NU Step to PhD: Zhanat Makhataeva, PhD in Robotics Engineering

Our next NU Step to PhD guest is Zhanat Makhataeva, a third-year Ph.D student in Robotics Engineering at NU SEDS. She was awarded the Microsoft Research PhD Fellowship. As a Research Fellow at the ISSAI, Zhanat is working to improve human memory and perception through augmented reality (AR) and artificial intelligence.


Tell us about your doctoral research?

I am developing apps for augmented reality glasses. Using the capabilities of artificial intelligence and augmented reality, I am working on creating smart systems that will be able to recognize, remember, and process information on behalf of a human being.

This technology will help people with memory, vision, and hearing issues. While working at ISSAI with other researchers, we developed the server-AR goggles system. The system enables the sending of data from augmented reality glasses to a server, processes the data on the server, and sends the results back to the glasses. Through this system, I have developed a memory assistant that can memorise the user’s location and the objects that the user previously saw. The effectiveness of the memory assistant has been confirmed by our experimental data, and I am currently working to get the research data ready for publication.


What is the applied value of your work?

While reading a review article on augmented reality and robotics, we discovered how augmented reality increases the efficiency of human-robot interaction, making their collaboration more convenient and safer. We hypothesized that through the combined capabilities of augmented reality and artificial intelligence, we would be able to create new types of assistive systems for humans.

The applied value of such systems is quite wide. There are many people in the world who have difficulties in recognizing colors, faces, and voices. Through technology, it would be great if we could create a convenient and effective system for solving such problems.


What can you tell us about the process of writing your thesis?

I am working as a researcher in ISSAI and ARMS. I am very lucky because we have a great team. 

Collaboration is encouraged because it allows us to develop new ideas and helps our work be more interesting and progress more efficiently. I would also like to note that I receive support and mentoring from my supervisor, Professor Huseyin Atakan Varol, with whom I discuss details and solve research problems.


Zhanat, tell us, please, about the selection stages for the Microsoft scholarship. Was it difficult?

The most important part was to condense my research plan down to two pages: in those two pages, I needed to describe myself, outline my plan, and explain how this scholarship would help me during my research. It was not difficult to write my motivation letter, because I had already started my research and clearly understood what I was going to do in my research, and how I saw myself in the future as a researcher.

In addition to the motivation letter, it was necessary to submit a CV and three recommendation letters. I asked my supervisor and two professors in the robotics department, Prof. Anara Sandygulova and Prof. Berdakh Abibullaev, from whom I previously took courses or worked as a teaching assistant, to give me their recommendations. We have wonderful professors at NU who are always ready to offer their help and support.


How will your future scholarship and internship at Microsoft help you in your research?

When I first started my research into learning about augmented reality, I used to watch tutorials and videos on the Unity website, which is for game creators. To be honest, our university does not have a large community of augmented reality researchers to ask about how they are developing their applications. Therefore, I developed my skills on my own 

I applied for this scholarship in order to gain new knowledge, information, and experience. The 12-week internship at Microsoft will provide me with an opportunity to meet researchers from the Microsoft team and other students from around the world who have been also studying augmented reality. I will be able to learn about new methods of developing AR technologies during our collaborative work and through our interactions.  I am very sure that any weaknesses in my research will be revealed, which will be great as well. As a result, I will be able to work them out, which will have a positive effect on my current research and my future work.


Please, tell us about your future plans?

Before the new year, I am going to prepare a publication that will present the results of our experiments with the memory assistant. 

As part of my future projects, I want to develop an application in augmented reality using artificial intelligence, through which I will try to solve the issues of people who have difficulties with the visual and auditory perception of information. This is because many people face a lot of cognitive problems when they cannot distinguish colors, faces, sounds, and voices, and thus lose a lot of information about the world around them.  I would like to solve these problems by using the tools that are available in the 21st century. It would be great if the results of my work could help people with cognitive problems, including those with memory problems and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. 


What would you advise to future doctoral students?

For doctoral studies, you will need to choose a professor with whom you will work and a laboratory where you will spend most of your working time. When making this choice, pay attention to the research environment in the laboratory or organization: the people who work there, the relationship between the researchers and students, the values ​​of the laboratory leaders, and the opportunities created for research.

I hope for future doctoral students to find an area of ​​study that they really like, and during their doctoral studies to get closer to realizing their dreams and goals. In this regard, I was very lucky to study at Nazarbayev University, where we have a wonderful research environment, to work at ISSAI,  and to be part of the excellent team at the ARMS robotics laboratory. I think that at Nazarbayev University, students have every opportunity to do what they love, conduct research, and work on the development of science on an equal basis with other researchers from around the world.