As a young girl, Ayanna Howard loved The Bionic Woman, the 1970s television show about an athlete who gains superhuman powers with the help of artificial limbs. Sure, it was science fiction—but to her, it seemed real. “I remember thinking, ‘That’s what I want to do: I want to build a bionic woman,’” says the forty-five-year-old multihyphenate, who holds an endowed chair in bioengineering at Georgia Tech and serves as Chief Technology Officer of her startup, Zyrobotics.
Howard spent the first part of her career working on the Mars rover at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. But when she moved to Atlanta in 2006, she began tapping into her Bionic Woman roots. One of her biggest projects is creating programming for a small robot called Darwin, which offers home therapy for children with disabilities such as cerebral palsy. “It has a voice and emotions. It’s a fully functional humanoid,” she says. “Most kids don’t have access to consistent therapy in the home, and I want to try to fix that.”
To program the robot, she’s spent time with special needs childcare workers, watching how they interact with and encourage children. “It’s an amazing skill set they have, how they adapt to different kids,” she says.
But Howard, a mother of three, knows children pretty well herself. At NASA, she started a program for at-risk middle school girls that encourages them to explore science, technology, and math, and in Atlanta, she has led similar programs for girls and children with disabilities.
Looking ahead, Howard says she hopes her work can make a meaningful difference. She might not be bionic, but she doesn’t let that deter her from seeking superhuman results.