Charity Payne: Drive and Curiosity Led to Her 2018 Models of Excellence Award

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By Penn Human Resources

Charity Payne began her career with Penn Engineering as an undergraduate student worker and a member of Penn Women’s Track and Field team. Today, she’s Associate Director of the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing & Perception (GRASP) laboratory and Penn Engineering Research and Collaboration Hub (PERCH). As a champion shot putter, Payne understands what it takes to push beyond expectations. She continues to propel projects forward for robotics research and education. Payne’s service at Penn earned her a 2018 Models of Excellence Award.

Payne’s work was instrumental in establishing the new PERCH facility in the Pennovation Center. Her outstanding administrative performance led to her Models of Excellence recognition as well as a SEAS Staff Recognition award in 2017. Kostas Daniilidis, Ruth Yalom Stone Professor, CIS, calls Payne one of the “most responsible, brilliant, hard-working administrators I have encountered.”

Payne credits the strong working relationships she has with people across her school for her success. “That’s what makes the wheels turn,” she says. “We’re all here for our students.”

In many ways, Payne’s career path aligns with the growth of robotics research at Penn. “I am a huge nerd at heart,” she says. After graduating from the College of Arts and Sciences with a bachelor’s degree in biology in 2006, Payne accepted a full-time Administrative Assistant job with Penn’s Computer and Information Science (CIS) department within the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS). She used her tuition benefits towards post-bac courses and eventually earned a master’s in Public Health from the Perelman School of Medicine.

When research at the GRASP lab took off, Payne moved into a new position supporting both CIS and GRASP. Payne’s remarkable drive and curiosity have served her in a range of activities. She’s organized the first official tours of the GRASP lab back in 2009, learned how to operate leading-edge robots, collaborated with partners within and outside SEAS, and enrolled in professional development training.

“It’s not my job to say no,” she says. “It’s my job to figure out how to get it done.”

That approach established a trusting relationship with the faculty and researchers she supports. When she kept taking on responsibilities far beyond “other duties as required,” and the needs of the Robotics department evolved, SEAS was able to reclassify her position and offer her new role as Robotics MSE Graduate Coordinator. In 2016 as GRASP began to develop PERCH, she became an Associate Director. Now Payne has two staff members reporting to her in addition to many student workers.

When others hesitate to delegate or train people, saying they could get things done faster themselves, Payne takes a different position that reflects her commitment to learning. “As a supervisor, you have to realize that you’re investing in professional development.” In recognition, Payne’s staff nominated her for a Models of Excellence award—which came as a heartening surprise to their boss. She says, “The appreciation of your faculty, coworkers, and students goes a long way.”

With over 16 years of experience at Penn, Payne has her eyes on the future. “We’re the number one robotics center world-wide,” Payne says without hesitation. “We like to stay on top. Things are changing. Everyone is excited to see what’s to come.”'

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