How This Roboticist Invented Her Dream Job

RockPaperRobot’s Jessica Banks with Geek Girl Rising’s Heather Cabot in Brooklyn 2015

One of our favorite parts of researching Geek Girl Rising has been the chance to look under the hood at some of the most interesting businesses and meet the geniuses behind them. On a chilly morning in November 2015, we ventured to the Brooklyn Navy Yard and into the workshop of scientist and MIT-trained roboticist Jessica Banks, founder and CEO of RockPaperRobot.  Jessica’s company designs and engineers “kinetic” furniture and home accessories that incorporate movement through the principles of physics.  Pieces like the “float table,” made out of “magnetized” cubes that levitate, tease the brain with its shape and functionality.

Jessica says her brainstorms come from everywhere – especially living and working in New York City.  But it was a dramatic change in her eyesight as a teenager that made her look at the world differently. She told us she suffered a two week period of blindness as a high school junior and when her sight returned, she developed acute peripheral vision, as well as a form of convergence dyslexia that made it hard to focus on reading.  It led her to spend more time on her math and science schoolwork.

“I gravitated more and more to the physics and the math books because they were easier to read since I could look at patterns. It was harder to read a block of history or prose, because if I looked up, I didn’t know where I was.  But if I got distracted and looked up when I [was] reading something from a math or science book, there was space, italics, numbers and letters,” she recalled.

Her unique vision led her to study physics at the University of Michigan with the goal of one day going into space.  But it was a chance viewing of the 1997 documentary, “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control,” which profiles the remarkable careers of a lion tamer, a topiarist, an expert in hairless rats and MIT roboticist Rodney Brooks that led her to apply to MIT where she eventually earned a PhD and even worked in Brooks’s lab.

“At MIT, as part of our robotics training, I learned how to do a lot of machining, and it became my favorite thing. When I learned how to machine metal, it was like, ‘Wow, you can take this thing that I thought before was impenetrable…and I realized that I could transform this thing and I was like, “I can make or break anything in the world.’ It was, basically, like I learned how to use my hands again or for the first time,” she told us as we marveled at the robotic chandelier and the “Brag” table, shaped like a diamond, that appeared to balance on its point.

RockPaperRobot’s latest project is the Ollie chair, a “shapeshifting” chair that folds up to save space inspired in part by tiny NYC living spaces.  Jessica and her team recently launched a campaign on Kickstarter to fund the production.

“I have notebooks everywhere and pieces of paper, ” Jessica told us of how she keeps track of all of ideas.  Then she and the team “play” with the elements. “There’s the initial stage of working out mechanisms where we work with Legos or foam and hot glue and really simple things to just see, “Well, how could this work?,” she explained.

As both an artist and entrepreneur, the woman who once also worked as a comedy writer for Al Franken and whose career followed an admittedly “curvy path,”  divides her time between dreaming up new projects and the nuts and bolts of running the business.   Doing what she loves keeps her going as well as the knowledge that she is owning her future.

“You don’t have to know exactly what you want to be when you grow up. You can create that thing. This didn’t exist as a job, right?” she said with a smile.  “I think it’s important to say this didn’t just happen to us, especially for a woman, but to say we made this thing happen and we can make bigger things happen, because of what we do.”

Yes we can!

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