Courtesy of Ian Abraham

Ian Abraham, a mechanical engineering and materials science professor, was awarded the 2023 Faculty Early Career Development, or CAREER, award last month by the National Science Foundation for his work on robotics and optimal control theory.

Abraham’s work at the School of Engineering & Applied Science revolves around developing algorithms that enable robots to “think about how they learn” and “figure out how to explore for information,” he explained. 

Unlike many popular approaches that focus on training robots using large amounts of data, Abraham seeks to develop ways for robots to generate information about their environments on their own — and learn to perform tasks in new spaces.

“Instead of thinking about having a pile of data, we’re thinking about what’s the minimum number of data points that a robot needs to resolve a task,” Abraham told the News. 

Using these approaches — known in the field as optimal control theory — can lead to algorithms that are faster and more efficient, Abraham explained. They can also make robots more versatile and adaptable.

Robots’ inability to adapt to new situations is a critical problem in robotics. Since robots are often developed for highly specific purposes, small changes in their environment can throw off programs.

In the case of walking on legs, Abraham said, most robots rely on having extensive data about walking on different surfaces to learn how to respond to environmental factors like friction, inclines and unexpected bumps.

Using Abraham’s optimal control theory approach, robots walking on legs would operate a lot like a human would. In new environments — those for which a robot does not have data — robots learn to adapt and correct their motion accordingly.

On ice, for instance, a robot might slip and flail at first, Abraham said. But unlike traditional robots, a robot that implements Abraham’s approach would teach itself to move more effectively, potentially by shimmying and adjusting its gait without the necessity of human intervention.

According to the National Science Foundation, the award is given to faculty early in their careers who have the potential to “lead advances in the mission” of their department or organization.

“If there is one award you should get when you are an up-and-coming junior faculty, then it is the NSF CAREER Award,” stated Professor Udo D. Schwarz, the chair of mechanical engineering and materials science at the engineering school.

Schwarz also noted that junior faculty only have three attempts to receive the award and applauded Abraham for receiving his on his first attempt. 

“The award is a great honor and a fantastic opportunity to work on a research area that is not well understood,” Abraham wrote in an email to the News.

At Yale, Abraham teaches the courses “Fundamentals of Robot Modeling and Control” and “Mechatronics Lab.”

His students describe him as a supportive, empathetic instructor and mentor.

“He’s a super down-to-earth, friendly guy who is very much understanding of what it’s like to be an undergraduate or graduate student,” said Ethan Dong ’24, a computer science and engineering student who took Abraham’s fall 2021 class and audited his spring 2022 class. 

Abraham, Dong told the News, is very willing to “help and put his hands on projects” and always provides his “full support.” 

Dong, who is also a student researcher in Abraham’s Intelligent Autonomy Lab, praised Abraham’s mentorship in addition to his teaching.

 “He lets you do your thing when you’re trying to get results or finish a proof, but if you ever need help he’s always available,” Dong added. “That’s something I very much appreciate.”

Over the course of five years, the NSF CAREER Award will provide Abraham with nearly $630,000 to support his research efforts. Through the grant, Abraham also hopes to develop science outreach programming. He hopes to support undergraduate research opportunities for veterans, a traditionally underrepresented group in academia. 

Abraham also wants to develop Spanish-language robotics education programs through Yale’s Pathways to Science program, an outreach program designed to encourage local middle and high school students to engage with STEM over the summer. 

Through the program, Abraham hopes to address an issue that has affected him personally. 

Born in Cuba and having immigrated to the United States as a child, Abraham was struck by the disconnect he felt between what he learned in school in English and what he learned from his parents at home in Spanish. 

“The hope is that we do all this work in Spanish so that students and parents can communicate with each other about what they’re learning in school, so that you can have participation from parents as well,” he said.

According to Schwarz, Abraham is the latest of Yale’s STEM faculty to receive the NSF award. Priyadarshini Panda, a professor of electrical engineering; Yu He, a professor of applied physics; and Eduardo Dávila, a professor of economics, also received the award in the past year. 

The National Science Foundation was created in 1950.