Erica Aduh, a research scientist, is seen standing outside with office buildings in the background
Erica Aduh, a research scientist at Amazon Robotics, was drawn to robotics after taking an Intro to Robotics course during her sophomore year at the University of Pennsylvania.
Courtesy of Erica Aduh

How Erica Aduh learned to love robots

Today she’s a research scientist working on significant challenges for Amazon Robotics, but it was a college class that proved fateful.

Ask any roboticist — they’ll tell you that, when it comes to robots, manipulating items can be technically challenging. In simply lifting a package, these end effectors or end-of-arm tools sometimes need to be able to compensate for varying weights, as well as detecting small differences in pressure and texture. Erica Aduh, a research scientist at Amazon Robotics, is tackling that very type of problem.

Aduh has had a long-standing interest in engineering — one that started in her childhood. Her first home was in Nigeria, but then she moved with her family to skyscraper heavy Dubai. “There is a huge variety of intricately constructed buildings,” she says. “I found myself being fascinated by not only their magnificence but also the calculations required to design and construct them.” 

That fascination (and her love of math and physics), led Aduh to the US in 2010 to pursue mechanical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. The Penn engineering department had two areas of interest for Aduh: product design and robotics. “I found myself incredibly interested in mechanical design,” says Aduh. There she built her portfolio and even started a product innovation club — one which several people in the engineering department ended up joining.

Learning to love robotics

She got bit by the robotics bug after taking Intro to Robotics her sophomore year. The class focused on item manipulation, similar to the work she’s doing now. She found the subject absorbing. When she later took a class on mechatronics, she was drawn to robotics once again. “I poured so much time into that class because I was just so fascinated by it,” she says.

I knew there was something in robotics that I really wanted to get my hands and feet into.
Erica Aduh

After working on a series of smaller projects building different types of robots and having fun combining electrical, mechanical, and software, “I knew there was something in robotics that I really wanted to get my hands and feet into.” Her final project: Create a robot that could autonomously play hockey. “I just remember spending hours and hours and hours with my teammates in the lab — it was a blast,” she recalls. 

Those late-night sessions pushed her towards robotics, which she then pursued as a master’s student, also at Penn. Her passion for research meant she faced the question of whether to continue on for a PhD. She was unsure, so when she landed a post-graduate internship at Amazon Robotics, she took it — and loved it. She worked with other interns on an exploratory project that allowed them to use what they had learned. “By the end of that internship, I was pretty sure I wanted to stay in the industry, instead of return to academia,” Aduh says. She joined Amazon as a mechanical engineer in early 2016.

Returning to research

After a couple of years, Aduh realized that her passion for research still burned: “While I really enjoyed my team and learned a lot, I realized I wanted to get back into research.”

So she started the transition, dropping into research team meetings, and taking on small tasks. “When I joined the manipulation research organization, I reported to Beth Marcus, who is fantastic and inspiring. She gave me the opportunity to explore a range of research topics and develop a focus within research. That was great because it was exactly what I needed to break into science research and grow as a scientist,” says Aduh.

Her other mentor, Andrew Marchese, taught her about modeling and simulation. “Andy is brilliant and skillful in just about every domain of robotics manipulation,” she said. “Having the opportunity to learn from him has been key and he is a major reason behind my transition into the science world.”  

That transition has proved fruitful for Amazon. “Erica has a profound ability to advance understanding through methodical experimentation and careful analysis. She's continually breaking down ambiguous problems into testable hypotheses — a true embodiment of the scientific process,” says Marchese.

Aduh’s team is currently focused on advancing how robots transport and move packages.  She’s developing the analytical models for robotic item manipulation — that includes both physics and robotics system modeling. “That could be anywhere from physics calculations that describe a component of a robotic work-cell to programmed simulations that model the full robotic system,” she explains.

Working with her team, she develops those models within a simulation platform. She also works with a high-fidelity physics simulator, developing models there, too. “I also create simulations of my own to be able to answer high level business questions and communicate my findings to leaders and coworkers using white papers,” Aduh says.

That can take her out of the workcell systems and into the floor-level simulations, which can be used to examine how throughput is affected by one approach versus another. The ultimate goal is to reliably and safely get packages where they need to go.

Aduh writes her scripts in Python or MATLAB, since she’s just creating the models to describe systems, but she also sometimes applies her ideas to a real robot (both to develop intuition and validate her models). Though the COVID-19 pandemic precluded her from going into the office and working on real robots for much of 2020, she found an alternate approach. Her workaround: watching videos of the robots performing the specific movements she was working on to build intuition, and then to later use robots for the validation tests.

“The ability to go from a simulation to the real world is critical,” noted Parris Wellman, vice president of engineering and robotics at Amazon Robotics. “It has a significant impact both on our organization and its ability to put out really cool stuff. It allows us to take smart software engineers and scientists and let them learn how to do robotics without a lot of risk.”

Career advice

For anyone interested in following in Aduh’s footsteps, she says finding good mentors has been “incredibly critical” to her success. “Through them, I was able to learn and get their feedback and thoughts on the correct approaches to use in ambiguous problems — they were just incredibly helpful,” she says.

Aduh’s creative way of attacking problems has also made her an asset to Amazon.

“Since I've known her, Erica has been drawn to really murky problems — areas the business wants to head, but where our technologies and/or solutions are unproven,” says Marchese. He says her ability to ask and answer hard questions “influences where our manipulation technology goes next. She's rigorous in her scientific exploration, but timely in her delivery of results.”

In addition to mentors, Aduh says it’s also important to be comfortable working outside what you already know. “Much of the time I feel as though I'm working on things that are outside of my comfort zone,” says Aduh. “And that's how I've been able to grow.”

Seeking proposals in five research areas, including human-robot interaction, autonomous navigation/mobility, and manipulation.

Research areas

Related content

US, WA, Seattle
Are you excited about building high-performance robotic systems that can perceive, learn, and act intelligently alongside humans? The Robotics AI team is creating new science products and technologies that make this possible, at Amazon scale. We work at the intersection of computer vision, machine learning, robotic manipulation, navigation, and human-robot interaction.The Amazon Robotics team is seeking broad, curious applied scientists and engineering interns to join our diverse, full-stack team. In addition to designing, building, and delivering end-to-end robotic systems, our team is responsible for core infrastructure and tools that serve as the backbone of our robotic applications, enabling roboticists, applied scientists, software and hardware engineers to collaborate and deploy systems in the lab and in the field. Come join us!
US, VA, Arlington
The Central Science Team within Amazon’s People Experience and Technology org (PXTCS) uses economics, behavioral science, statistics, and machine learning to proactively identify mechanisms and process improvements which simultaneously improve Amazon and the lives, well-being, and the value of work to Amazonians. We are an interdisciplinary team, which combines the talents of science and engineering to develop and deliver solutions that measurably achieve this goal. As Director for PXT Central Science Technology, you will be responsible for leading multiple teams through rapidly evolving complex demands and define, develop, deliver and execute on our science roadmap and vision. You will provide thought leadership to scientists and engineers to invent and implement scalable machine learning recommendations and data driven algorithms supporting flexible UI frameworks. You will manage and be responsible for delivering some of our most strategic technical initiatives. You will design, develop and operate new, highly scalable software systems that support Amazon’s efforts to be Earth’s Best Employer and have a significant impact on Amazon’s commitment to our employees and communities where we both serve and employ 1.3 million Amazonians. As Director of Applied Science, you will be part of the larger technical leadership community at Amazon. This community forms the backbone of the company, plays a critical role in the broad business planning, works closely with senior executives to develop business targets and resource requirements, influences our long-term technical and business strategy, helps hire and develop engineering leaders and developers, and ultimately enables us to deliver engineering innovations.This role is posted for Arlington, VA, but we are flexible on location at many of our offices in the US and Canada.
US, VA, Arlington
Employer: Services LLCPosition: Data Scientist IILocation: Arlington, VAMultiple Positions Available1. Manage and execute entire projects or components of large projects from start to finish including data gathering and manipulation, synthesis and modeling, problem solving, and communication of insights and recommendations.2. Oversee the development and implementation of data integration and analytic strategies to support population health initiatives.3. Leverage big data to explore and introduce areas of analytics and technologies.4. Analyze data to identify opportunities to impact populations.5. Perform advanced integrated comprehensive reporting, consultative, and analytical expertise to provide healthcare cost and utilization data and translate findings into actionable information for internal and external stakeholders.6. Oversee the collection of data, ensuring timelines are met, data is accurate and within established format.7. Act as a data and technical resource and escalation point for data issues, ensuring they are brought to resolution.8. Serve as the subject matter expert on health care benefits data modeling, system architecture, data governance, and business intelligence tools. #0000
US, TX, Dallas
Employer: Services LLCPosition: Data Scientist II (multiple positions available)Location: Dallas, TX Multiple Positions Available:1. Assist customers to deliver Machine Learning (ML) and Deep Learning (DL) projects from beginning to end, by aggregating data, exploring data, building and validating predictive models, and deploying completed models to deliver business impact to the organization;2. Apply understanding of the customer’s business need and guide them to a solution using AWS AI Services, AWS AI Platforms, AWS AI Frameworks, and AWS AI EC2 Instances;3. Use Deep Learning frameworks like MXNet, PyTorch, Caffe 2, Tensorflow, Theano, CNTK, and Keras to help our customers build DL models;4. Research, design, implement and evaluate novel computer vision algorithms and ML/DL algorithms;5. Work with data architects and engineers to analyze, extract, normalize, and label relevant data;6. Work with DevOps engineers to help customers operationalize models after they are built;7. Assist customers with identifying model drift and retraining models;8. Research and implement novel ML and DL approaches, including using FPGA;9. Develop computer vision and machine learning methods and algorithms to address real-world customer use-cases; and10. Design and run experiments, research new algorithms, and work closely with engineers to put algorithms and models into practice to help solve customers' most challenging problems.11. Approximately 15% domestic and international travel required.12. Telecommuting benefits are available.#0000
US, WA, Seattle
MULTIPLE POSITIONS AVAILABLECompany: AMAZON.COM SERVICES LLCPosition Title: Manager III, Data ScienceLocation: Bellevue, WashingtonPosition Responsibilities:Manage a team of data scientists working to build large-scale, technical solutions to increase effectiveness of Amazon Fulfillment systems. Define key business goals and map them to the success of technical solutions. Aggregate, analyze and model data from multiple sources to inform business decisions. Manage and quantify improvement in the customer experience resulting from research outcomes. Develop and manage a long-term research vision and portfolio of research initiatives, with algorithms and models that to be integrated in production systems. Hire and mentor junior is an Equal Opportunity-Affirmative Action Employer – Minority / Female / Disability / Veteran / Gender Identity / Sexual Orientation #0000
US, VA, Arlington
MULTIPLE POSITIONS AVAILABLECompany: AMAZON.COM SERVICES LLCPosition Title: Data Scientist IILocation: Arlington, VirginiaPosition Responsibilities:Design and implement scalable and reliable approaches to support or automate decision making throughout the business. Apply a range of data science techniques and tools combined with subject matter expertise to solve difficult business problems and cases in which the solution approach is unclear. Acquire data by building the necessary SQL / ETL queries. Import processes through various company specific interfaces for accessing Oracle, RedShift, and Spark storage systems. Build relationships with stakeholders and counterparts. Analyze data for trends and input validity by inspecting univariate distributions, exploring bivariate relationships, constructing appropriate transformations, and tracking down the source and meaning of anomalies. Build models using statistical modeling, mathematical modeling, econometric modeling, network modeling, social network modeling, natural language processing, machine learning algorithms, genetic algorithms, and neural networks. Validate models against alternative approaches, expected and observed outcome, and other business defined key performance indicators. Implement models that comply with evaluations of the computational demands, accuracy, and reliability of the relevant ETL processes at various stages of is an Equal Opportunity-Affirmative Action Employer – Minority / Female / Disability / Veteran / Gender Identity / Sexual Orientation #0000
US, IL, Chicago
MULTIPLE POSITIONS AVAILABLECompany: AMAZON.COM SERVICES LLCPosition Title: Data Scientist ILocation: Chicago, IllinoisPosition Responsibilities:Build the core intelligence, insights, and algorithms that support the real estate acquisition strategies for Amazon physical stores. Tackle cutting-edge, complex problems such as predicting the optimal location for new Amazon stores by bringing together numerous data assets, and using best-in-class modeling solutions to extract the most information out of them. Work with business stakeholders, software development engineers, and other data scientists across multiple teams to develop innovative solutions at massive is an Equal Opportunity-Affirmative Action Employer – Minority / Female / Disability / Veteran / Gender Identity / Sexual Orientation #0000
US, WA, Bellevue
How do you design and provide right incentives for millions of sellers that inbound and ship billions of customer orders? How do you measure sellers' response to /causal impacts of capacity control policies we implemented at Amazon using the state-of-the-art econometric techniques? How do you optimize Amazon’s third-party supply chain using new ideas never implemented at this scale to benefit millions of customers worldwide? How do you design and evaluate seller assistance to drive their success? If these type of questions get your mind racing, we want to hear from you.Supply Chain Optimization Technologies (SCOT) optimizes Amazon’s global supply chain end to end and build systems to deliver billions of products to our customers’ doorsteps faster every year while saving hundreds of millions of dollars using economics, operational research, machine learning, and scalable distributed software on the Cloud. Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) is an Amazon service for our marketplace third party sellers, where our sellers leverage our world-class facilities and provide customers Prime delivery promise on all their goods.We are looking for the next outstanding economist to join our interdisciplinary team of data scientists, research scientists, applied scientists, economists. The ideal candidate combines econometric acumen with strong business judgment. You have versatile modeling skills and are comfortable extracting insights from observational and experimental data. You translate insights into action through proofs-of-concept and partnerships with engineers and data scientists to productionize. You are excited to learn from and alongside seasoned analysts, scientists, engineers, and business leaders. You are an excellent communicator and effectively translate business ideas and technical findings into business action (and customer delight).Key job responsibilitiesProvide data-driven guidance and recommendations on strategic questions facing the FBA leadershipDesign and implement V0 models and experiments to kickstart new initiatives, thinking, and drive system-level changes across AmazonHelp build a long-term research agenda to understand, break down, and tackle the most stubborn and ambiguous business challengesInfluence business leaders and work closely with other scientists at Amazon to deliver measurable progress and change
US, WA, Seattle
Are you motivated to explore research in ambiguous spaces? Are you interested in conducting research that will improve the employee and manager experience at Amazon? Do you want to work on an interdisciplinary team of scientists that collaborate rather than compete? Join us at PXT Central Science!The People eXperience and Technology Central Science Team (PXTCS) uses economics, behavioral science, statistics, and machine learning to proactively identify mechanisms and process improvements which simultaneously improve Amazon and the lives, wellbeing, and the value of work to Amazonians. We are an interdisciplinary team that combines the talents of science and engineering to develop and deliver solutions that measurably achieve this goal.We are seeking a senior Applied Scientist with expertise in more than one or more of the following areas: machine learning, natural language processing, computational linguistics, algorithmic fairness, statistical inference, causal modeling, reinforcement learning, Bayesian methods, predictive analytics, decision theory, recommender systems, deep learning, time series modeling. In this role, you will lead and support research efforts within all aspects of the employee lifecycle: from candidate identification to recruiting, to onboarding and talent management, to leadership and development, to finally retention and brand advocacy upon exit.The ideal candidate should have strong problem-solving skills, excellent business acumen, the ability to work independently and collaboratively, and have an expertise in both science and engineering. The ideal candidate is not methods-driven, but driven by the research question at hand; in other words, they will select the appropriate method for the problem, rather than searching for questions to answer with a preferred method. The candidate will need to navigate complex and ambiguous business challenges by asking the right questions, understanding what methodologies to employ, and communicating results to multiple audiences (e.g., technical peers, functional teams, business leaders).About the teamWe are a collegial and multidisciplinary team of researchers in People eXperience and Technology (PXT) that combines the talents of science and engineering to develop innovative solutions to make Amazon Earth's Best Employer. We leverage data and rigorous analysis to help Amazon attract, retain, and develop one of the world’s largest and most talented workforces.
US, WA, Bellevue
Job summaryThe Global Supply Chain-ACES organization aims to raise the bar on Amazon’s customer experience by delivering holistic solutions for Global Customer Fulfillment that facilitate the effective and efficient movement of product through our supply chain. We develop strategies, processes, material handling and technology solutions, reporting and other mechanisms, which are simple, technology enabled, globally scalable, and locally relevant. We achieve this through cross-functional partnerships, listening to the needs of our customers and prioritizing initiatives to deliver maximum impact across the value chain. Within the organization, our Quality team balances tactical operation with operations partners with global engagement on programs to deliver improved inventory accuracy in our network. The organization is looking for an experienced Principal Research Scientist to partner with senior leadership to develop long term strategic solutions. As a Principal Scientist, they will lead critical initiatives for Global Supply Chain, leveraging complex data analysis and visualization to:a. Collaborate with business teams to define data requirements and processes;b. Automate data pipelines;c. Design, develop, and maintain scalable (automated) reports and dashboards that track progress towards plans;d. Define, track and report program success metrics.e. Serve as a technical science lead on our most demanding, cross-functional projects.