Ayanna Howard, Roboticist

Why She’s a MAKER: She’s brought real heart to hardware. In her work pioneering robotic therapy for special needs kids, Dr. Ayanna Howard launched an industry that perfectly fuses tech with positive change. And though she’s a rocket scientist intellect, she’s cool enough to admit a TV show set her on her path.

Superhero Inspiration: Howard’s parents were techies, but it was a fictional character that inspired her tech focus. “When I saw the Bionic Woman, I was totally fascinated. Here was this beautiful person who was saving the world with these things called bionics. You had the technology, which I always resonated with, but you had the social impact.”

Stereotypes in Space: After finishing her Ph.D. at the University of Southern California, Howard joined at NASA at 27. She was ready for the science. The sexism was another thing. “I come into the room, and there was an engineer and he was like, ‘Oh, you’re not supposed to be here. You need to go down the hall where the secretaries are.’” Instead, she went on to lead her team in building Mars rovers.

Robot Rx: In 2005, Howard started her own lab at Georgia Tech, with the goal of revolutionizing health care for children with special needs through robotic therapy. She wasn’t sure if the medical community would embrace the idea, but an early trial session erased all her doubts. While working with a child struggling with spasticity, he played with one of Howard’s robots and “there was this smile on the kid’s face . . . I was like ‘We are definitely doing the right thing.’"