Electrical Engineer, Cornell University, USA
Co-founder, Vice President Community & Programs at MassRobotics, MA, USA
Helped create the MassRobotics Jumpstart Fellowship Program supported by the Dassault Systèmes US Foundation
The Jumpstart Fellowship Program launched in 2021 to provide opportunities for diverse Boston high school girls to learn about careers in robotics and develop their professional networks through direct engagement with industry professionals. The curriculum exposes young women to the many technical skills in areas that are included in the robotics industry, from programming to design and simulation, to hands-on building, prototyping and testing. With the support of the Dassault Systèmes US Foundation, the program also includes mentorship to help develop a more inclusive technical workforce by preparing diverse talent in high school to pursue careers in STEM and robotics.
When she graduated from Cornell as an electrical engineer, Joyce Sidopoulos first worked for the United States Navy as a civilian. She spent a dozen years studying acoustics and testing active sonar, helping to build a performance prediction model for sonar technicians on surface ships and submarines. It was an exciting job that she loved because she was actually doing soldering, wiring and analysis. It was very technical and gave her the opportunity to use many of the skills she had learnt at school.
After starting a family and realizing she was missing the interaction with technical and business people, Joyce worked for various Defense contractors and with the Air Force for about ten years. She then decided to take a break to figure out, as she says, “what I really wanted to do when I grew up”. That is when she began working for the Mass Technology Leadership Council as the Robotics Cluster Manager. This led her to co-found MassRobotics in 2015, a nonprofit independent organization that focuses on the growth and adoption of robotics worldwide.
One of the ways MassRobotics supports its mission is by inspiring and educating the next generation to go into the field of robotics and tech. As the United States was going through an inequity crisis, Joyce and the team were looking for ways to contribute. The idea actually came from a founder at GreenSight, one of the startups they work with. He was looking for a way to get more trained high school students involved that he could hire. That is when they decided to create the Jumpstart Fellowship Program, just for girls, convinced that having girls together and not having a boy to rely on to do the mechanical work makes the girls have to step up and do everything. “I remember being in the labs at Cornell and when we were building something, the guys would always do the building and I would be the note taker. Even though I was an engineer just like them, it is just how the roles always fell.”
Part of the mission of Jumpstart, a program supported by the Dassault Systèmes US Foundation, is to empower girls in the tech field and help them build their confidence with tools and technology so that they can consider applying to engineering schools if this is what they want to do. One of the girls from the first cohort of eight is now studying mechanical engineering at UMass. Another one is at MIT and a few more are applying now. “It is nice to see that we made an impact. It is rewarding seeing the girls’ confidence build throughout the sessions, culminating at the end and going off to their internships. It’s inspiring for me to see them inspired.”
Joyce feels grateful for having supportive parents growing up. She was always good in math; she liked numbers, physics, and biology. When she got towards the end of high school, her parents offered her to take a test to help her choose what to study next. The first thing that came out was astronaut – she has always wanted to be an astronaut and… still does – so her parents asked to know what came second. It was engineer, so they said OK and supported her throughout college.
It definitely helped that Joyce’s dad was an electrical engineer. He had a workshop in the basement; he was always tinkering and Joyce would always help him fix things at home. Her mom was also a great role model. She was a schoolteacher and went back to school in her late 30s to become a nurse. Joyce saw her study hard and volunteer, setting an inspiring example for her children.
She also appreciates that she always had people who supported her throughout her career. When she was working with the Navy for example, women did not ride on ships, but she had a commander who was always advocating for her to be able to go on the ships with the men.
She believes that the most important thing for parents, teachers and mentors is to encourage young people – young girls in particular – to try new things and tell them it is okay if it does not work. People tend to look at failure as a negative thing when, in fact, this is all part of the learning process. “Every time you think that you are failing at something, you have to think about what you are learning and what you can either do better or do different next time.”
Part of her message to everyone is to always be a team player. It is important to have a mix of different ideas coming together, which is another reason why Joyce encourages girls to go into engineering. “In college, there weren't a lot of girls in the class, maybe four or five in my cohort of 200, but I never really thought of it as being a girl or a guy. We were just a group of kids trying to do engineering. I found a nice group of people to hang around who were all very smart. We all worked on projects together, everyone contributed.”
Her final words underline the importance of networking and mentoring. “Very often, young girls do not know whom to turn to for help. There are not that many technical women they can ask and they have to find the ones who are willing to give them some time. We try to tell them that networking is everything. What we would really like is for the Jumpstart girls to come back and mentor so they can inspire the girls that are coming up next”.