Tesca Fitzgerald: Fearless Coder

Teaching robots to think

At age 16, Tesca Fitzgerald became one of the youngest students ever to graduate from Portland State University, wowing professors with her coding skills and earning a degree in computer science. Two years later, she's deep into a PhD. program at Georgia Tech University in Atlanta, where she researches artificial intelligence programs that allow machines to interact with and learn from humans.

"I look at the intersection of cognition and robotics," Fitzgerald says about her work. "It helps us learn how people solve problems, then we apply that to robotics."

She envisions a future when robots will have the ability to not only perform complex tasks but also to learn as they go along. That could have huge implications, she says, for a wide range of applications, including the use of robots to aid the elderly or people with disabilities.

"We're already making robots that do amazing things," Fitzgerald says. "What if we could make them seem more human?"

Fitzgerald's fascination with computers and "thinking" machines goes back to her youth. Before she was 2 years old, she was playing games on her mother's laptop. At age 5, she was part of a robotics program, building and programming machines and winning competitions.

Teachers and others quickly realized she was a natural born coder.

Fitzgerald essentially skipped high school and enrolled in Portland Community College instead. From there she transferred to PSU, a place where she felt comfortable. The faculty were approachable, she says, and her much older classmates treated her as any other student.

"A lot of students at PSU come from non-traditional backgrounds," Fitzgerald says. "I never felt like the odd one out."

Fitzgerald says her goal is to be a research professor. She says adapting to the rigors of a Ph.D. program has been tough but exactly what she wanted.

"I'm very driven and passionate about what I do."

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