This student researcher has some advice for freshmen. Put passion over expertise.

James Tukpah, an electrical engineering major, works in the robotics lab in Richards Hall on Sept. 12, 2018. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

James Tukpah has always liked robots, so when he walked into the Undergraduate Lab Fair as a freshman, he immediately spotted the autonomous rovers of associate professor Taskin Padir.

The room was packed though, and the robots were on the other side of the crowd. Tukpah remembered thinking, “Is it really worth it to go over there?”

Fortunately, he did make his way to the rovers. At the time, he had no idea this decision would lead to working in Northeastern’s Robotics and Intelligent Vehicles Research Laboratory for three years under Padir’s direction.

The College of Engineering hosts the fair every year to introduce students to potential research opportunities. This year it will take place Tuesday night from 6 to 7:30 p.m. in the Curry Student Center.

Tukpah, now a fourth-year student, has some advice for freshmen who are considering research positions.

“You need to care more about the research than the fact that you don’t know how to do the research. Most of the time these professors don’t expect you to know what you’re doing when you first start,” he said.   

Tukpah certainly cared about the robotics research, but when he was a freshman

Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

filling out the research application survey, he said he felt under qualified. “I didn’t know how to do all the things they were asking for,” he said.

It turns out that didn’t matter. He was invited to work at the lab anyway, and during his time there, he learned the skills necessary to help move the project forward.

As a freshman, he worked with graduate student Murphy Wonsick on a humanoid robot called Nao. Wonsick wanted Tukpah to get better at coding, so she had him practice by programming Nao to do things like wave and make human gestures.  

Wonsick “wanted to host an event for grandparents and kids to try out coding on the robot, so I spent the spring semester making the code easier for non-coders,” he said.

Tukpah continued working in the lab in his second year and created a work-study position out of his research project on the localization of autonomous rovers.

Today he’s a co-op in Padir’s lab working on a project to create robotic hands, made out of soft materials, that are used to gently sort and package fish.

Between classes and his work in the lab, Tukpah makes time to serve as president of Northeastern’s Black Engineering Student Society. “I really care that we all feel like a family,” he said. “It’s a way to help people below you and learn from people above you.”

Tukpah said the key to his success at Northeastern is passion. Though he didn’t know a lot about robots before working in the lab, he said he showed initiative, and “100 percent, that passion makes people shine through.”

So don’t be so quick to leave the fair without talking to someone, even if you feel unqualified or claustrophobic. They might turn out to be your co-workers for the next three years.