Electrical engineering student does collaborative work in robotics lab

Rebekka Coakley
October 08, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Growing up with an electrical engineer as a father, Chris Miller, a Penn State senior from Audubon, knew at a young age that he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an electrical engineer. He’d tinker around with his dad’s tools and create his own projects. When his father passed away, he continued to use the gadgets and felt they helped him cope with his grief.

As a first-year engineering student at University Park, Miller knew he wanted to earn his degree in electrical engineering, had a four-year plan laid out, and was focused on working in robotics. But during his first semester, while searching for labs on campus, he stumbled upon one in the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering: the Intelligent Vehicles and Systems Group advised by Associate Professor Sean Brennan. Miller applied to join, and by his sophomore year he was the lead electrical engineer working on creating an autonomous wheelchair for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, patients, alongside Brennan and a graduate student.

“Dr. Brennan has really given me a unique opportunity,” said Miller. “I get to build hardware, write software, debug circuits and design algorithms. I feel like I’ve become a jack-of-all-trades in robotics. I’m working on one end goal but I get to work on various tasks and learn a lot to get there.”

Miller has taken full advantage of every opportunity he has been given while studying at Penn State. So far in his time at the University, he has applied to and been accepted into the Presidential Leadership Academy and befriended Penn State President Eric Barron, served as president of the Penn State chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and, during the summer after his sophomore year, worked as an intern at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Brennan, Miller’s professor in the lab, believes Miller works hard for each opportunity he has been given.

“Chris has been amazing in the lab. Unlike most undergraduates, he treats his activities professionally with a constant eye toward his personal growth while at the same time growing the research field itself,” said Brennan. “Most undergrads struggle with this balance, and yet Chris seems a natural. However, like most undergrads, Chris started off in the lab with grand ambitions on how he can change the world, and by immersing himself within actual research problems, he’s seen that the solutions are often more nuanced and require far more iteration than originally planned.”

This past summer, Miller earned a Rodney Erickson Discovery Grant that supported his continued research in the lab.

At a recent lunch with Barron, Miller extended an invitation for him and his wife to visit the lab so they could see the autonomous wheelchair the researchers have been working hard to build. Barron agreed, and he and his wife visited the lab on Oct. 7.

“Chris has matured this past year as a researcher. He’s at the point where he actually has a grad student’s awareness, meaning he has a good idea of the real challenges and time estimates needed for the work,” said Brennan. “Chris is unquestionably a benefit both to the project and the research group.”

Last Updated October 13, 2015