Fashioning the Future With: Saura Naderi

Saura Naderi, a.k.a. Robot Saura, is an engineer, educator, maker and amazing advocate of STEM education. The UC San Diego grad has spoken at TEDx San Diego, appeared on SyFy's Robot Combat League, been featured by outlets such as Nerdist, Mashable, Amy Poehler's Smart Girls, and many more. Forbes Rising Leaders recently sat down with her, too! What can we say? Saura Naderi is an epically cool engineer.

GIF/Saura at a recent gala in The Robot Dress

GIF/Saura at a recent gala in The Robot Dress

We are especially drawn to Saura's commitment to makerspaces and in getting kids from all walks of life interested in STEM. After founding the myLab Program at UCSD in 2009, Saura went on to design the Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab, a makerspace in San Diego whose programs inspire kids from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

That is pretty incredible all on its own, but Saura Naderi's radness factor does not stop there. We haven't even gotten to the tentacles yet!

At the recent Maker Faire Bay Area, Saura wore Qualcomm's Robot Dress which she also built with the help of a talented team. The Robot Dress, which is powered by Qualcomm's DragonBoard 410c, turned heads left and right, which is no surprise, as the steampunk gown is, of course, actually a functioning robot — a robot with moving tentacles!

We got in touch with Saura about her process in creating makerspaces, how The Robot Dress came to fruition, where else she's worn it, and which Angelina Jolie character she'd want to be. Meet Robot Saura.

What was your process in designing the engineering side of the Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab?

Video/Qualcomm - Thinkabit Lab Makerspace

I had a lot of lessons learned from the previous lab I designed at UC, San Diego, so it made this round a bit smoother. One of the biggest pieces in designing an engaging, safe, exploring environment is to take some time and assess your target audience. For us, that assessment took the form of asking administrators, teachers, students, and parents what they thought would be an exciting space and experience.  We took those responses as guidance and coupled it with experience.

Video/DCMP - Saura discussing Servos from the Thinkabit Lab

There were a couple other big pieces, in my opinion, that were important for me to include.  One was to be as cost effective as possible to create the space. I had just come from an environment where I had to raise all the funds to not only pay myself, but also to acquire materials. So, I think I was particularly sensitive to wanting to create a space that inspired visitors to want to replicate it. If the price point was too high, then it would just be dismissed as something unattainable.  That’s the opposite feeling I’m hoping to inspire in this environment. The other important factor was authenticity. How can I create a space that was truly used by engineers? This space couldn’t just be a classroom, it had to be something where the engineers in this company would want to come visit, play, and create in.

I turned to employees when designing as well and asked them what they’d like to see in a lab and what it would take for them to come.  When the kids came into the lab, they got to see different types of tools that are used by the employees (non-engineers too) who would use the space during an evening (an evening that I volunteered to create — which I only mention to illustrate that it really just takes a lot of effort to create a space that your target community will want to use) called “tinkering night.” 

What was the most rewarding thing about creating the Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab?

My personal mission is to create experiences and environments that empower people to fulfill their potential. So, it’s definitely rewarding to see kids get excited about a career option they never imagined could be for them, whether it’s because they were never exposed to it or thought it would be too hard for them.  I particularly love the comments of kids after a day and hearing how coding isn’t as hard as they thought. The employees were also amazing.  They were so smart, friendly, and eager to share their knowledge. I think the tinkering community was also one of my favorites.

What is your current job/occupation?

I do not have a job at the moment. I saved enough to explore a bit and give myself time to figure out which chapter I’ll dive into next. So, if any readers out there think they need my skill set, let me know; we may be able to work out a consultant gig. :)

Check out Saura at the Makerfaire at 4:39, below!

Video/Make - Saura at the MakerFaire 2018

What was the inspiration for the robot dress? Why did you and your team choose the medium of fashion for the project?

Video/Qualcomm Developer Network - Saura chats creative inspiration to engineering reality

There’s a few, but I think the most important is to create engineering projects that break stereotypes of what engineering can be applied for. From my perspective, engineering is a medium to create.  That was something I realized in engineering school; until that point, I was becoming an engineer because I knew I needed to have a job one day, and I figured this was a relatively straightforward way to maximize my pay. What I didn’t anticipate was my imagination getting super stimulated when I started to realize what I could start creating. I find this important because I believe I would have been more strategic in my education had I realized what this engineering world really meant. Now I wonder how many other career pathways I may have dismissed because I didn’t know what it really meant. 

While the dress isn’t going to directly save lives (who knows, maybe it can one day), the skills it took to build it can actually be transferred to other project ideas that are more directly related.  For example, we filed a patent for the tentacle mechanism because it’s a unique modular robotic arm. What else could that modular robotic arm be used for?

Video/Qualcomm Developer Network - Saura chats dresses with Smart Girls

I chose fashion because I like fashion. I love dresses. I love the idea that my dress could be an extension of how I feel. The dress gives hugs, did you notice that?  It forces people to hug me for at least 10 seconds. :) The other team members were excited to work on something that wasn’t the normal manifestation of their work. Engineers are very creative people, so I think it was a way for them to express their talent differently. The dress is designed to not look robotic. The tentacles are mostly hidden.  It’s supposed to be unexpected and delightful. I imagine this narrative is the same as someone exploring a new activity to an idea they previously may have dismissed as something else.

Image/ Makerfaire

How long did it take to make and how many people total were involved?

It took about 1.5 years of talking and slight behind-the-scene designing; the engineers on this project mostly volunteered their time. Once we actually secured funding, it took about 3 months to build. Five Qualcomm engineers and four costume designers/seamstresses.

Where did the idea for the steampunk look and those four awesome tentacles come from?

Donald Hutson is the main designer of the tentacles. I had worked with him to share constraints and he elegantly provided a solution. The steampunk design was dictated by the fact that I was giving a speech during opening ceremonies for FIRST competition in St. Louis. That year, the competition was steampunk-themed.

How did it feel to wear it at Maker Faire Bay Area?

That was my first time at Maker Faire in San Mateo. It was amazing! I can’t get over the surprise on people’s faces when my dress suddenly moved. That’s a huge compliment from the audience at Maker Faire.

Do you think robotic fashion will be embraced at the gala/black tie event level?

Absolutely. I actually just wore it for a gala, and I’m happy to go to more if someone would like to invite me. ;)

What exciting projects are you working on next/or is there a project you’ve had in mind that you’ve always wanted to build?

Video/Totino's Adventure People - featuring Saura Naderi

I have a few. Maybe too many. I am trying to figure out which order to do them in, which ones I can do concurrently, or if I should just give up altogether and just write stories about all of them instead of actually trying to build them out.

What advice for younger girls (middle and high school) who want to pursue STEM?

For me, pursuing STEM opened opportunities for me as an artist, traveler, and entrepreneur, and frankly made me feel like I have some control in my life. It’s built my confidence at a time when I really felt like I wasn’t going to be “good” at anything. While it took a long time to build my confidence, I now feel like I can build anything.

It’s the confidence in knowing I have what it takes to pursue my dreams - not necessarily the confidence that I would succeed right away, but that if I grit through it, I can get there, anywhere. I think sometimes you have to just try something a few times, even if you don’t think you’re good at it, to gain experience in that field.  It reminds me of playing a new video game. Usually, people aren’t good at playing video games on their first try, but they get getter with experience, and they may also enjoy it more once their skills start aligning with how they imagine it should be. 

Find STEM-based hands-on opportunities, like FIRST, and try a few of them out. Ask your teachers if they know of hands-on opportunities you can participate in. It could be after school, or at a library, or a local museum, or university.

Do you have any favorite engineer characters in books/movies/other art forms?

I wanted to be Angelina Jolie in Hackers.

If you were a superhero, what would your go-to wearable tech device be?

I like the idea of having a dress be an extension of my feelings. It could shield me from physical harm, but also sway me towards people it knew I’d get along with.

To learn more about this fabulous maker, follow Saura Naderi on Instagram and Twitter! Check out the Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab here.