Haylee Mota can only see light and shadows. Yet she sees so much more. – USC Viterbi

Haylee Mota, sophomore in mechanical engineering at USC Viterbi

Haylee Mota remembers the moment well. She was a curious and inquisitive 7-year-old, an admirer of spacecraft, rockets and fighter jets at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, when she decided that one day she would become an engineer.

However, the path to making this dream a reality involved a learning curve far beyond academics. The 19-year-old hasn’t been able to see a rocket or textbook since she was a child. Mota is blind, but she never lost sight of that childhood dream – in fact, she’s well on her way to making it a reality.


“I was born with congenital Leber amaurosis,” Mota said. “The doctors didn’t notice anything at first. I was a few months old when my mother noticed that I was passing in front of the TV without paying attention to it. She started wondering if there was something wrong with my eyes.

Leber congenital amaurosis is a rare genetic eye disease that prevents light-gathering cells in the retina from functioning properly. The disorder is also degenerative, causing Mota’s vision loss to worsen over time. Now she can only see shadows and light perception. While blindness is often presented as a completely incapacitating disability, Mota hasn’t let it slow down.

“You only live once, so don’t let anything hold you back” is his motto.

“You only live once, so don’t let anything hold you back” is his motto.

In the fall of 2021 with her guide dog “Nicky,” a 5-year-old golden retriever, by her side, the Rhode Island native decided to attend USC Viterbi School of Engineering, thousands of miles from her home. and his family . Like any freshman new to campus, there was a lot to learn, but life away from home meant additional challenges and more determination for Mota.


Taught by Professor Paul Ronney, chairman of the Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering at USC Viterbi, AME 101, Introduction to Mechanical Engineering and Graphic Design, was one of the first classes Mota enrolled in as a freshman at USC Viterbi. AME 101 asks students to engage in a variety of visual and hands-on activities like using a soldering iron or building a structurally sound 3D-printed bridge out of pieces of wood – challenges Mota was willing to take on head on. She contacted Ronney in an email before classes started.

“When she first contacted me, my immediate reaction was, ‘How am I going to do this?’ then my second reaction was, ‘That’s cool, this will be a new challenge for me,” Ronney explained. “I was concerned about the practical part, but I didn’t want it to be a watered down experience. I told him that I expect all the students we train to learn how to use a bandsaw, a drill, a belt sander and how to weld. I expected her to say, ‘How can I do this?’ At that time she said, “Well, I did all of that except the soldering.”

After researching and seeking advice from other professors across the country, Ronney realized that many programs designed for STEM students, such as CAD (computer-aided design), were not accessible to the visually impaired. . Just as the field of engineering itself requires an open mind and creative thinking to solve a challenge, Ronney and Mota worked together to find solutions.

Whether it’s physically etching graphics onto acrylic so Mota can feel the dots, guiding her hands to teach her how to solder, or 3D printing parts so she can touch and measure to a CAD project, Ronney says he was impressed with how quickly Mota learned and adapted. He says that by the end of the fall semester, Mota was thriving in AME 101, and the two stayed connected the following semester.

“He told me I wanted to stay in touch with you because I want you to get all the engineering experience here at USC Viterbi,” Mota said. “I contacted Professor Ronney in the spring to tell him that I was looking for a summer internship opportunity, so if you have anything can you please let me know. He then put in touch with Professor Gupta.


Satyandra K. Gupta, Smith International Professor in Mechanical Engineering, encouraged Mota to apply for 2022 Research Experiences Program for Undergraduates (REU), which is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation. Gupta participates in the 10-week Undergraduate Summer Research Program held annually at USC, giving 10 students from around the country the opportunity to work in state-of-the-art labs with USC faculty to research robotics and autonomous systems. Mota was selected to participate in the program and chose to work in Gupta’s lab where she found her robotics research on assistive technologies to be of particular interest.

“I’ve always been interested in assistive technology and seen how it can help people with different disabilities,” said Gupta, who has an autistic daughter. “I understand the challenges faced by people with disabilities. I certainly have a desire to understand how technology can play a role in helping people.

For the summer program, Mota decided to focus his research on the accessibility of telepresence robots to visually impaired people. As employers around the world allow more flexible and remote schedules, telepresence robots have grown in popularity during the pandemic giving users the ability to appear in places they can’t be in person. Think of telepresence bots as video conferencing technology on wheels. The user’s face appears on the robot’s screen and a camera on the robot allows the home user to select a point in the room for the robot to then navigate autonomously.

Because a user must see the room on a screen to move around it, telepresence robots are inaccessible to people with visual impairments.

“Unfortunately the way the whole telepresence industry is set up is not designed for the visually impaired,” Gupta said. “The way you drive the robot is by looking at your screen, and the way the robot gives you information is done entirely through visual cues.

Through Mota’s research, she found that by modifying the telepresence robot’s navigation system to rely on touch rather than vision, the robot became more accessible.

“I took a haptic device and sent that device an image of the room the robot was in, then the user is able to sense all the objects in the room,” Mota explained. “Once you’ve sensed all the objects, you can then determine where you want the robot to navigate, and then you can press a button and send the robot to that point.”

The haptic device maps rooms and objects using points to create an image. Once the image has been rendered, the user can then pick up a stylus to navigate the room, allowing them to feel if there is an object, such as a table, located in the corner.


Mota now plans to continue his interest and research in haptic technology. This fall, she began working on campus at the Haptics Robotics and Virtual Interaction (HaRVI) lab, led by Heather Culbertson, Gabilan Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering.

As her journey to becoming an engineer continues, Mota’s childhood love for rockets and spacecraft continues to drive her forward. Last summer, she was able to visit NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena as part of the REU program. Now a sophomore at USC Viterbi, Mota plans to work in the field of propulsion and fluid dynamics after graduation.

Apart from just being fascinated by the aerodynamics of rockets and airplanes. Mota decided to put his own aerodynamics to the test after trying skydiving this summer. Apart from her love for engineering, Mota is a music lover who plays piano and guitar and enjoys jazz for her improvisation.

When I met Haylee in her haptics lab at Ronald Tutor Hall for this interview, Mota informed me that she planned to learn to skateboard with a friend after our interview. It’s easy to say that Haylee Mota is fearless, but what I’ve discovered is that she’s also determined not to take no for an answer.

“People think you can’t do certain things because of your disability and that annoys me,” Mota explained. “I am stubborn, and I don’t like being told what to do or what I can’t do by other people.

Posted on September 29, 2022

Last updated September 29, 2022