Christina Moro is a robotics engineer and photographer. I met Christina a few years ago when I was working and Christina was an entrepreneur at NEXT Canada, a Canadian non-profit that provides our most promising innovators and entrepreneurs with the tools they need to create impact. These photos were taken at the University of Toronto campus, where the NEXT Canada classes took place and where Christina is completing her master’s degree and building robots! Click the photos for links to the Organic Cotton and Bamboo T-shirts Christina is wearing.
Can you introduce yourself to our readers? Tell us a bit about your formal and informal education.
Hi! My name is Christina and I'm a robotics engineer and photographer based in Toronto. I’m currently finishing up my Masters in Robotics Engineering at the University of Toronto. Before this, I did my Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering at McGill University.
I truly have my parents to thank for my informal education. They pushed me very hard to excel. My dad always told me, “Christina, invest in yourself!” Getting a good education, both inside and outside the classroom, was always heavily emphasized when growing up.Both my parents were major hustlers, and I thank them every day for instilling that sense of drive in me. They pushed me to try new things, extend my boundaries, and get out of my comfort zone. As they would say, they created a “go-getter”.
What is the most important lesson or skill you learned inside the classroom?Persistence! All you need is a tiny bit of interest and a lot of effort to get good at something.
There were quite a few times where people told me I wasn’t good enough in class. For example, I was really bad at math and physics in high school - extremely bad. When I was in grade ten, I wanted to participate in a provincial math competition. The only requirement was that you write your name down on a sheet of paper. Hen my school released the names of the students who were participating, much to my surprise, my name wasn’t on it! My math teacher said that I wasn’t going to get very far in the competition, since my math grades were too low, so there was no point in me participating. I channelled my anger and decided I was going to do really, really well on my final exam. It took a lot of effort and late nights repeating all the concepts I didn’t understand, over and over and over again. In the end, another girl and I were the only two in my year out of 500 students to get 100% on the final exam.
You just really have to want it and try really, really hard until you get it.
What is the most important lesson or skill you learned outside the classroom?
Information is free, and you can learn whatever it is you want to learn! There is so much free information available out there - you just need to figure out how to access it. Sometimes it can be as simple as talking to someone on the street, or watching a YouTube video.
An amazing example of someone who has harnessed free information is Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba. Though he grew up in a poor area of China, he taught himself how to speak English by becoming an unofficial tour guide to English speaking tourists. He cultivated relationships with them and this is eventually how he found his opportunity to bring business to China.
Who was your most memorable teacher?
My grade 10 science teacher in highschool!
He was quite an interesting character. He had dropped out of highschool and worked on an assembly line for a couple of year before deciding he wanted to do more with his life. So he went back to school and eventually got a degree in math, which brought him to teach at my high school. Given his experiences, he was worried about the state of students because so many of them had great ideas, but no ability to execute. To fix this, he created a Science and Technology course for students to build and learn through a hands-on approach.
I will never forget our first class. Desks were placed in two with some wood, elastics and tools in the back. We were given two hours to build an elastic car from scratch and had to compete at the end. I asked, “Where’s the manual?” I learned very quickly that there was no manual – we just had to figure it out! Funny enough, my teammate and I came in last in the competition. We did everything wrong, but it was an incredible learning experience, and I was really forced to get out of my comfort zone. By the end of the year, we had built cranes, telescopes, robots... In six months, I went from never having held a screwdriver in my entire life to competing in national robotics competitions.
What advice would you give to young women considering entering the STEM field? How can we get young girls interested in Science?
Take the time to explore. We shouldn’t think about “math” as just “math”, or “physics” as just “physics”. You won’t necessarily like all of it. And that’s ok. It’s the same as asking someone if they like to read? There are so many genres of literature - biographies, comics, science fiction, short stories, non-fiction, poems. Maybe you love science fiction books, but biographies aren’t your thing. That’s totally ok! The same goes for STEM disciplines - they are so different from each other, and even within the categories, they are so diverse! In my case, I don’t actually like math. I love calculus, but am terrible at geometry. Which is also why I would make a terrible civil engineer building bridges. It’s just not something that fascinates me. But I love robotics, the physics of dynamic objects, and coding.
If you have a bad experience in one area of physics, try another one. And then try another one, and keep trying until you find a discipline that works for you. And if in the end you still don’t like it, at least you tried and developed so many new skills and confidence along the way.
For me, it’s not about a quota we have to reach - like having 50% of STEM students be female. It’s about girls knowing they have the option to pursue a STEM career and to build the skillsets they need to be an engineer, such as being creative, experimental and open minded. Those are the things that make a good engineer, but they’re also applicable to all fields. If you develop those skills really well, you will excel in whatever you choose to do.
An alarming 94% of people working in robotics are male. Have you encountered any barriers as a women in this field?
While I have had some negative encounters in the workplace, overall the people I study and work with have been very supportive. Progress towards inclusivity is definitely being made.
I’d say that most of my barriers are self-imposed. They come from a mindset that I’m not good enough at something. If I’m working on a project with others, and someone else seems more capable at a specific task, I will let them take that role. A lot of the time they aren’t actually more capable, they are just a lot more confident and sound like they are more capable. The flip side it that person will learn more and get better, whereas I will be left behind and not learn as much.
Have you learned any skills through photography that you’ve been able to apply to your main career path in robotics?
Yes - arts and science are two sides of the same coin. With both photography and robotics, I’m building and creating. In both disciplines, you learn and make great things by literally trying new things. As a self taught photographer, I’ll see a cool photo that I like, and I will try to replicate it the best I can. I will research how they achieved these photos, and keep iterating until I get the photo right. I do the exact same thing in robotics. It is easy to get paralyzed in this field, but you really just have to start, and build from there. Iteration is key!
How were your experiences as a mentor with First Robotics?
It was an incredible experience. The reason I’m in robotics today was almost exclusively because of this course. When I was a student in Mechanical Engineering at McGill, we had a very small budget with which to build robots. So I emailed my old highschool teacher asking to borrow some parts. He then asked if I would help mentor his robotics team.
There were approximately 40 students on the team. In my first year mentoring there, there were less than 10 girls on the team. And by my third year there, more than half of students were girls on the team, with the first ever female team captain. That year, we killed it! Our team won so many prizes - Best Industrial Design, Safety, Engineering. We competed at the national level and in the US. The teams we went up against had sponsorship from major corporations like NASA and Google. It was such a surreal experience!
It was incredible to see the proportion of girls in the program grow by word of mouth. The students that came out of that program had better understanding and hands-on abilities than most engineering undergraduate students. We polled the students at the end of the year, and the majority of them wanted to enter engineering. This program gave them the confidence and the ability to build and create.
Were you mentored by any women in robotics or STEM when you were entering the field?
Indirectly. Though I’ve only had the chance to meet her once, I have ironically been following the same path as Julie Payette, a famous female Canadian astronaut. She went to my highschool, something my school never forgot to remind us of. She also went to McGill, my undergraduate alma matter, and also did her masters at University of Toronto. Her presence in this way has given me someone to look up to. Just knowing of someone who has been in my shoes makes me feel like I can do that too!
Otherwise, I’ve had incredible people, both male and female cheering me on!
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’d like to put in a special word for those girls who didn’t grow up in the best of circumstances, or who feel like they’ve had a lot more lemons in life than necessary. These girls operate under a lot of constraints, but that can also build tremendous resilience and help them be more creative. Creative constraints can be very powerful. It teaches persistence and how to operate with limited resources. You can learn to do much more with less and when you do eventually gain access to additional resources, you will have a much better foundation. I want to encourage those girls to keep pushing for their education – it will most definitely pay off.
Check out Christina's blog about robotics and her professional photography portfolio by clicking here!