Driving Inspiration from Wami Ogunbi: The First Black Woman with a Ph.D. in Robotics

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A few people have made an in-depth impact as Wami Ogunbi — the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in robotics from the University of Michigan. Thus, this journey establishes her academic and professional prowess as a beacon of inspiration for aspiring scientists, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds. From the record, her story evidences resilience, passion, and the relentless quest for excellence. You may read further to drive inspiration from the academic Don.

Wami Ogunbi: Early Inspirations and Educational Beginnings

Oluwami Dosunmu-Ogunni was born to Nigerian immigrants.  Her early infatuation with education started with a simple interest in the elegant graduation cap worn by Ph.D. graduates while she was young. As a child, she eagerly asked what it took to put on such a hat. The response she received—that she would need to earn a Ph.D. in a field like medicine, law, or engineering—set her on a path of exploration. It’s on record that she has a great aversion to blood and discomfort with public speaking; therefore, engineering emerged as her only option.


Wami Ogunbi embarked on her educational journey with no definite goal in mind. But after completing her Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering, she determined to pursue further studies which was motivated in part by her admiration for the Ph.D. regalia and a newly-found growing interest in research. She would join the University of Michigan’s Ph.D. program in mechanical engineering, a decision that later opened doors to her landmark work in robotics.

Navigating Challenges and Seeking Support

Like other great people faced some hurdles at certain points of their lives, Ogunbi, despite entering the Ph.D. program with countless academic accolades which included but were not limited to the MVP award from the University of Illinois’ Pi Tau Sigma chapter. She had an academic face-off with the qualifying exams required for the mechanical engineering Ph.D. program. This became a challenge to her and tested her resolve.

This attempt eventually failed during a period of self-doubt, exacerbated by the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was at that critical juncture that she approached her mentor, robotics professor Chad Jenkins who counseled her. Wami Ogunbi was then introduced to Professor Jessy Grizzle, a key figure in Michigan’s robotics program and someone who would play a pivotal role in Ogunbi’s academic career. This referral was made possible by her connection with Jenkins.

Interestingly, Grizzle, deferring his retirement, would later invite Ogunbi to join his lab as his final Ph.D. student. These efforts of her mentor reignited her passion to retake the qualifying exams once more. Reportedly, Professors Kira Barton and Robert Gregg, who examined questions during her studies helped to rebuild her confidence and equally played important roles in her success. This mentorship and support she got from a network of mentors were instrumental in her overcoming the challenges she faced.

Achievements and Contributions

Oluwami was able to pass her exams with the support of her professors and peers; she also excelled in her research work which culminated in the development of a novel stair-climbing controller for bipedal robots which serves as a significant advancement in robotic mobility. With her innovative strategy and technical knowledge, she fulfilled the first demonstration of a bipedal robot stepping onto, riding, and dismounting a moving walkway.

Beyond research, Ogunbi has been a prominent figure in the robotics community where she served as an outreach ambassador for the Robotics program at the University of Michigan between 2021 to 2023. These efforts came with recognition with the MLK Spirit Award from the College of Engineering. Besides, she depicted her communication skills by securing second place in the College of Engineering’s three-minute thesis competition.

Bouchet Society — a body that honors outstanding scholarly performance and supports diversity in graduate education and academia accepted Oluwami’s membership owing to her ground-breaking records. Ogunbi’s story is not just about breaking barriers but also about paving the way for others coming behind her to follow.

Wami Ogunbi: Legacy and Inspiration

Wami Ogunbi’s journey has been a compendium of perseverance, mentorship, and community support. As the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in robotics from Michigan University, she has set a precedent for future generations of scientists and engineers, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds.

Her story is an inspiration of hope and recognition of the importance of diversity in STEM and the transformative power of education and supportive network of people; hence, making it lighter to crush challenges.

Final Thoughts

Wami Ogunbi’s remarkable journey from a curious child to a pioneering figure in robotics is a beacon of hope and a source of inspiration to several others. Her achievements re-explains the importance of perseverance and community support in the pursuit of knowledge. Very much so, as the first Black woman with a Ph.D. in robotics from the University of Michigan, she has not only advanced the field but also paved the way for future generations to follow her steps. A  boundless potential of human ingenuity can steer oneself forward beyond one’s imagination; Wami did it and conquered.

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