settings, helps me learn more about myself. And through this experience not only does my knowledge of the industry grow and my skills develop, but I also grow as a person. 
I look forward to the next new country I will get to experience in my career.
Estilla Hefter, Plymouth Pioneers
GummiArm robot, a robot used for teaching robotics and research
SoftBank Pepper

4. How do you respond when faced with a problem?

I break the problem down and try to think logically. Equally, I have a very strong belief in listening to my gut instinct and moving on from there.
I try to not to overthink things and instead boil everything down to a potential starting position. And ask myself, 'what do I need to do first to solve this?'
For example, for my dissertation I wanted to build companion robots that share some similarities with real animals, but have fewer ties – there is no feeding, walking, or possible allergies – to empower people with an accessible tool which provides solutions to everyday problems. 
This particular problem focuses on supporting the elderly and children – often the most vulnerable and helpless. In the case of the elderly, perhaps they lack adequate support, or can no longer socialise so easily. There is definitely a gap to improve the level of companionship and care needs.
I know someone living in a care home and have seen first-hand there is a need a for an idea like this. We can take in small robots to encourage exercises in the home. The robot itself can be an object of interest – another topic of conversation between breakfast and lunch.
This is a challenge, but one that holds no fear, because I truly believe there are solutions to be developed to help overcome these problems.

5. What do you know of that you believe could really change our world for the better?

I believe in technology. And even though there are some things technology cannot replace, we can use it to help people in psychological and therapeutic ways. 
The area of social robotics I am specialising in has the capability to improve people’s lives, by raising their self-esteem, making them feel more connected and improving their welfare. These robots can help in care homes when not enough staff are available.
A social robot companion can be a friend to everyone. It's more convenient than a real pet. If you’re no longer as mobile as you once were, you don’t have to walk it. If you’ve always been allergic to cats, this no longer applies.
While some children with autism find it hard or scary to talk to humans about their feelings, a small humanoid robot can seem like a toy. This becomes an important tool to help these children learn how to interact with people.
These children learn how to talk to someone without actually having to talk to another human. This improves verbal skills and confidence. Becoming comfortable talking to a robot allows these children to transfer their skills to talking to another person. These robots help remove the roadblock stuck in some people's heads. In many ways, it can open up whole new worlds for people.
MRes Robotics
Estilla Hefter, Plymouth Pioneers
Robotics research Tony Belpaeme

6. What do you want the world to look like in 10 years?

Everyone is entitled to a good quality of life. We shouldn't have people without an education.
It is really important that everybody has someone to talk to, that they’re not alone. With my experience of a care home setting, people may be warm, well fed and have sufficient money, but their social life could be better. Sometimes this leads to depression and further ill health, which possibly could be avoided if we all looked after our elders, as they deserve to be.
Although it is improving, hopefully there are no differences between a man and woman doing the same role. Not just in the robotics industry, but in any field, whether in engineering or nursing. I want an equality of pay and respect, no matter your gender and role.
As a young woman, I've been talked down to multiple times, even if I have said the correct things. I could easily still be studying economics if I didn’t have the courage to stick to my passion and return to robotics. I didn’t listen to that person who said I couldn’t succeed in this industry. I followed my heart. 
I want every girl to be able to follow their dream and be supported and encouraged to reach it. I had to challenge this perception, but this perception should never have existed in the first place.

7. If you had the chance to share one message to the whole world, what would it be?

Always try to challenge yourself. Look to solve as many problems as you can. Remembering every problem is a challenge and nothing is unsolvable. There are always steps to move things forward, even if at times it feels as these are very difficult steps to take. 
If you are faced with any difficult situation which seems unsolvable, with the right help, and by taking baby steps, you can get back to where you want to be.
So always try your best. And even if everything doesn’t always work out, you know in your heart you have given it your best shot and learned a lesson. 
When you do succeed, the feeling is so powerful. Everyone should always keep going, aspiring to a dream, no matter your passion, gender, or where you were born.

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Informed by robotics research pushing boundaries worldwide led by our teaching staff, you will build technical and managerial skills and put them into practice daily – taking the fastest route to Chartered Engineer status.

Meeting the highest standard academic requirements set by The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), you will engage in world-class robotics research and have the opportunity to take a work placement in your second or third year – putting your robotics skills into action in the real world.

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