In his freshman year at La Jolla High School in San Diego, CA, Tanvir Hussain joined the FIRST Robotics Competition team, an international contest in which thousands of high school students, coaches, and mentors spend six weeks building robots capable of playing ball games, balancing beams, and an assortment of other tasks.
FIRST marked the beginning of Hussain’s journey into the world of engineering, kicking off a lifelong passion. However, it was a seemingly random comment he received in the 11th grade in which he became sure he wanted to become an engineer. While working on a project in a shop class, his teacher complimented his soldering technique.
“I had had an interest in STEM but it wasn’t until that moment that I was sure I wanted to go into engineering – particularly electrical engineering,” Hussain says. “And then I just went down the rabbit hole.”
Later, a principal investigator with a project he was working on at the University of California at San Diego told him about the Naval Research Enterprise Internship Program (NREIP) and suggested he apply. He did and was accepted and went to work for the Naval Information Warfare Center – Pacific (NIWC) in 2020 assigned to the unmanned maritime vehicle lab.
With COVID having just started, the internship was made remote but he found a virtual landscape that transcended geographical boundaries, and a team of passionate interns and scientists from around the country who came together to develop simulations and create an autonomy stack, which acts as the core decision-making system for a vehicle.
Inspired by organizations like RoboNation, they rekindled RoboSub, an autonomous underwater competition, and transitioned it into a virtual domain. This sparked the idea of developing a unique simulation, driven by research papers and insights garnered from the world of virtual robotics.
Over the course of 10 weeks, they meticulously crafted an autonomy stack and completed it with a cost map and a Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) perspective.
For Tanvir, it turned out to be the turning point in life.
“It was the first jump I had into the world of autonomy. And that actually helped me decide that I wanted to do machine learning and data science as my focus,” he said, noting that his first summer at NIWC helped him choose the area for his master’s studies.
NIWC proved a distinctive culture of collaboration and support, where asking questions was not only encouraged but celebrated. Tanvir’s inquiries had a unique way of halting the daily hustle; colleagues willingly set aside their tasks to engage in insightful conversations. If answers weren’t immediately available, his coworkers took it upon themselves to steer Tanvir in the right direction. It was necessary to understand the multifaceted approaches engineers could adopt to solve challenges and innovate.
Tanvir said the same culture of support and collaboration would involve interns as well. This effort aimed at fostering an environment where development and learning were paramount, emphasizing that everyone had something valuable to offer and learn from one another.
In 2022 Tanvir came back to NIWC for another internship. This time his team embarked on an ambitious project. Their goal was to develop a virtual world where their robotic model could navigate—a task that initially seemed quite ambitious given the tight 10-week timeframe.
They started with the grand vision of designing a world, implementing a model, and orchestrating its movement within the space. Their work culminated in the creation of a captivating sequence of images, effectively capturing the motion of their model within the virtual world they had crafted. Individual contributions from all the members of the team were woven together, resulting in a single, cohesive computer simulation.
From there, they transformed the simulation into a video. “That was just very gratifying to be able to see something moving before us, even if it was on our computers” Tanvir explained.
Reflecting on his early career experiences, Tanvir acknowledges that he didn’t possess an extensive background or profound expertise initially. He was just setting out on his journey, learning the ropes and absorbing new knowledge. However, he always had a clear vision of where he wanted to be, with a focus on autonomy, machine learning, and autonomous vehicles.
That has brought him to his current job at NIWC – a full-time engineer working on autonomous vehicles and their capabilities as they build them up for naval operations. From day one the job has been marked by dynamic nature. It’s an environment where challenges can arise unexpectedly, prompting Tanvir to adapt and find solutions.
“Over and over, Tanvir demonstrated the ability to think a problem through and come up with a creative answer,” says TeKali Arnold, Internship and Faculty Lab Coordinator at NIWC Pacific. “That became clear during his first two internships with us, so we were excited when he decided to join us full-time in his current role.”
Reflecting on more routine challenges, he notes the intricacies of navigating bureaucracy and ensuring he adheres to all necessary steps and protocols. While these tasks are certainly manageable, mastering the nuances and ensuring he has ticked all the boxes can be a learning curve. It’s a skill set that he didn’t necessarily acquire during his academic journey but one he is actively working to develop.
In difficult times he finds peace of mind through talking with his co-workers and leadership, maintaining the collaborative effort that was so effective during his internship days at NIWC.
“I can get things done and that’s motivating” he added.
In addition to his daily work, Tanvir has also been involved in STEM outreach. Last year he worked alongside a professor to teach an engineering course at a local high school. This course held special significance, as it was one Tanvir had taken during his college years and had a profound impact on them. The teaching experience has allowed him to impart the magic of STEM to a younger generation, providing invaluable exposure and inspiring future engineers.
And he is eager to continue, recognizing that these early experiences often shape the path for budding engineers, wishing the same opportunities for others – to chance to discover something that genuinely excites and ignites a passionate spark within. Engaging with engineers, scientists, and professionals becomes infinitely easier when you share that sense of excitement about the work they do or the topics they’re involved in, he explains. And that’s part of what drives him.
“It’s really great to have that mixture of working on technically complex projects, but also giving back to the community that I grew up in to try and get more kids excited about what STEM can offer,” he says. “I think that I want to help get people to the places where they can be most effective.”