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Carnegie Mellon scientist shows brains can be sexy, too

| Sunday, March 3, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
EDEL KELLEY
Heather Knight on the Robot Film Festival red carpet last summer with the Robot Millennia of International Robotics Inc. EDEL KELLEY
ETIENNE AIGNER
Heather Knight lounging with her standup comedy robot Data on a quiet afternoon. ETIENNE AIGNER

The words “science” and “sexy” aren't often spoken in the same sentence.

But somehow they work when referring to Heather Knight.

The Ph.D candidate at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Oakland was selected as one of the sexiest scientists alive by www.businessinsider.com.

She came in at No. 4.

“I had to laugh a little when I heard about this,” says Knight, a Lexington, Mass., native. “But I think that most human beings are multidimensional, and that there shouldn't be a stereotype of scientists looking a certain way. We can be whoever we want to be.”

Knight is one of 50 scientists — male and female — who were recognized. They aren't your typical lab coat-wearing, messy-haired brainiacs, the story says.

Some are rising stars. Some are well-established in their field. All are making a difference, or on their way to, by improving peoples' lives through research and new discoveries, says Dina Spector, associate editor at Business Insider out of New York City, who, with Jennifer Polland, lists and rankings editor, wrote the piece.

Their choices were compiled based on Internet searches and information from resources such as TedTalk, a business and Internet-technology radio show.

They chose people based on their intelligence, ambition, accomplishments, and yes, physical attractiveness, thinking that it's all of those qualities that give someone “sex appeal.”

“Attractiveness was a factor, and we believe sex appeal encompasses intelligence and ambition and the research they are doing as scientists or engineers,” Spector says.

This is one in a series of Business Insider “sexy” lists, such as the sexiest CEOs and sexiest people in technology.

“We thought it would be fun and something different and something that people would like to read,” says Spector. “And, we found that you definitely don't have to be one or the other … you can be both. You can have brains and be sexy. And it is not just about physical features.”

In their quest, Knight's name popped up. Spector and Polland felt Knight was not only good looking, she is extremely accomplished. Knight has both a master's degree and a bachelor's degree in electrical and mechanical engineering from MIT. She founded Marilyn Monrobot Labs , which creates socially intelligent robot performances and sensor-based electronic art. Her robotic installations have been featured at the Smithsonian-Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and PopTech. Last year, she was part of “Cyborg Cabaret,” a talent show at the New Hazlett Theatre on the North Side that explored the themes of humans, robots and cyborg relationships.

“There is no reason why we have to make a choice between science and beauty,” says Knight, who is expecting her first child. “I was shy about being in a technical field, and dressing however I wanted when I first got to MIT, but it gets easier as I get older.”

She is not always consumed by science. Knight enjoys salsa dancing, karaoke (Alanis Morissette is her favorite), travel and film festivals.

Knight says having many interests is a good thing. In today's world, more and more people are overcoming the stereotypes that might be associated with their interests.

“I shouldn't have to make a choice between science and beauty,” she says. “It is good to be multidimensional. I have always been that way. When I was 8, I wanted to be both a banker and a ballerina. I was never really good at choosing one path.”

An example of that is her work with robots and entertainment. She competes as a Robo-Tech on “Robot Combat League,” a reality competition which premiered Feb. 26 on SyFy. She says she loves putting robots on stage in front of an audience. These are 8-feet tall, 800-pound robots, which box via a remote control.

Knight has an art background and likes doing exhibitions that are interactive. She loves bringing technology on the stage, but doesn't see herself in the limelight.

“I am more in the background kind of person,” she says. “The robot is confident on stage. The robot is not afraid.”

As far as her Sexy Scientists honor, she says, “Creativity and technical prowess are absolutely sexy.

“I believe it's more a celebration of people rather than just a rating of hotness.”

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at jharrop@tribweb.com or 412-320-7889.

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