For a journalist, it could be the New York Times. For a fashion designer, Chanel. For Professor Adrian Stoica, it’s NASA.
Space, the final frontier of workplaces. But one does not simply get a job at NASA. The natural talent and intelligence of an individual can only be surpassed by their imagination and utter determination. All of which VU engineering PhD Professor Stoica has in spades.
A thirst for knowledge
Stoica’s interest in robots began when he was a teenager – devouring science fiction novels in cold war Romania in the late 1970s. Reading I Robot by Isaac Asimov, inspired a desire to explore the creation of robots and humanoids. His father, a Professor in economics, in the city of Iasi, home to the oldest university in Romania, instilled a thirst for knowledge and learning.
“I wanted to know more, to discover new things that advance society, and to share my knowledge,” he says.
In the early 1980s, Stoica studied electrical and electronic engineering and became a designer of embedded systems. In 1989 when the Communist regime abruptly ended with the Romanian Revolution, the democracy that followed opened the doors to the wider world. People were finally able to travel freely and pursue opportunities elsewhere.
“I decided to immigrate, since in Romania at that time I could not reach my professional potential.”
The path to Australia
Both the US and Australia interested Stoica for different reasons.
“The US attracted me with its economic power and space program – while Australia attracted me for its high quality of life, and the charm of a young country with tremendous potential for growth.”
With its friendlier immigration system, relatives in St Albans (Vic) and his “strange attraction to the exotic world Down Under”, Stoica chose Australia to pursue further studies and research.
While the rest of the world marvelled at the Ninja Turtles and danced in their Hammer pants, Stoica was deciding where to study his ground-breaking research.
Offers from Melbourne Uni, ANU and VU, rolled in, but for Stoica, VU was a natural fit.
During his interview with [supervisor] Professor Ted Walker, Stoica’s future was sealed. He accepted enrolment into the PhD, free university housing, teaching assistantship, paid tutoring hours and support for obtaining a full scholarship.
“While the economic benefits were significant, especially for someone who landed with just two suitcases, the deciding factor was the trust and care I was shown – with almost complete liberty in research theme and methods. I am forever grateful for the trust VU placed in me and the ability of Professor Walker to see my potential.”
Stoica’s thesis revealed how robots can learn from human demonstration, by imitation of human movements. He explored other areas of the University’s research for inspiration: “In order to learn how to teach motor skills I interacted with staff who were analysing human motions during sports – it was fascinating.”
Current staff members who influenced and guided Stoica as colleagues and friends, include Professor Akhtar Kalam, Dr Aladin Zayegh and Juan Shi.
Much-loved memories of Melbourne
Stoica fondly recalls his time studying in Melbourne.
“I remember with great pleasure my time at VU, and the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering,” Stoica says. “I moved into the CBD of Melbourne and discovered the city’s beauty, its history, its greatness.
“The years I spent in Melbourne were very likely my best. I also became an Australian citizen during that period – which I am very proud of – though sadly it has been too long since I last visited.”
Digital twists of fate leading to success
One of the biggest moves of Stoica’s life began in the early days of the internet.
“I enjoyed time in the VU library accessing the internet, which opened an entire world of information. This was how I discovered the US Green Card lottery. I entered for amusement and to my surprise, I won a place.”
Although it wasn’t all smooth sailing, everything happen for a reason. While sharing the news with an American friend, Stoica was invited to join a start-up in artificial intelligence in Silicon Valley. Once he arrived in the US, he immediately learned things with the start-up were not as they seemed.
“They had no financing and the CEO appeared to be a charlatan. This proved true a few years later when start-up members took him to court as he had stolen their intellectual property. So after this first bitter taste of America, I considered moving back to Australia, but my family suggested I stick it out. Within a month, I had several job offers including an offer at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“And here I am 21 years later! In the first 12 years, I was promoted through the research ranks to Senior Research Scientist – the highest research title. I am now the Manager of Robotic Systems Estimation, Decision and Control.
“One of the most interesting and unusual projects I’ve worked on was a study of a Wind Robot (Windobot), a flyer that could remain for long duration in the atmosphere of Jupiter. Imagine a bird that needs to fly at the thin upper atmosphere with no food and needs to fly for one year, while attracted to the planet with a gravitational constant 2.5x larger than earth. It is a difficult problem I keep revisiting. I learned a lot about flight and atmosphere of gas giants Jupiter and Saturn.”
Looking back & looking forward
Stoica recalls his predictions when he began his NASA career and now looking ahead, he has grand plans – beyond our planet and here on Earth.
“Twenty years ago, I thought AI would be common today. I didn’t underestimate the difficulties, but I overestimated the level of investments that would be made.
“I still have plans for the future – so many in fact, that I will need to work for many years to come! These two are my most ambitious: The first is to build a solar energy infrastructure at the South Pole of the moon. Another is to find a solution to help elderly and sick people move unassisted – from bed to bathroom, or wheelchair. This is a cause very close to me, recently experiencing my father’s ill-health and frailty.
“In an age where we master nuclear reactions and our spacecraft reach the ends of our solar system, we are not able to provide an elderly person with an assistive device.
I can hardly think of a greater satisfaction than seeing this done as a contribution to humanity.”
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Writer: Jessica Jury