Breaking Barriers in Robotics: First Black Woman To Earn U-M Robotics PhD – Nigerian Oluwami Dosunmu-Ogunbi’s Journey to the Top

When Oluwami (Wami) Dosunmu-Ogunbi decided to pursue a PhD, she didn’t have a clear roadmap for her journey. It was a simple hat — the hexagonal velvet beret with a golden tassel — that sparked her commitment to years of intense research and study after completing her bachelor’s degree.

Ogunbi, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, entered U-M’s mechanical engineering PhD program with an impressive list of accolades, including an MVP award from the University of Illinois’ Pi Tau Sigma chapter, the mechanical engineering honor society. Yet, despite her accomplishments, her journey was anything but smooth. She failed her qualifying exams in the mechanical engineering PhD program, a setback that could have derailed her academic career. As the pandemic-induced recession loomed, she faced the grim prospect of leaving without a doctorate.

But fate had other plans. Ogunbi reached out to her mentor, Professor Chad Jenkins, who sensed that if a student like Ogunbi was struggling, something needed to change. Jenkins took immediate action, reaching out to his network, including Jessy Grizzle, a key architect of the Robotics at Michigan program. Grizzle, who had been considering retirement, welcomed Ogunbi into his lab, becoming her final PhD supervisor. His efforts, along with the support of colleagues like Kira Barton and Robert Gregg, were pivotal in reigniting Ogunbi’s confidence.

Despite the new opportunity, Ogunbi’s journey wasn’t without further hurdles. She had to retake her qualifying exams, this time with a renewed sense of purpose. She also faced technical challenges with an older robot that had lost manufacturer support during her studies. When the robot stopped working, Ram Vasudevan stepped in, lending his Cassie Maize robot so Ogunbi could complete her research on a new stair-climbing controller for bipedal walking robots.

Her perseverance paid off. Though she didn’t see her controller in action on the original robot due to its high maintenance needs, she successfully demonstrated a bipedal robot stepping on, riding, and stepping off a moving walkway — a first of its kind.

Today, Ogunbi’s story is more than a personal victory; it’s a conception of hope and inspiration. Her journey underscores the importance of mentorship, resilience, and community in academia. Ogunbi’s next steps are guided by her desire to use her engineering knowledge to improve the lives of others. She has broken through significant barriers to get where she is today, and as the first Black woman to earn a PhD in Robotics from the University of Michigan, her journey is just beginning.

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