Furniture engineering: Rebecca Perry finds new solutions for everyday problems

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Breaking BarriersUnsung Women's Project

Welcome back to the Unsung Women’s Project! We’ll be highlighting amazing women in STEM, sharing the stories of all of the incredible, meaningful things women have done in their STEM careers that haven’t gotten the recognition they deserve.

Rebecca Perry leads the Applied Technology team within Wayfair’s Emerging Systems Group. This is a diverse team empowered to investigate a broad range of technologies to creatively solve Wayfair’s biggest challenges. Prior to joining Wayfair three years ago, Rebecca earned her PhD in Applied Physics at Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. As a graduate student, Rebecca learned Python and developed her passion for data analysis and visual-spatial information while analyzing 3D microscope images; she formalized her interests in these areas with a secondary field in Computational Science and Engineering from Harvard’s Institute for Applied and Computational Science. Rebecca has presented at conferences such as the American Physical Society’s March Meeting, the Scientific Computing with Python Conference, and the Grace Hopper Celebration.

Tell us in your own words what you do, and what your job looks like on a daily basis?

I lead a team called Applied Technology that investigates new technologies for solving some of Wayfair’s biggest challenges. In some ways, we act as internal consultants. We’re a diverse group of people who approach problems from different angles. When we don’t find a suitable technology already on the market, we have the freedom to create one. Day-to-day, my time is split between technical work – often analyzing data and images, supporting my team members to make sure they have what they need to make creative connections and produce exciting deliverables, and meeting with stakeholders to arrange future projects. Our team grew out of Wayfair Next, where we had been doing similar problem-solving, but mainly in the area of 3D visualization. Now our mission is broader.

What was the “mission” for Wayfair Next?

Wayfair Next began as a team to investigate virtual and augmented reality as it applies to Wayfair’s business. One of the first projects was implementing augmented reality for e-commerce – essentially, letting you view products at scale in your own home, to get a feel for the product using 3D models. Another use for these 3D models is to create 2D images for the website – we actually create a lot of computer-generated imagery like Hollywood does to generate our marketing images. With Wayfair Next, I got to investigate 3D scanning technology in support of Wayfair’s efforts to grow our 3D model library to cover even more of our catalog.

How did your childhood and academic experiences prepare you for what you do, and can you share a little bit about how you learned growing up?

 I’ve always liked anything scientific or mathematical. My first programming experience was with Logo the turtle, in a computer lab down the hall from my 4th grade classroom. Logo is this turtle that you can direct around the screen – giving it instructions like Forward 5, Right 90, Forward 1, Left 45 – and then the program shows output from these commands to produce line graphics on the screen. So, it’s essentially a way to teach basic programming principles in a visual manner. I actually wasn’t reintroduced to programming until much later, but in middle school I was fortunate enough to participate in a program for middle school girls run by Tufts University’s Engineering Department. We were split into teams, and we got to build museum exhibits to demonstrate different scientific principles. The program was six weeks long which is a lot longer than most “science camp” programs for young students, and it was exciting to be invited into that university setting to really dive into science and engineering outside of school.

Once I got to college, I knew I wanted to do something related to STEM, but I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to major in physics or math or engineering. After my freshman year, I was offered an internship with Professor Mark Battle at Bowdoin, and I spent the summer in his lab. That was definitely the turning point that set me on the road to being a physics major, and then to eventually getting my PhD in Applied Physics.

As far as learning, I definitely learn by doing – I love trying out different things just to see the outcome. For my hobbies, I often do something once just to see how it works, whether it’s baking bread or trying a new type of craft or growing something in my garden. I like to get a hands-on sense for how things work, even if I don’t ever do anything similar again, just to have that understanding. I find that doing something for the first time is really engaging. I’ve heard this described as being drawn to the steep part of the learning curve.

So it seems like your summer physics internship was really influential in getting you interested in pursuing physics. Could you elaborate on that a little more?

That was the turning point for me where I started to see that I could actually be a professional scientist, that it was a real possibility. As a student, it felt exciting that I could make a real contribution to a project that would be submitted for publication. After undergrad, I worked in industry for a couple of years, and then I went back to research by going back for my PhD. I kept following what I felt was most interesting at the time, and I saw the process of getting a PhD as intriguing in its own right and also as a stepping stone to an industry job with more autonomy and responsibility.

As for my current job, it was really the timing of Wayfair Next starting that drew me to working here – I never imagined that I would work for an e-commerce company, but Wayfair is really a tech company that happens to sell furniture! Still, going from a PhD in Applied Physics to working at a tech company that’s focused on the home was a big leap.  There were a lot of brilliant things happening here that drew me in, and I’ve really been exposed to such a broad range of topics while working here that I probably wouldn’t have been exposed to had I taken a job at a company that only specializes in what I’d researched during my PhD.

What was your job in industry before your PhD, and why did you decide to go back to school?

Leaving undergrad, I thought that research might be a little too focused for me – the thought of studying niche topics and writing seemingly esoteric papers turned me away. Instead, I got a job as a Data Technician at a wind energy consultancy, where they were looking at wind data from different locations to see what might be viable as a wind farm site. Unfortunately, the job there had no creativity in it, and what I did every day was completely prescribed; there was the data, and I was told exactly what I had to do to the data coming in each day, and that was all there was to it. I thought I’d love it, because I wanted to help the environment, and I generally love working with numbers and graphs. But, it turns out that what I actually liked about science and math is the problem-solving aspect and being able to come up with creative approaches.

I left that job and then worked for a year at a chemical company, where what I was doing was more towards the bench science side of things– a lot more experimental. That’s when I learned for sure that the focused research workflow actually aligned a lot more with what I wanted to do because I wanted a job that was geared towards problem-solving and placed a high value on accuracy. I also had a couple of great mentors at that second job, who convinced me to apply to grad school. I am truly grateful for that because grad school was a very enjoyable six-year experience!

When applying to grad school, I knew that I might want a job back in industry when I came out– just one that was more similar to the job of my boss at the time than to the job that I was leaving. I really looked up to her and wanted to lead a small team doing highly scientific, innovative research. I was drawn to industry because you’re more likely to see a direct impact as a result of your research than you are in academia. So, I went to grad school with the intention of coming back out to a job in industry – not being a professor.

What was your dissertation about?

I was studying something called soft condensed matter physics, which is essentially the science of squishy materials – things like foams and gels, and slurries of solid particles suspended in liquids. In particular, I was studying perfectly spherical particles that are about 1000 nanometers in diameter. I would put those particles into a liquid like water and look at them under a microscope. At that scale, they’re small enough that the thermal motion of a surrounding liquid can actually move the spheres, yet they’re big enough to see with an optical microscope. While you can’t see or track the individual atoms and molecules in the liquid, you can witness their net effect on the spheres.

I was looking at the particles’ three-dimensional movements and how the particles interacted with one another using a laser-based microscope. What you see on the microscope’s camera looks kind of like a bullseye pattern, and you can actually extract 3D information about where these tiny spheres are from a single 2D image.

Studying the motion of these particles is part of a research area called self-assembly. The idea is that this random motion is continually happening, so why not use it to assemble small, desirable structures. Currently, to build things like chips for phones or computers, you have to use a giant cleanroom facility. However, imagine a future state where you could put some ingredients into a suspension and wait for those pieces to jiggle around enough until they preferentially clipped together into the right places. You could simply wait, come back later, and have the component you wanted assembled. So, some of the work I was doing was trying to understand how those interactions between different components work, with the hope that later on someone could develop a system that would direct the assembly of a useful component.

Pretty different from furniture!

Definitely, but there is a similarity– I was using Python to analyze images, and I’ve been doing that at Wayfair as well. When I was hired onto Wayfair Next, my first project was in 3D scanning technology, so there was the 3D connection as well.

What’s your superpower?

I would say that my superpower is not being afraid to work on something that I don’t know how to do, which is something I learned in grad school. As a manager, I definitely try to encourage my team to work on things that they don’t know how to do either, so that we can all keep learning. I think it’s really important to remain open to that sort of continuous learning.

Who were your inspirations growing up, either in STEM or otherwise?

My 6th grade science teacher Heidi Kaiter was the one who worked with us during that Tufts program, and she really helped foster my interest in STEM. She did a great job of incorporating everyone into the lessons and not making anyone feel left out. She encouraged all of us to get excited about science, which was awesome. She actually came to my PhD defense. We’d lost touch, but I emailed her a few days before to let her know where I’d gone with science. It was really cool to see someone who I respected so much as a kid show up to support me and celebrate my work as an adult.

Currently, I’m inspired by a group of three women friends from grad school who are all rock stars in their own fields. It’s really fun to watch them advance in their respective fields. We only get together about once a year now, but they’re all really supportive and are great models for being people who excel at their careers while also keeping time for themselves and their personal lives.

What is the biggest lesson that you’ve learned in your career?

To ask for help when you need it! Whenever I’ve done that around Wayfair, it’s been incredibly useful. Each time, I still continue to be surprised at how useful it is. Coming out of a PhD program – and I guess also just due to my personality– I really value self-sufficiency and tend to forget how beneficial it can be to ask for help or advice. Equally, I get surprised by how much other people can empathize with whatever situation you’re dealing with.

What have been some of your challenges, then, either career-wise or personally?

Finding a job after my PhD was actually a little bit tricky– being able to define what the translational skills were coming out of my PhD was challenging, and I didn’t want a job in exactly the same field I had been researching. Even though I’d become an expert in that area, I really wanted to branch out and try something a little different. I often hear that the best companies simply hire smart people and then train them for the specific content area on the job, but I actually found that some companies are more narrow-minded than others as far as the particular background they’re looking for.

What were you initially looking for, and what led you to Wayfair? What interested you about this position?

I was looking for somewhere that I could continue writing code to analyze images. Coincidentally enough, in my spare time at the end of my PhD, I’d actually thought of ways that I wanted searching for furniture online to be different, but my ideas were too big to tackle on my own. At that time, three years ago, I hadn’t heard of Wayfair, but as I opened my job search more broadly to data science, I saw that this Boston-based company in the furniture space had data science roles. I thought that I could take some of my ideas and try to implement them there! The areas that Wayfair needed people for weren’t quite overlapping with what my ideas were – so I’m still working on pitching those! – but the things that I’ve worked on have been really interesting as well.

What’s next for Wayfair Next?

I’ve actually recently spun out from Wayfair Next – my team was a sub-team within Wayfair Next, but now we’re a different team called Applied Technology. My team will be moving around the company in about six month stints to help different groups with some of their biggest challenges, which is great because we get to be really involved at a bunch of different levels with these big questions. We’re coming at this with a methodology that’s similar to that of a design consultant or a technical consultant, to approach these problems with fresh eyes and a new perspective. We have a lot of leeway to suggest any sort of technology that could possibly help in these spaces, and then our role is to prototype some of these different ideas and present them to our internal clients. Each new engagement could be in any area of the business, which keeps things exciting.

One of the reasons that I like working here at Wayfair is that the main challenges are pretty easy to relate to, but not easy to solve. You can probably guess what some of the major challenges are if you think through the experience of an e-commerce customer. Wayfair has a huge catalogue of products, we need to be able to market those products well, and of course customers want to receive products quickly. The major challenges at Wayfair are around these and other key components of any e-commerce business.

Wayfair does have some unique aspects to it that call for custom solutions. Because we’re focused on the home, imagery is incredibly important compared to other e-commerce businesses. If you’re going online to search for paper towels or batteries or other staples, you probably already know what brand you want, and you’ll simply re-order whatever you got last time. When you’re shopping for furniture, though, you really want something that inspires you, or that fits with your particular space. People have different visions and styles for different rooms in their house. Merchandising and creating the imagery for all of our products has been one of the big challenges that Wayfair is particularly adept at addressing. Another challenge is the delivery of larger items – since a lot of our items are very big. We’ve ramped up what we call the “Wayfair Delivery Network,” and operating a lot of the logistics side of things. There are specific nuances to e-commerce for all things home, and Wayfair is really good at recognizing and addressing the challenges in this space.

What have been some of things you’ve done in your career that you’re most proud of?

It’s been really cool to see my team grow and to hire some people onto it. I was the first hire, so it used to be just my manager and me. Now Wayfair Next is big enough to tackle multiple projects in parallel, and my Applied Technology team has four people on it. It’s really gratifying to create these jobs, and to be able to give other people the opportunity to work on these problems with us.

I also was really proud to get accepted to speak at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing this year! I’d never actually been to this conference as an attendee, so it was also my first time attending. I had no idea what to expect. It turned out to be 22,000 people – predominantly women. It was such a cool atmosphere, because I’ve obviously been in many STEM spaces that have a huge gender imbalance, but rarely in the direction of more women than men, so it was really special.

What does success mean to you? What would you consider to be “being successful” in your career?

In the short term, I love to see things that I’ve worked on have a real impact on the business or get implemented so that I know customers are seeing the impact of it on the website – I find that very gratifying. In the long term, I just hope to continue to work on puzzles that really interest me and engage me in my career. I’m not really someone who has a five-year or ten-year plan; I just want to keep being interested in what I do, and if I’m able to keep doing that, then I think I’d consider that being successful. Over the past three years, I’ve gone from being an individual contributor to a manager, so it’s been interesting to learn some of those managerial skills. There are definitely many career paths that I’m interested in, and I’ll just keep pursuing whatever interests me most.

What’s something that keeps you up at night?

Taking this literally, I actually find that once I’ve turned the lights off and I’m about to fall asleep, that’s a time that I can really think hard on something I’ve been puzzling on at work – due to the quiet, distraction free environment. Thinking about tough puzzles doesn’t actually keep me up; I normally just think a bit and then drift off to sleep, but I really love that quiet time as a moment for me to reflect on what’s been challenging me. To a lesser extent, usually the end of the work day has a similar effect – when there are fewer people in the office, and I’ve taken care of what I need to take care of for the day, I can dig into some complex projects.

If you had three more hours in a day, how would you spend them?

I would love to get back to volunteering more. I volunteered a lot more during grad school, and I’ve let that fall away over the past couple of years. I’ve started to look into some organizations through which I feel I could make a positive impact. There are teams of engineers that basically create code to help non-profit organizations and political candidates, so perhaps with my hypothetical extra three hours I would jump into one of those teams.

What’s something that people who know you well would be surprised to learn about you?

I’m not sure if many people know that I was a pole vaulter in college at Bowdoin!

Other than what we’ve already covered, what do you geek out about?

Recently, I’ve been geeking out about knitting, and specifically I’m thinking of doing some geometrical modeling of different knit-stitches. I just think it would be really interesting, and there’s actually already some academic research on it! I had a friend who was asking me to make a program to adapt knitting patterns for different diameter yarns and different needles, and so she got me thinking about this geometrical modeling project. I could equally happily geek out over actually knitting, which might be a better choice with winter coming!