Siobhan Rigby Oca: Designing Robotics Education at Duke

August 19, 2022

With expertise in course design, the Duke PhD graduate and new MEMS professor of the practice will also serve as an assistant director of master's degrees

Siobhan Rigby Oca

Siobhan Rigby Oca has joined the faculty of the Thomas Lord Department of Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science (MEMS) in Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering. Oca will design and implement robotics-related curricula for undergraduates and graduate students in a dual role of Assistant Professor of the Practice and Assistant Director of master’s degree programs for Robotics and Autonomy.

“I am passionate about teaching and mentoring students in this exciting field that is poised to change lives,” Oca said. “That’s why I went into engineering and translational medicine to begin with, and why I want to create curricula to train our students in designing, building and coding the robots and autonomous systems of the future. It is such a thrill to see students gain skills and confidence and to share in the excitement of discovery with them.”

"I am passionate about teaching and mentoring students in this exciting field that is poised to change lives."

Duke cultivated her love of teaching and curricular development. While she worked toward her PhD in mechanical engineering at Duke, Oca was mentored by engineering educators Sophia Santillan and Genevieve Lipp. Santillan and Lipp are also Duke Engineering PhD graduates who have joined the faculty—Santillan is an associate professor of the practice who earned her doctorate in mechanical engineering in 2007. Lipp is an assistant professor of the practice who earned her doctorate in electrical and computer engineering in 2014.

Santillan and Lip worked with Oca, who was awarded a Bass Instructional Fellowship to develop an introductory robotics course. The Bass program supports high-quality teaching experiences for Duke PhD students, helping students become knowledgeable in digital teaching and learning.

“It’s the lightbulb moments I have witnessed and experienced when the material transforms from a set of rules to clarity and confidence in design and implementation that inspired me to be an educator,” Oca said.

Her work in early 2022 with the National Science Foundation-funded Traineeship for the Advancement of Surgical Technologies (TAST), led by Duke MEMS professor Brian Mann, developed the primary course Medical Robotics and Surgical Technologies. The course will be offered in Fall 2022.

In summer 2022, Oca received a Lane Family Fellowship in Ethics. It has enabled Oca to collaborate with ethics instructor Jolynn Dellinger to create a cornerstone course for the robotics curriculum to be offered in Spring 2023: Ethics through Case Studies in Automation.

Oca is excited to partner with Duke Health members of the Duke MEMS faculty such as Patrick Codd, a Duke associate professor of neurosurgery, and Daniel Buckland, a Duke assistant professor of surgery, to bring real-world examples into courses and research.

 “We have incredibly passionate and motivated students at Duke who want to make positive change in the world. I hope to help them learn how to make these impacts through robotics and autonomous technologies.”

Oca’s ingenuity, resourcefulness and perseverance are no surprise to Buckland, her PhD advisor. Oca and Buckland worked on a NASA-funded project to design a robotic arm that can autonomously take an ultrasound scan of an astronaut’s arm without needing oversight by a human medical clinician.

Oca is particularly interested in reducing the gap between the promise of robotic technologies and their implementation in the real world. “We must use our knowledge and capabilities to build devices that help people—all people,” Oca said.

She is excited that a project published as part of the 2022 International Symposium on Medical Robotics (ISMR) to develop breast-mimicking phantom tissue for autonomous ultrasound breast scans will continue via collaboration to develop effective controllers with Leila Bridgeman, a Duke assistant professor of mechanical engineering and materials science. Through this and future student projects, she will continue to research trust and safety in medical robotic technologies to enhance human-robot interactions.

As assistant director of the Duke MEMS master’s program in robotics, Oca will implement new courses to ensure that students have practical skills, thoughtful insights and inspiring engagement with technologies. She looks forward to growing robotics at Duke alongside Assistant Professor Boyuan Chen, who also started with Duke MEMS on July 1. 

Oca’s enthusiasm for helping students develop their goals post-graduation stems from mentoring students in the lab and teaching the Intro to Robotics course as she earned her PhD at Duke.  

 “We have incredibly passionate and motivated students at Duke who want to make positive change in the world,” she said. “I hope to help them learn how to make these impacts through robotics and autonomous technologies.” 

Oca is inspired when she hears from former Duke students discussing their work, varying from NASA robotics to advising autonomous vehicle technologies, and looks forward to helping develop more connections to Duke in this growing field.

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