Competitive Edge 2013, Week 3- Figuring this Whole Grad School Thing Out

As I slowly settle into the area, a lot of exciting things are happening with my summer project. The biggest excitement being I actually picked a research project. I’ll give you a hint: it’s something to do with this cool system called SensoryPaint. Now comes the fun/hard part where I actually have to get all the work done!

This last week I visited the Autism Center that is affiliated with our school. I heard a great lecture on another project called MOSOCO. I met some fantastic folks and I’m slowly but surely getting oriented with my landscape.

I also went to a housewarming party out in Long Beach. I hadn’t been there (at least as far as I can remember) and it was cool to see a different area for a bit. I’ve been pretty limited in my range of movement here in Irvine. I have been spending most of my time between my apartment and the campus and haven’t explored much beyond that. I am feeling like this is okay though, because there is lots of time in the future for more exploration. I will admit though, there is a yarn shop about 10 minutes’ drive from my place that I am very tempted to go check out.

Now I will discuss my Week 3 takeaway message: Grad school is a very socially intensive environment. If you are anything like me and are used to just chilling in front of your computer getting your work done, minding your own business, then grad school is going to be a shock. Don’t get me wrong, I have always been a little social with friends and outings. But I am not used to be “on” all the time. It’s very exhausting. Everyone you meet is potentially an important future resource or contact. As a brand new student, you feel the overwhelming need to impress everyone or at least try not to fall flat on your face where possible. So, on top of trying to figure out projects, apply to fellowships, learn a whole new town, there is the stress of being a happy, easy going personality.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m actually enjoying the entire process. I actually don’t mind this kind of stress too much and I’m loving all my lab mates- they are awesome, helpful people (we even all go to the gym together). I feel really lucky in a lot of ways. But I do have to remember to allow myself downtime and “off” days where I can relax.

I just mention all this because I was not warned. I think that if I had someone giving me advice and information about grad school, I would have liked to know about this. It wouldn’t have deterred me, but I possibly could have been a little more prepared.

This coming week is going to be hard. I am planning out my summer project, working on the IRB form (more on that later), presenting my project to the group, and also planning a proposal for NSF GRFP for Competitive Edge. Even if I’m feeling slightly overwhelmed, I’m actually in a really happy place. I’m doing what I want to be doing and, more than anything else, I am feeling fortunate to be here.

Getting Started, Competitive Edge 2013

This summer I am participating in a program at the University of California, Irvine called Competitive Edge. The aims of the program are to give minority (and women) incoming graduate students a “competitive edge” on their Ph.D. programs.

After a successful drive from Washington down to southern California, we settled into our new home in campus housing adjacent to the UCI campus. One benefit of the Competitive Edge program is the early move in for the student housing. We had a couple days to acclimate before I started my program. This was spent mostly setting up house and trying to get used (mostly unsuccessfully thus far) to the heat.

A highway going through dry land.
Road to Irvine, CA.

The first day of the program was orientation, including a campus tour, luncheon, and a ropes course. Yes, a ropes course. Most of the folks back home would probably have a hard time imagining me up on a ropes course because, honestly, heights really aren’t my thing. But it happened. And I even did the zipline at the end.

Competitive Edge Students gathered near the ropes course.
Competitive Edge Students gathered near the ropes course.
Group of students at ropes course.
Competitive Edge Students after the ropes course.

Each week, the Competitive Edge will be holding workshops to help us make the most of our grad school experience. So far, I have attended workshops on Research Resources, various informational sessions on the types of fellowships available, a workshop on the Ford Foundation fellowship, and a session outlining the NSF GRFP. From here on out, the workshops get more specific into the application process. We will be getting feedback on our essays, proposals, CVs, and even on how we give presentations. At the end of the program, on August 15, we will each be giving a 10 minute presentation on our research at the Research Symposium. All in all, this program is definitely designed to make us much stronger graduate students.

The rest of the week I get time to do research in my own lab. I am a member of the Star Group in LUCI. I will be working on researching assistive technology for those with Autism. This past couple weeks, I have been doing background reading and getting settled in the lab. I will be working with a great group of people in my lab (everyone is really friendly and more than willing to collaborate) and I’m excited to really start working.

Daily Log: CHI2013 Day 2

Today was day 2 of CHI for me. It was a long, but wonderful day. I started by attending the CHI Women’s Breakfast. The food was very good and we got some very cool swag from Google, Microsoft, and Facebook. I met a table full of very interesting people including Bonnie John and Arnie Lund. While I was not very happy with the logistics of the breakfast (the organizers tried to direct our conversation, which ended up just making the conversation more stilted and less about what I would have liked to talk about). We still ended up running over into the first morning session.

During the first break I was supposed to talk to people about my poster. Unfortunately, my poster did not get put up after the judging session. I am sad to know I will probably not get it back because a lot of hard work was put into that poster and I was hoping to hold onto it.

My favorite paper for the morning was Analyzing User-Generated YouTube Videos to Understand Touchscreen Use by People with Motor Impairments by Lisa Anthony et al. This was another study that looked at a specific set of videos found by searching on YouTube. I learned about how valuable user generated content on the internet can be as a source of information about a group of people.

Then I went to lunch with my UMBC family. It is really nice to be able to spend time with some people here that are friendly, familiar faces. CHI is so large that it can be quite overwhelming at times. After lunch, I spent some time with Amy and Lisa. They both gave me a lot of really excellent advice about my upcoming transition to grad school. It was nice to get some insight into my journey ahead and also to know that there are safe people I can turn to for advice if I need it. It’s these connections to a support network that will ultimately be the most important thing I foster as a grad student, I think.

In the afternoon session, I especially liked the paper entitled Technology Preferences and Routines for Sharing Health Information during the Treatment of Chronic Illness by Carolyn Pang et al. This was a study of how families with an individual with chronic illness uses different technologies to connect with each other for comfort. This was probably one of my top favorite papers thus far, it’s up there with the Motherhood paper from yesterday.

I then spent about five minutes at the hospitality reception at the convention center. It was way too crowded with not enough to drink, eat, and do. I met up with a bunch of people later to attend the joint UW, U of Michigan, and Georgia Tech party. I met a couple of people that I was happy to meet. Otherwise it was another loud, crowded place with not enough to drink and eat.

I’m happy for all the connections I am making here at the conferences. I feel like I can start this summer of research at UCI strong now. But first! Two more days of CHI!!

Daily Log: CHI2013 Day 1

Woke up at 7 this morning in order to give myself plenty of time to get ready and head to the convention center before the morning keynote. The weather turned really nice today so it was a very nice walk to the convention center from our hotel. It takes about 15 minutes if I walk a little briskly.
The keynote speaker was Paola Antonella from the MOMA. Her talk was about design- what is it and how people perceive it. People often mix up design with art, but they really aren’t the same thing at all. She talked about how design is about the interaction, how people interact with objects and their environment. She explained her video game installment. She maintains that these video games are one way users interact with their world, often times intertwining the physical with the virtual. To me, it now makes sense why Dwarf Fortress would be the perfect sort of interactive object for her installment. I really enjoyed her talk and it made me think a little differently about how I personally view the things I’m interacting with and how I would like to approach design in the future.
CHI 2013 Dwarf Fortress
CHI 2013 Dwarf Fortress
I then went to the Enhancing Access session. My two favorite papers from the session were Older Adults as Digital Content Producers by Jenny Waycott et al and Health Vlogger- Viewer Interaction in Chronic Illness Management by Leslie Liu et al. The first was interesting because it looked at how older adults can be users and creators of digital content and how that interaction played out amongst themselves. The second showed what vloggers on youtube have done when suffering from chronic illness. The vlogging actually acted as a wider support network for the person suffering from the illness and actually gave them a sense of purpose and comfort by educating viewers on their illness (like showing people they are still a human being even though they are HIV positive or demonstrating how chemo works). I connected with this paper because I have found blogging and making videos therapeutic in my own life.
Then I had lunch from the grocery store at the lower level of the conference center. I just sat on a step and watched people go by for an hour (and there were plenty of them). It was quite refreshing.
I then went to Technologies for Life 1 in the afternoon. Overall, I think I enjoyed this session more than the more session. I don’t know if I was just more awake or if the speakers were just more engaging, or I liked the topics more- or all three. I think my favorite paper was called Digital Motherhood: How does technology help new mothers? by Larna Gibson and Vicki Hanson. This was a study on how new mothers use technology, such as smart phones and the internet, to stay connected to the outside world. As I know a lot of people who have recently had kids I have personally witnessed this phenomenon. I liked the way the study was conducted- the researcher had just had a child so she was already attending “mommy and me” groups. She basically did an anthropological survey and recorded relevant information as it surfaced during conversations. She then later interviewed a select few of the mothers for a more in-depth follow up. The note Access Lens: A Gesture-Based Screen Reader for Real-World Documents by Shaun Kane et all was also really cool. The technology used was a camera that could help a visually impaired user find their way around a paper map, for instance.
I then attended the Student Research Competition judging session. It was a complete mess from an administrative standpoint. The room was too small and there was no where to hang our posters. Students had to alternate holding posters when it was not their turn to talk. Because of the time crunch, the judges had to split into two groups, which meant we had to present our poster twice, once for each set of judges. And the groups went at the same time, so the room was completely silent except for two people talking about their posters at once. Then it was timed, so we had exactly one minute to speak and then 1.5 minutes for questions. The timer would yell “STOP!” really loud at each interval. It was all very nerve-wracking. I think my talk went okay, but I probably could have prepared more. Anyway, I did not win, so I will not have to give a presentation on Wednesday. I still am giving my poster presentation to the public during the first break tomorrow, but then after that I can relax and enjoy the rest of the conference.
I ended my evening with dinner at Oresto just down the street from the conference center. It was my very first Abowd family meeting. I was even presented to the group as the newest family member (second generation apparently). It was really nice. Everyone seems super great and I’m really happy to have such a supportive group of people around me.
A street on my walk back to my hotel in the evening.
A street on my walk back to my hotel in the evening.
Now it is late and I have another long, full day ahead of me tomorrow!

On Getting Into Grad School, Part 4

Did you miss Part 3?

March 2013: UC Irvine Visit and THE Decision

After leaving Boulder and hearing what students there had to say about their school, I was more inclined to accept Irvine’s offer. I wasn’t going to say with 100% certainty until I had visited the school and made sure I clicked with the people there, but based on the research that was happening and what I heard from others, Irvine was the way to go.

It did not take me long to feel like my initial instincts were correct. I got off the plane and already felt like I had come home. Now, I had to be cautious, because in a lot of respects, I had come home. I spent the first 12 years of my life in Southern California. I had decided that Kyle, my husband, needed to come with me on this visit. If this was going to be our home for the next 5+ years, I wanted to make sure it was going to work for him. He was not as impressed at first as I was. I knew what he meant about it not being “green”. The Pacific Northwest is definitely a lot greener, but I think that’s probably not the best reason to turn down a grad school offer. J  I also have to say the women huddled around the hot chicken case at the Whole Foods because it was under 70 degrees outside was extremely humorous.

When I checked us into the hotel, I was given a “goodie” bag with snacks and a folder full of information about the school and department. I think the snacks were a really great touch, even though I couldn’t eat most of them. I did enjoy the pudding cup and the Star Wars gummies. The information packet was definitely overwhelming. It had lots of information on what research was going on and other facts about the school. It also contained a hardcopy of my acceptance and award letter. There was also a schedule for Friday, which included what professors I was going to interview with.

Thursday night we had a dinner with the current Informatics grad students. It was great waiting in the hotel lobby and meeting up with some of the people I had met in Boulder. Already knowing a couple people made the whole experience slightly less daunting. The current grad students picked us up and we had a big dinner together. I got to meet my roommate that I will be staying with in Paris for CHI. I also met other students who I would potentially be working with in the future. And apparently my reputation preceded me because at least one of them already knew of me. I am going to admit, it was completely surprising, but also felt pretty good.

I came back to the hotel feeling very excited for the next day. If the grad students were any measure, I was really going to like this place. I’m going to admit, it was hard to share these experiences with Kyle and give him a good sense of how I was feeling. I think my excitement (and exhaustion) was pretty obvious though.

The next day, Friday, I got up early and had breakfast with Kyle. I then waited for the shuttle to take me over to the school. Apparently, there was some confusion and only have of the prospective students had signed up for a ride, so the whole day started a little more slowly than anticipated. We drove straight to the Bren School of Information and Computer Science. I received an additional packet of information that was more general to the entire School. The morning was spent going over all the great things about the school, “the second happiest place on earth” (after Disneyland, of course). Then we broke down into subgroups of Informatics, Computer Science, and Statistics. We spent more time talking about the Informatics department specifically. I learned about the degree, what kinds of courses I would be taking, the research, how the department operates. One of the things that really caught my attention (and this had come up at the grad student dinner as well) was that there seemed to be a lot of collaboration and cooperation. It didn’t feel like there was negative competition, it was more like everyone was trying to help everyone else out. That’s the sort of environment I was looking for.

Then I got to meet with three professors. While they all had really interesting research that I could see myself working on, I knew as soon as Dr. Gillian Hayes told me about the Autism Research Center, I was hooked. This was the sort of assistive tech research that I wanted to be doing. I told her in the interview that I was set to come to Irvine straight away. How soon could I start working?

**

I feel extremely fortunate that things have worked out this way. I feel lucky that I found a department that feels good and an advisor that I felt an immediate connection to. I know the road ahead will be challenging, but I’m happy that I chose this road or that this road chose me. However that works out.

On Getting Into Grad School, Part 3

Have you read Part 2 yet?

October 2012: More Traveling Fun

Amidst getting through my senior year classes (which were amazingly more difficult than my previous courses), I traveled some more in the fall. At the beginning of October I went to the Grace Hopper 2012 Conference in Baltimore, Maryland. I had been given a scholarship to attend, all expenses paid. It was great because I was traveling with some of my friends from the west coast. We all stayed in the same hotel and I got to show them a little bit of Baltimore (like the train from the airport to downtown).

At Grace Hopper, I was sure to visit the booths of some of the schools I was planning on applying to. It was nice to connect up with people I had made connections with the previous year and with those I had made connections with over the summer.

Later in October, I attended ASSETS 2012 in Boulder, CO. This conference was a lot smaller than anything else I had been to, but it was definitely worth the trip. Here again, I connected up with people from the summer and learned a lot about the assistive tech scene. It was sort of an affirmation that this was the field that I wanted to go into and was proof that it was a viable field to go into. I think one of the best parts was going to dinner with Amy and Michele (that I worked with over the summer) and getting all sorts of advice on how to proceed with my grad school application process. It was a lot more information in one evening than I had ever gotten from anyone at my home institution. I am glad to have made these connections and definitely don’t want to ever turn up the opportunity in the future to make more connections like these.

November 2012: Wrapping Up the Semester and the Applications

By the time I came home from ASSETS I was ready to finish up my applications and get everything done. I had a much stronger idea of what to write for my personal statements and a stronger overall story for the application package. I spent the rest of November writing all the different personal statements and starting to turn in my applications. For the most part, I was able to get all of my applications done by the first of December. This gave me a little breathing room before finals. While the majority of the applications were due December 15th, I didn’t want to be trying to turn them all in last minute.

It was at the beginning of November that my first paper (I was second author) got presented at a conference. The conference was in Taiwan, so I didn’t have the funds to go, but it was still exciting to have a paper published.

December 2012: This is the End?

I got all my applications done before finals and wrapped up the semester completely exhausted. And broke. Did I mention how much money this whole process ended up costing? I’m a little scared to actually tally up the total, so I won’t. But it was a lot. It was probably in the neighborhood of $1000 after application fees, GRE tests, and transcript requests.

Then the worst part of the entire process began. The waiting.

Knowing that my entire future was in the balance and that the outcome of these applications would determine where I would be living and what I would be doing in less than a year was completely nerve-wracking. And it wasn’t just my life I was messing with- it was also my husband’s.

January 2013: Dealing with Rejection

Luckily, schools were on the ball and started culling their applications by mid-January. I got a couple of rejections right away. While this was a bit discouraging, I had mentally prepared myself for such occurrences. And a rejection was much better than not knowing at all.

But I didn’t have much time to feel sorry for myself or worry too much because I was also keeping myself busy with school and MORE travel! I was prepping at this point to head to the Tapia Conference in Washington, DC. I was to present a poster on work I had done in the fall for my professor.

Right before I left for the conference I found out that I had a phone interview with UC Irvine the Monday after I got back. While I was very nervous about this, I was happy I had made it past the culling phase with at least one school!

I also got invited to interview with Facebook at the Tapia Conference and invited to a Google workshop called Google.GetAJob(). I felt like I would have a lot of hard decisions to make in the next couple of months about our future.

February 2013: It All Starts Coming Together

The first week in February is when I attended the Tapia Conference. While I was there I spent a day visiting my friends at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. I talked to them about my grad school applications and interviews. It was really great to catch up and also know that what I was going through was completely normal. The conference itself was also really great. I got to meet people from all over and network with the research labs. I did a poster presentation, which I had only done once before. I got a lot of really great feedback and most of it was positive, too.

During the conference, immediately after my Facebook interview, I got an email saying that I had been accepted to present my poster at the Student Research Competition at CHI 2013 in Paris. If I had had any thoughts of just skipping graduate school and going to industry, they instantly vanished. I knew I wanted to do well at CHI and continue doing research that I enjoyed so much.

After I came home from the Tapia Conference, I had my interview with UC Irvine. It was very informal and a really positive experience. I was able to tell them I had gotten accepted to CHI, which really helped my own confidence.

I also found out that I was invited to an interview on campus at University of Colorado, Boulder set for the 14th of February. So, off I went on another trip after having just come back from Washington DC.

The night before I left for Boulder, I found out that I had gotten into UC Irvine. I was over the moon. It also made me feel much more comfortable while traveling to Boulder. There I met with students and faculty on the campus. I really loved the town, at least until I got snowed in and ended up staying an extra day. I’m not sure I could live in a place where there’s that much snow. It was still a great learning experience and I got a good idea of what I wanted to find out about Irvine when I visited them in March.

Because It’s a FAQ…

I just wanted to write a short blog entry about this whole “grad school” thing because I’ve been getting some questions about what exactly it is I’ll be doing in the next few months.

This fall I’ll start towards my PhD in Informatics from the University of California Irvine. My research area is in Assistive Technology and I think I’ll be doing my work in the area of tech helping kids with Autism and chronic illness. I really won’t know my research space until I get into the work and get a feel for what I’m doing.

The way grad school works, at least in the field of tech and computer science, is that when a school offers you acceptance there is usually some sort of funding package that comes along with it. For instance, a lot of schools will offer 3 years of funding, which usually covers tuition and then gives you a monthly stipend. In order to earn that monthly stipend, depending on the school, of course, you work 20 hours a week doing research or TAing. In my case, I’ll be expected to TA one year and then do research projects for the remaining time in the program. After you second year or so, you have usually settled on an advisor and a research path and can start getting grants for the work you are doing. This will be in lieu of “working” for the department. I have been getting some questions as to how I’m going to live while getting my PhD and there is the answer: I’ll be getting paid to do it. Yes, it won’t be as much money as I could be making as a programmer straight out of my bachelor’s degree, but if I wanted to be a programmer, I wouldn’t be going to grad school. I’ll still be making way more money than I’m currently earning, and I guess that’s the perspective I’m going in with. I’ll be quite comfortable with what I have.

I’m going to grad school because I love doing the research. This is what I learned from completing my DREU at UMBC last summer. That really was the one of the best experiences I have ever had in terms of my own personal growth. At this point in time, I haven’t really thought PAST earning my PhD; it’s be a long road just to get this far. I’m sure that in due course, it will become apparent where I want to pursue my career, whether it is in industry or academia.

Do feel free to email me if this didn’t clear things up for you. I’m quite happy to talk about all the in’s an out’s! =D