Queen Mary Alumni

Alumni profile - Dr Ashitey Trebi-Ollennu

As part of my role at NASA, I am responsible for designing, building, managing, and delivering a robotics system to Mars. I feel extremely fortunate to work for an organisation where our work genuinely impacts the whole world. NASA and space exploration is making technology and innovation accessible to everyone!

(Avionics BEng, 1991)

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What sparked your interest to study BEng Avionics at Queen Mary? Did you have a particular career path in mind?

Growing up in Accra, Ghana, I lived very close to the airport, so I was able to see planes coming and going and I was fascinated by how they flew, how they landed and how computers were able to replace humans to fly the planes. I started writing to British Aerospace [now BAE Systems] and they used to send me brochures which increased my interest further. When I found out that Queen Mary was the only institution to offer BEng Avionics at the time, I knew I had to apply due to my interest in all things plane-related, science and maths.

Did anyone in your family have a similar interest in avionics or pursue a similar career path to the one you aspired to when applying for Queen Mary?

I was the only one in my family interested in science and engineering; my mum is a teacher and my dad was an economist. However, my dad had a lot of friends that were medical doctors and engineers so I would ask them so many questions, all of which they still remember to this day! My family were very supportive, and my dad really encouraged me to pursue my interest in science and maths.

What was your experience of studying and living in London?

From an academic perspective, at the time, the education systems in Ghana and England were very similar in terms of A levels so this helped my transition. The main differences I encountered was the weather (which was a little bit more challenging to say the least!), the sheer number of people who lived in London, and learning how to use the tube to commute to Mile End. A positive difference, however, was having a lot of equipment on campus such as wind tunnels and computers to do programming and experiments. This equipment meant we were able to put our theory into practice.

I felt at home at Queen Mary because during my studies there were only about 4,000 students in the whole university and about 30 students per class. I had attended a boarding school in Ghana prior to Queen Mary, so I was familiar with this kind of intimacy. I loved that there was an open-door policy with the professors, which meant that you could just turn up for a chat. I also loved that the Students’ Union was so vibrant; Queen Mary had a lot of international students from all over the world and I used to play table tennis with lots of Indian and Chinese students. Overall Queen Mary was a very dynamic, interesting and safe place to be and to learn.

Problem-solving is the one consistent thread throughout all my roles at NASA and Queen Mary gave me the philosophy that problems are opportunities to improve human knowledge and to ultimately make our lives better.

More specifically, what did you enjoy most about studying Avionics at Queen Mary? What modules or academics stand out in your memories?

Dr Vepa is an academic who stands out in my mind. He was my academic supervisor throughout my time at Queen Mary and a very renowned control engineer with experience working for NASA. I really enjoyed taking his module on controls.

Queen Mary was renowned for project-centred engineering and one project that has always stayed with me was when we designed the avionics for a drone and then carried out our own analysis. This project solidified the interconnection between theory and practice in my mind. When I see drones now, I always think, ‘I was working on this 20 years ago!’

What was special about your time at Queen Mary and how has your degree helped you throughout your career?

Queen Mary gave me a very strong foundation for research. Because of the nature of my course, I became very good at writing engineer and lab reports and conducting experiments. Whenever I write reports in my job now, it is easy because Queen Mary equipped me with the necessary skills and confidence. The way we were able to interact with professors, as adults, prepared me for the working world and how to talk to senior engineers when I first started out in my career. Queen Mary also helped me develop effective communication and problem-solving skills so that I can break down my work and research to others who might not necessarily be from a space or engineering background. As part of my degree, we also did a management course which has helped me in my career when managing people and large-scale projects at NASA. When I finished my degree, the fact that I had studied at Queen Mary unlocked doors to other institutions when I pursued my PhD - I had admission into both Imperial and Cranfield – and I received offers from a lot of universities in the UK to do my research. The foundations of my research and my career are built solidly on my Queen Mary education.

One special moment I remember fondly from my time at Queen Mary is when the Queen opened the new library - I remember the exact spot where I was standing, literally three or four steps from her!

You have had an extensive 22-year career at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and currently juggle being an Assistant Division Manager for Formulation Autonomous Systems Division 34, and a Deputy Chief Engineer for Autonomous Systems Division 34. If you had to choose a favourite out of these roles, what would it be and why?

After completing my PhD, I joined NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in 1999. When I joined, I was an individual contributor, and I was tasked with doing surveillance and recognisance on multiple robots. At the time, NASA was planning to take humans to Mars, and they wanted to build the relevant infrastructure so that when humans arrived on Mars, the habitat would be ready for them to start experimenting. After a year of working on this research, the programme ended so I started working with scientists on how to use a rover to do geology remotely on Mars. This involved developing robots and then placing them in a desert and controlling them through a satellite. I have been working on robotic systems ever since. I worked on the formulation and the driving of the Mars Exploration Rovers for five years and I then transitioned to work on another mission called Phoenix Mars Lander, operating a Phoenix robotic arm to dig icy soil at the North Pole of Mars; it is very exciting to be 1 of 5 people on Earth to have dug icy soil on another planet! I then transitioned to become a Group Lead for my Mobility and Manipulation group and Chief Engineer for the Robotics section at JPL.

I really enjoy being a Chief Robotics Engineer because I get to troubleshoot and work across so many different people - I am responsible for about 100 people! - and projects. I also get to use both soft and hard skills when solving a plethora of interesting engineering problems. This excites me the most as I am fundamentally a problem-solver at heart and problem-solving is what my degree was essentially about.

As well as being a Chief Robotics Engineer, I am also a Product Delivery Manager. The latter means I am responsible for designing, building, managing, and delivering a robotics system to Mars. My roles are not very distinct but problem-solving is the one consistent thread and Queen Mary gave me the philosophy that problems are opportunities to improve human knowledge and to ultimately make our lives better.

What is it like to work for NASA?

I feel extremely fortunate to work for an organisation where our work genuinely impacts the whole world. NASA and space exploration is making technology and innovation accessible to everyone. When there was an outbreak of Ebola in Africa, it was solved using a satellite because it was possible to track the cell phone signals of all the people that were infected, and when these signals were plotted, it was then possible to see where the virus had spread and to stop it. To me, this is advancement as space exploration is providing people with the tools to solve their own problems. I find this very exciting, but it is nothing new. Humans have always looked to the heavens to make life on earth better and I try to tell people that that is exactly what NASA is doing. For example, prehistoric man used constellations to create calendars to know when to harvest and when to plant their crops!

What have been some of your career highlights to date?

It is very difficult to choose a standout moment because every moment has contributed to who I am as a person. However, one career highlight is my recent involvement in our InSight Mission. As a team we designed a robotic system (rover) and then successfully implemented it on Mars. It was very fulfilling to be part of this mission from inception to end; it involved me putting all the skills I have learned over the years, including during my time at Queen Mary, into practice. The sheer scale of this project was mind-blowing. The seismometer we placed on the surface of Mars cost about $150 million and I led a team to place it on the surface of Mars safely!

How did you cope with the pressure of this project?

I couldn’t allow myself to be paralysed by fear, I just had to enjoy the moment and process of problem-solving. In my world there is no failure. You must fail in order to learn, and this is something that NASA does very well. Once you have this philosophy, the stress goes away. I really thrive on failure - when everything is going well, that is when I am nervous! That means you are not learning!

What are some of your research interests within your field and within space exploration more widely?

My primary research interest is to provide robotic systems that will enable scientists to conduct remote science on planetary surfaces to improve our knowledge. Currently, I have been working mostly on robotic arms; if you look at geologists, they use tools such as a microscope, and we are trying to attach such instruments onto a robotic arm to allow scientists to do experiments in space. At the same time, my research is also focused on how we can develop these robotics systems in such a way that we can use them on Earth in very remote areas to improve the way we do things such as farming and medical treatments.

Are there any current uses of robotics and space exploration that our readers might not be aware of, and which might surprise them?

We are currently using space exploration to develop optical communications, or laser communications. Optics are so fast so if we can develop optical communications, then we will be able to transfer a lot more data than we can currently digest! We are also looking into using very small radio isotopes to provide power to small communities around the world.

When I was at school, science to most kids was an alien concept. However, we all use science every day without knowing it and this is something I try to make children aware of by connecting science theory to practice through the Ghana Robotics Academy Foundation.

What were your motivations behind founding the Ghana Robotics Academy Foundation in 2011?

When I was at school, science to most kids was an alien concept. However, we all use science every day without knowing it and this is something I try to make children aware of by connecting science theory to practice through the Ghana Robotics Academy Foundation.

I worked with the United States Department of State to get some funds to set up a programme that fundamentally uses robotics as a platform to get people to do science. In the early days, I would tell people that we were going to go all around Ghana, including the poorest regions in the North, and we would teach kids who had never used a computer before how to programme within two days. I had a lot of confidence that the kids would be able to do it because what most people don’t understand is that programming is all about giving directions. It has been a fascinating journey as the outcome has been exactly as I had predicted at the start. I am passionate about trying to take people’s every day activity and incorporate it into education in order to discover the next Einsteins of the world!

As part of the programme, I also insist on taking a lot of the children to international competitions to build up their confidence. Despite where the children come from globally, there is a level playing field because everyone must use the same platform in these competitions. One of our all-girl teams won the RoboFest World Cup in 2019 and last year two more of our teams won worldwide competitions and beat children who came from very developed countries. We have noticed that the children who join our programme also tend to perform very well in school. I truly believe that if you can create the right environment around people, then you can get the best out of them. I think that is exactly what Queen Mary does.

My permanent philosophy is that bottom up provides permanent change and top down provides temporary change. As a futurist, I am passionate about equipping people to make the change that they want and one way I do this is through my foundation.

What advice would you give to current students and recent graduates considering their career options?

Embrace problem-solving and always see problems as opportunities to improve life and our current way of doing things. In life, there is not a straight path, there are lots of different sideroads and each sideroad prepares you for something better. Whatever path you take, you must be passionate and curious about what you are doing, and you must be able to work independently and as part of a team and communicate your ideas to others effectively. All these skills and qualities will help you regardless of what career path you choose.

Who or what has helped inspire you throughout your career and lifetime?

I am very religious, so I rely a lot on my faith in Jesus Christ. I read a lot about history, and I admire the founding fathers of the United States in terms of their passion and their vision of democracy. I have also always been fascinated by the ninth Mali Empire Emperor, Mansa Musa, and in more recent times, I am inspired by Bill Gates. I like his vision to spend his fortune to better the lives of others and to make permanent change globally.

Outside of your career, what do you do to unwind in your spare time?

I am a documentary buff! When I was a boy in Ghana, we had access to a lot of BBC wildlife programmes like David Attenborough - I can watch them for hours. My three children have a keen interest in documentaries too; despite living in Hollywood, we don’t watch many movies! I also enjoy playing tennis, golf, and hiking. So, although I work long hours, I spend a lot of time with my children. One of them is in Scouts so I go to all the meetings and camping events!

Finally, today officially marks the start of Black History Month. Are there any Black historical figures you wish more people knew about?

George Washington Carver was an agricultural scientist and inventor who developed hundreds of products using peanuts, sweet potatoes and soybeans.

Professor Francis Kofi Ampenyin Allotey, a Ghanaian mathematical physicist, has inspired many African youths to pursue the study of science and math. Professor Allotey was a world authority in the field of Soft X-Ray Spectroscopy which established the principle widely known as the "Allotey Formalism" for which he received the Prince Philip Gold Medal Award in 1973.

Both of these historical figures are huge inspirations to me. 

This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Officer, Nicole Brownfield. If you would like to get in touch with Ashitey or engage him in your work, please contact Nicole at n.brownfield@qmul.ac.uk