Intern finds unexpected autonomy
on robots internship

Engineering and business student Monique Cooper talks about her time interning in the Service Robotics Department at Taiwan’s largest research and development institute. She describes how her initial trepidation was quickly allayed by the hospitality of the Taiwanese people she met.
Monique sitting at a table having dinner with colleagues

Monique having dinner with colleagues

My experience of Taiwan started tens of thousands of feet up in the sky. I had proudly managed to get the window seat and was set for the fourteen-hour direct flight of reading, in house entertainment and trying not to overthink about navigating work in a foreign country.

Little did I know I had chosen a seat next to an older couple who would quickly take me under their wing. Over the next few hours, I would learn about Taiwan’s history, tea, the importance of community, some of New Zealand's best tourist spots and how to order three cup chicken in Mandarin. They even waited for me to get through the international passport line, so they could offer me a shuttle ride into Taipei city and give me their contact details in case of emergency.

This experience is just one moment of pure kindness Taiwanese people have shown me on my journey. On day one at work, I would get told by the HR lady that if I ever wanted to visit her hometown she would show me around. On my first weekend trip away, I would experience my first earthquake (a 5.6 magnitude earthquake around 5:30am with no damage) and my new friends would wake me up and guide me through the process. On my second trip, a colleague would offer me a bed in his sister’s city apartment.

Half of what this country is...was unfamiliar to me. Yet, this difference was to be embraced and has shaped me more than I can express or comprehend. As leadership expert Robin Sharma eloquently puts it “As you move outside of your comfort zone, what was once the unknown and frightening becomes your new normal”.

The topography of Taiwan resembles the South Island of New Zealand. The nature here grounded me throughout this new experience. It is easy to find a park, a river or National Reserve. Taiwan takes care of their mountains and indigenous villages with permits often being required to visit.

Monique sitting on a rock looking out over a range of forest-clad mountains

Monique: "The nature here grounded me throughout this new experience."

I spent the majority of my time working for the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) and living on the Hsinchu campus.

ITRI was a driving force behind developing Taiwan's industries from labor-intensive into innovation-driven. It’s one of the world’s leading technology R&D institutions with six thousand employees spread across Taiwan, U.S., Netherlands, Moscow, western Europe and Japan.

ITRI has incubated over 270 innovative companies. The campus has a gym, swimming pool, soccer fields, basketball courts, their own bike sharing system and almost one hundred buildings. Through ITRI I have worked with more PhD students than I have met back home.

In my second week here I sat in a lecture about AI in autonomous driving with control theory with the world-renowned Professor Masayoshi Tomizuka from Berkeley University.

Within my job, in the Service Robotics Department, I was privileged to somewhat tailor my working experience to my interests and I was tasked to work on multiple projects. This was not what I expected.

Monique with colleagues and firefighters in front of a fire station

Having experience as a volunteer firefighter, being asked to pitch a start-up idea for a firefighting robot was a particular highlight for Monique 

I would recommend coming to the Service Robotics Department at ITRI with a research topic, especially if you are coming at the end of the year (when their projects are wrapping up and new ones are getting approved).

As I have both an engineering and business background, I was stretched in both areas throughout my internship. I was able to formulate and pitch product ideas that I am passionate about as well as code and work with a range of sensors and hardware.

A beautiful thing about engineering is that math and coding transverses language. In my lab, we had Mandarin, Spanish and English being spoken daily.

Although there have been many amazing highlights, the three that stood out the most for me would have been:

  • Speaking to my mentor at our Christmas dinner party about firefighting and then being tasked to pitch a start-up spin off idea for a firefighting robot. A project dear to me because of my five-year volunteer firefighting experience.
  • Witnessing a prosthetic hand navigate through positioning that I had coded. This was using tools that I had no knowledge on prior to my internship.
  • The manaakitanga shown by my colleagues’ family when they invited me into their grandparents’ home for a traditional Lunar New Year celebration. This involved learning about their spirituality, having a big family gathering, sharing a meal at a round table (a symbol of connection) and hongbao. It was an honour to share in this traditional experience and taught me first-hand about Taiwanese culture.

To have two organisations and tens of people invest into myself personally and professionally has been invaluable. This experience has shown me a new perspective on both work and lifestyle - adjusting how I see the world. I trust that this experience will make a profound difference in my career trajectory.