Building robots takes you anywhere
For as long as she can remember, Zerrin Yumak felt the need to look beyond the world she knew. When she was growing up in Turkey, she felt that there was so much more to see than the bubble she was living in. Combine that with a talent for math and science, put some inspiring female role models into the mix, and you end up with a young, ambitious assistant professor developing believable virtual humans and social robots around the world.
“My mother was a housewife and my father worked as a technical officer in the Navy. Curious as I was, as a child I loved to visit the ships my father worked on, and I remember being so impressed by the technology. I also joined him whenever he was doing jobs around the house, asking questions about the tools in his toolbox.” Zerrin speaks enthusiastically when asked about her past. “My parents always supported me and my two sisters’ education. They inspired me in choosing this particular career. Obviously, I got my interest in technology from my dad, and my mom taught me the importance of soft skills and psychology: that’s a big part of my field of research, too.”
Zerrin is a first-generation academic. She’d always been a good student who loved mathematics, and she decided to study Industrial Engineering. But inspired by the programming courses in her curriculum, she switched to computer science. “The great thing about computer science is that it enables you to create things, building upon fundamental concepts in math and physics,” she explains. “It’s also just fun!”
She was precisely the role model I needed!
One of her teachers turned out to be awe-inspiring and made Zerrin realise what she wanted. “She was a strong woman in the field, and very internationally orientated. She was precisely the role model I needed.”
After her Master’s degree, Zerrin left Turkey to obtain a PhD in Geneva, Switzerland. This endeavour was followed by a position as a postdoc at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. She started working at Utrecht University two years later, as she did not want to stay in Singapore for the long haul. “Singapore was one of the best experiences of my life. It really broadened my view of the world. But I consider myself to be more of a European person.“
Zerrin has been at Utrecht University since 2015 as an assistant professor in Human-Centered Computing. She lives in Soesterberg with her partner and they are expecting their first child.
When you feel satisfied, I think your achievements improve accordingly.
“I feel very much at home,” she says. “At the beginning, there were hardly any female and international researchers working at the department. But many women and international colleagues have joined us since then, and now I think there is a better balance. That in turn contributes to my output and overall productivity. When you feel satisfied, I think your achievements improve accordingly.”
Dr Zerrin Yumak develops AI algorithms for natural interaction with 3D virtual characters in games and VR, and with social robots for entertainment, education, and health applications. Her goal is to make these entities more believable in non-verbal communication, because this greatly improves the effect these applications may have on their users.