Meet the daughter of Nigerian immigrants who is the first Black woman to earn U-M Robotics PhD

Dollita Okine May 13, 2024
Oluwami, “Wami,” Dosunmu-Ogunbi addresses her fellow graduates at the Michigan Engineering Graduate Student Commencement Ceremony at the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, on Wednesday, May 1, 2024. Photo: Brenda Ahearn/University of Michigan, College of Engineering, Communications and Marketing

Oluwami (Wami) Dosunmu-Ogunbi is the first Black woman to get a PhD in robotics at the University of Michigan. The daughter of Nigerian immigrants set off on her educational career with no clear end goal in mind. After graduating with her bachelor’s degree, she decided to devote the next five years to research, excited by the PhD regalia. 

However, it wasn’t until recently that she understood there were several ways she could apply her engineering background to better people’s lives.

At the engineering graduate commencement ceremony on May 1, Ogunbi shared her story of failure and support. “I do not stand here on my own two feet alone. None of us got here by our individual merit alone,” she said, per the University of Michigan.

She entered the U-M mechanical engineering PhD program adorned with academic awards, including her MVP award from the University of Illinois’ Pi Tau Sigma chapter, the mechanical engineering honor society. Despite this, she failed the U-M mechanical engineering PhD program’s qualifying tests.

She sought counsel from robotics professor Chad Jenkins, her mentor, when she considered leaving during the pandemic. Seeing Ogunbi’s promise, the lecturer worked quickly to put her in contact with robotics professor Jessy Grizzle, who, along with Jenkins, was a major figure in the founding of Michigan’s robotics program.

Grizzle, for his part, postponed his retirement plans and invited Ogunbi to work in his lab as his last PhD student. Ogunbi attempted her qualifying examinations again, and, fortunately, she found inspiration from Kira Barton, a robotics professor, and Robert Gregg, an associate professor of robotics, who asked questions that helped Ogunbi regain her confidence and get back on track.

Surrounded by a group of professors and colleagues who provided the necessary support, Ogunbi completed her study, with the main outcome being the development of a new stair-climbing controller for bipedal walking robots. She even performed the first demonstration of a bipedal robot stepping on, riding, and getting off a moving walkway.

Her most recent accomplishments are just a few of her distinctions. The university stated that Ogunbi has been a prominent member of the robotics community, having been appointed an outreach ambassador by Robotics for three consecutive years, 2021–2023, and receiving an MLK Spirit Award for mentorship and inspiration from the College of Engineering. She also placed second in the College of Engineering’s 3-minute thesis competition.

She has been admitted to the Bouchet Society, which celebrates outstanding scholarly performance and supports diversity in graduate education and the professoriate.

Ogunbi is currently applying for faculty positions.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: May 13, 2024


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