Building Robots and Relationships

Hearing about their lives and experiences growing up and comparing them to what I’m familiar with in the United States has really opened my eyes, It has been truly amazing.
Whitney Huang
At Seoul National University’s BioRobotics Lab during her Streicker Fellowship.

Whitney Huang ’19 embraces research and cultural opportunities in Seoul as one of 12 Streicker Fellows.

By Erin Peterson

New Jersey native Whitney Huang ’19 spent most of her life close to home, but she’d longed to go abroad for years. And she wanted to do it on her own terms. Her goal was to embed herself in a place and a culture, yet also find a way to integrate her academic interests – engineering and robotics – into the experience.

Thanks to financial support from the Streicker International Fellows Fund, she was able spend a summer in South Korea at Seoul National University’s BioRobotics Lab doing just that.

The fund, launched in 2015 with support from John Streicker ’64 and administered by the Office of International Programs, gives up to 12 students each summer the chance to conduct research or pursue an internship in a foreign culture. Students have wide latitude to design their own project or internship in conjunction with a partner organization that will offer them strong opportunities for intellectual growth. Fellows are also encouraged to find ways to engage with their host cultures while abroad: They even receive funding to support cultural immersion activities, from art classes to beach volleyball teams.

Huang’s research was linked to “soft robots” that use pressurized air or fluids to move. She focused on developing teaching tools, which she describes as “a soft version of LEGO.” These robots also have significant potential applications in medicine because they are more flexible than traditional robots made from rigid mechanical components.

Huang acknowledges that working in another culture had plenty of challenges, especially since she wasn’t fluent in the language. Though many of her lab mates were willing to present their research in English to practice their own language skills, for example, team meetings were often held in Korean. “Sometimes they would present in English for my sake, and other times I would have to guess what they were saying using visual cues, context and body language,” she says.

She also navigated the tricky terrain of cultural expectations beyond the lab. Huang had to learn the many nuances of interacting respectfully with older people. And she was surprised to see how much time co-workers spent together outside of the office, often heading to restaurants, bars and karaoke rooms after hours. “Work, social life and home life are much less separated than in American culture,” she says.

Scott Leroy, the associate director of the Bridge Year Program and manager of the Streicker Fellowship, says that the emphasis on both intellectual development and deep cultural immersion is intentional. “There was strong interest on the part of Mr. Streicker to encourage students to pursue stimulating work while engaging with the local community in enriching ways – and to draw from both aspects of that experience,” he says.

Academic and cultural insights – both large and small – are happening around the globe for these Streicker Fellows, Leroy says. Students have studied architecture in Budapest, interned at an artificial intelligence startup in Beijing and worked with refugees in Rome. “Students return to Princeton not just with greater knowledge about their area of interest, but with a richer understanding of their own culture and values,” he adds.

Huang, for her part, says the experience has transformed her. “It has been so rewarding to get to know locals, foreigners visiting Korea and foreigners who live in Korea,” she says.

“Hearing about their lives and experiences growing up and comparing them to what I’m familiar with in the United States has really opened my eyes,” she says. “It has been truly amazing.”

PHOTOS: Dylan Goldby