Shreyas Kousik

Faculty Spotlight: Assistant Professor Shreyas Kousik

Get to know one of the Woodruff School's newest faculty members

February 24, 2023
By Ian Sargent

Shreyas Kousik joined the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering as an assistant professor in January. Learn about the focus of his research, why he chose a career in academia, who has had an influence on him, and more in this Q&A. 

How did you end up at Georgia Tech the first time, and what brought you back the second time?

I originally wanted to be an industrial engineer, and Georgia Tech is the best place to study that major – and it’s close to my family in South Carolina. After two years and an ISyE internship, my passion changed, and I switched to mechanical engineering to become a control engineer and roboticist.

As I worked through grad school, academia seemed a better fit for me than industry. When it came time to apply for faculty jobs, I was so excited to see that the Woodruff School had a job posting specifically looking for roboticists – coming back here was my top choice. I already knew how it felt to be an ME undergrad here, so I was excited to connect with the students. On top of that, Georgia Tech has an incredible robotics program that is growing quickly, so I was thrilled to add to the cutting-edge research at a place that was already home.

How much has Georgia Tech changed in the time you’ve been gone?

The most noticeable change is that the quality and quantity of students have grown. Georgia Tech students seemed incredibly smart, dedicated, and hardworking when I was an undergrad. If you told me then that we could be more in each of those attributes than we were, I wouldn’t have believed you – but it’s true.

Luckily, some things have stayed the same. The hills are just as hilly, the Invention Studio is just as inventive, and Moe’s burritos are just as tasty.

Why did you choose a career in academia?

After working in a wide variety of internships, I realized that I was more pulled towards the fundamental math of why robots work than creating products or services. Of course, it’s possible to do a lot of R&D work in industry (for which getting a Ph.D. is a prerequisite). But for me, doing research while also teaching students feels much more fun than working at a company.

Besides research and teaching, I’m passionate about improving diversity, equity, and inclusion in engineering. I think academia gives me the biggest lever to make an impact because every engineer needs to pass through a tiny number of engineering schools before going out to change the world. I hope we as engineers can really understand the underlying societal biases and challenges that our solutions may make better or worse (I suggest reading Prof. Ruha Benjamin’s amazing work in this area). I hope that, by enabling DEI-related conversations and activities for the students who pass through my class and my lab, we will change the way we as a community create and vote on DEI-related policy. Instead of just building better engines, we must also build better engineers.

Who would you say has influenced your career to this point?

During my first semester as a mechanical engineering student, Prof. Wayne Whiteman pulled me aside one day after class because he noticed how I had really been enjoying his dynamics class. He suggested that, if I liked doing math, and wanted to go to grad school, I should find some undergrad research. That two-minute conversation set me on this path and completely changed my life!

After that point, I received tons of guidance and advice from Miller Templeton, Prof. Antonia Antoniou (my research advisor), and Prof. Brandon Dixon, to name a just few people. In grad school at Michigan, Prof. Ram Vasudevan was my Ph.D. advisor and has since become a dear friend. Finally, I was lucky to work with Prof. Grace Gao, Prof. Marco Pavone, and Prof. Laraine Zappert at Stanford. They taught me so much about being a professor and really prepared me for this job.

What classes will you teach?

First and foremost, ME 3017 System Dynamics. I took this class with Prof. Ye-Hwa Chen in 2013, and it made me fall in love with system modeling and control. That one class is honestly why I still work in the field today. In the longer term, I hope to teach optimal control and a robot safety special topics class.

What is the focus of your research?

I work on robot safety. If we really want to put robots everywhere, working near and around people, I believe we must be able to justify exactly why and how they are safe. Often, we can write down safety in a somewhat straightforward way on the whiteboard, but it quickly becomes challenging to transfer that definition onto real robot hardware. So, I’m really interested in developing theories paired with numerical representations that let us make strong statements about real-world safety.

What role do you see robots playing in our future?

In the nearer term, it might be a cliché, but I think we should focus on making it possible to automate the tasks that are often dangerous or uncomfortable for humans to do. Longer term, I love the idea of robots being able to do any task that we want them to do. If we’re very careful about how we structure society to tolerate this kind of shift in labor, maybe we could make it easier for people to choose how and when they work instead of being coerced into work just to survive.

What breakthrough(s) in robotics would you like to see in the next decade?

I want to see general-purpose, continual, online, embodied learning. This might sound a lot like general artificial intelligence – I just don’t think it needs to be as smart as the dystopian vision that “general AI” often conjures. Indeed, limiting to a single embodied form is less scary than a generic system that can access the entire Internet. I am excited that we are getting closer to a robot that can putter around human environments and reliably accomplish arbitrary tasks by adapting to us and interacting with us to understand our needs. My question is always, how will we know that it’s safe?

On the hardware side, a breakthroughs battery capacity, power, and life (or finding some other convenient way to power a mobile robot) would be extremely handy for basically everyone.

What is the biggest challenge of being a new professor on campus?

It is challenging to know what to prioritize. As a Ph.D. student or postdoc, you can do teaching, research, and service at the same time, but there’s usually an advisor as a fallback point of contact and support. As a new professor, you immediately have a million tiny problems to solve, but you’re also the fallback point. However, the mechanical engineering faculty and staff are doing a great job of setting me up with mentors and addressing my millions of questions.

Finally, outside of your work life, what do you like to do for fun?

I love to read sci-fi. I even keep a sporadically updated blog: I typically focus on authors from underrepresented or minority populations. I’ll also shout out Prof. Lisa Yaszek ( as a huge positive influence for this interest of mine.

I’ve also fallen in love with swimming, so I’m in the CRC a few times a week. Besides that, I picked up disc golf and cycling while I was in California. Hopefully, I’ll have a bike and be doing laps of campus soon.