Challenge Accepted

I had a conversation with a fellow grad student mom today who was lamenting the fact that she couldn’t have just one day as a “normal grad student.” My reply was, “Yeah, but you’d just be bored.”

And yes, I really do understand and feel her pain. We work hard all day. Then go home where we don’t get rest, but rather we get to start in all over (as I write this post, my own toddler is screaming because he’s decided bedtime is for babies). And our munchkins don’t understand deadlines, only that they need mom. Really, though, who wouldn’t want to come home to this face?

A toddler smiling open mouthed at the camera with a monster shirt on.
The happy face of someone who couldn’t wait for Mom to get home.

The demands of having a kid waiting for me at home were something I was expecting though, having planned having a kid in grad school. What I was not expecting were the subtle ways in which my colleagues do not understand how to accommodate a mother in grad school. Academia is rife with hints that mothers are not welcome here (although it’s much better than in the past). From lab mates deciding to meet up at the pub last minute instead of the family friendly restaurant (when I’m already en route with my toddler) to the late night receptions at conference (where the main purpose is to imbibe). To be honest, as someone who didn’t drink before having kids, I only feel even more excluded than I did before, but that is perhaps a blog post for another day.

In some ways, becoming a mom in academia has made my job at networking both harder and easier. I might be losing out on some of the fun parties, but I’ve also been able to tap into a whole new academic network through other moms in the same boat as me. I feel like the support (unlike in other mom-on-the-internet forums) is very positive and academic moms have a great sense of humor.

I understand the wish to have one mom-free day of grad school (not kid-free, because we love our children beyond anything else). A day where we can plan a celebration lunch without worrying when we have to get back for the sitter or have a late night coding session without having to run home to breastfeed. (I can’t even start with trying to pump at school…) So, those who are perhaps wondering if grad school is the right time to have kids and thinking about making the plunge—yes! Totally worth it, but it’s really hard work. You’ve been warned. And it’s okay to have moments where you wish you could shed your mom mantel for just a moment, because you’re human.

Stay strong, my fellow grad student moms!

UCI Summer Research Symposium 2016

 

Cover of a booklet for the summer research symposium. Has images of students posing in a group and working together to finish an obstacle course.
Cover to the Summer Research Symposium program.

Today was the end of the summer research programs on the UCI campus. This summer I was a mentor to both an incoming PhD student in the Competitive Edge program and an undergraduate student in the SURF program. The summer ended with a wonderful research symposium where half the students presented their work via oral presentations and the other half presented posters. We then had an awards ceremony lunch where everyone was recognized for the great work they did this summer.

A woman giving a presentation at a podium. To her right is a slide projected with the title "Developing a user friendly system to 3D print minecraft creations for autistic children"
SURF Undergraduate, Aminah Tamimi, giving her presentation on 3d printing from Minecraft.
Woman stands next to a podium and a slide that says "Who watches the overwatchers?"
Competitive Edge PhD Student, Amanda Cullen, giving her presentation on Overwatch.

These programs are a really nice way to help students prepare for graduate school. As someone who participated in a similar program (DREU) as an undergrad and in the Competitive Edge program, I can attest to their usefulness.

As a mentor for students in these programs I am also extremely grateful to the programs for the opportunity to give back and be a mentor. As someone who is passionate about increasing diversity in academia and in STEM programs, I am always excited about chances to “do my bit.” In this instance, working with both Aminah and Amanda was a wonderful experience. Not only are they both hardworking students who are going to go great places, but they are generous with me as I felt my way through my role as a peer mentor. I plan on staying in touch with them (especially Amanda since we sit next to each other in lab) as they progress along their careers and continue to be helpful when I can.

A big thanks to everyone who made this summer fun and full of learning!

A flock of birds silhouette against a yellow-orange sky.

My Time: Where it’s spent.

Categorizing my Time

So I logged all my hours during the last week to see where I was spending my time. I am not surprised at all by the results, but it’s still fun to see it visualized.

For anyone wondering – yes, I am basically doing two full-time jobs at the moment – being a mom and being a grad student. Of course, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Hopefully, as I have time (haha), I will write more posts about how I manage my time and get everything done!

Crawling out of the fog

For those that know me personally, you’ll know I recently gave birth to the sweetest little boy. He is known as baby Kai in my HCI circles to identify him from the many Kai, Khai, and CHI’s floating about. He’s 3 months old and, as I have heard from several sources, I am just now starting to come out of the fog. I perhaps likened my experiences as more sort of clawing my way out of a pit, but the end result is the same. I am here, slightly battered and definitely disoriented, but so very much richer than I was before.

laughinBaby

I start this blog up again because I feel like it was always an important thing for me to document what has been happening in my life- both for my own amusement and to point to when people ask me how I “do it” (that is, go to grad school, be a mom, and stay a semi-sane human being).

The plan is to produce posts (realistically, semi-sporadically) about my research, writing, things I’m reading, videos as I make them, tales from being a grad school mom, progress on video games I’m making, and gaming in general (I’m going to be honest, you’re going to probably get a lot about Minecraft).

Diversity

A handful of experiences and people helped to transform me from a lost undergraduate who was thinking of dropping out, to a successful, ambitious graduate student. I struggled for many years as an underrepresented student, both as a woman and as a student with a disability, to complete my undergraduate degree and find my niche in the world. Now, not only do I want to make a career of researching assistive technology, I also want to be a mentor for those who follow me, just as I had mentors to guide my way.

As the only woman in my undergraduate computing classes, I faced adversity and isolation. I sought support and attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference (GHC). Upon learning that I was one of many women facing isolation in their computing courses, I founded an ACM-W Chapter for women in computing at Washington State University Vancouver (WSUV). I felt the need to create greater participation of college women in computing, a support network for them, and a way to mentor freshmen and high school girls. As the chair of the chapter for the first year, I planned a campus-wide event to encourage women to pursue computing careers and spoke at a panel discussion. The event hosted 40 women from campus and the local community and received very positive feedback. The women from the community college who had not considered pursuing a four-year degree until they heard our panel inspired me. I have continued to mentor one young woman who is now pursuing her undergraduate degree in computer science and intends to continue on to graduate school.

On my graduate school campus, University of California Irvine (UCI), I am involved in a similar group: Women in Information and Computer Sciences (WICS). I volunteered with WICS in summer 2013 to mentor middle and high school girls interested in computing. In fall 2013, I also helped start a graduate chapter of this group. As a graduate student representative for UCI, I attended GHC 2014 as a student volunteer. My connections with these groups led me to other opportunities, such as conducting research and presenting at two academic conferences, as well as mentoring underrepresented undergraduates.

Through my experiences with the women in computing groups, I have realized how important mentorship is for those in the early stages of their careers. Through teaching and mentoring, I have been able to ignite my passion for helping others through research with students and also pass along valuable skills that they will use in their future studies. During my first year as a graduate student, I led a diverse team of undergraduates, all of whom are underrepresented minorities, in the development of a whole-body interface application on the Microsoft Kinect for children with autism. I encouraged my team to work together to solve problems and learn how to collaborate effectively. I also coached them in giving a presentation to the lab about their work. Continuing this project, I have expanded the scope of the software, and have begun working with a professor from the Dance Department to create new avenues of therapy for children with autism. One of the undergraduates I mentored has since graduated with a B.S. in Informatics and is now applying to graduate school.

In an effort to serve my local community, I volunteer as an instructor for technology use workshops for young adults with autism who are transitioning into the workplace from high school. In a more formal setting, I have also had the opportunity to be a teaching assistant for undergraduate level courses. As part of my responsibilities, I have worked with students one-on-one, as well as leading discussion sections of more than 40 students. In addition to regular discussion lectures, I also gave a guest lecture to the entire class of 250 students. Knowing the importance of mentorship for undergraduates, these varied teaching experiences increase my desire to seek a position that allows me to continue mentorship my PhD.

GamerGate Lecture up on YouTube

Last week, I co-led a lecture on GamerGate. This was meant to give our class (Computer Games and Society) a small taste of the GamerGate controversy. First time giving a large-lecture hall talk! It was nerve-wracking, but exciting. I’ll leave it here for you to enjoy.

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!!

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.

On Getting Into Grad School, Part 2

Did you miss Part 1?

Summer 2012: DREU Internship, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

I won’t go into all the great details of my life during this summer internship. Most of it can be found other places on this blog already. The highlights I will mention are: after working at UMBC I began to realize that going to grad school could really happen and that I might actually enjoy it, Amy and others at the school really mentored me and helped me get a deeper understanding of the whole process of grad school applications, and I started actually writing my grad school application material.

Having this internship gave me a perspective into what grad school could be like. I can’t imagine applying to grad school without knowing that experience and knowing whether or not it was something I could handle/enjoy. I was also able to talk with Amy about potential schools and make a list of schools I would consider applying to in the fall. It was the mentorship and guidance that I really appreciated. Just being able to talk to someone who knew the field and could give solid feedback about my ideas was great.

I also got to do some really cool research and see other people working on some equally awesome stuff. I got the chance to write a paper (which I later submitted, more on that later) and present a poster at the end of summer festival. I was even selected to present my work to the entire festival, which was a huge learning experience. I had to put the power point together (make a video for it!), write the presentation, and then speak to a room with at least 100 people in it. It felt like every step I had taken that summer was a new one, going deeper into a mysterious cave of wonder or something.

August 2012: Home Again (And Time To Get To It!)

By the time I had come home and started back at school for my senior year, I had already completed my list of schools I was going to apply to, started a rough draft of my statement of purpose, and signed up (and taken the week before classes started) for the GREs.

It was at this point I made one of my bigger mistakes. I really should have asked for more help. It’s hard when you’re at a small university and very few people truly understand why you would even want to apply to a PhD program. As has been a consistent theme for me, I felt isolated and, therefore, isolated myself. I could have reached out to more mentors (at home and at UMBC), but I decided to go it alone. This was especially difficult to write and edit my statement of purpose(s) and the essay for the NSF GRFP.

I sorted out my references as soon as classes began. I committed one of those faux pas where I only had three letter writers. Fortunately, they all pulled through and I didn’t to materialize another letter writer at the last minute. I used two professors from my home institution that I had worked with on research and with my ACM-W Chapter. My third reference was my mentor from UMBC.

September 2012: Keeping it All Straight

I think the hardest thing from September on was keeping everything organized. I had to keep track of all the materials I was submitting to each institution. It felt like every single one had different essay requirements (not to mention all the other requirements!). Some wanted multiple essays, others wanted just one. And the length was different for each as well. Some only wanted 500 words or less, while others were 2000 words. There was no real way to write just one essay and tweak it for each. I had to write fresh essays for almost every university I was applying to.

Next week: lots of traveling and the submissions in Part 3!

On Getting Into Grad School, Part 1

This blog is probably one that would have been better written in the moment rather than as a retrospective, but as you will see from the timeline I was too overwhelmed with everything else going on to think about writing a blog.

When I was looking to apply to grad school I scoured the internet for information from other grad students and professors looking for anything that would give me the best possible chance at a) knowing if this grad school thing was what I wanted to do and b) giving me the best possible chance of getting into the grad school that was going to be best for me. Now that I’m on the other side of the application process and I’m feeling great about the outcome, I thought I would attempt to share my experience for the next generation of applicants looking for more information.

DISCLAIMER: This is a completely personal experience and should in no way be treated as a how-to guide. Everyone is going to be different, coming from a variety of backgrounds and going into a multitude of different fields of study. Please don’t read this as the perfect way to get into the grad school of your choice; I’m sure there are much easier ways of doing it.

I think the best way to do this is write this out as a timeline of events, with links and info about each of the events. If this gets to be too long, I’ll break this into multiple parts and if something needs more attention than everything else, I’ll break that into its own blog article.

October 2011: Grace Hopper 2011

I went to Grace Hopper in Portland, OR as a student volunteer. It was the first time I got a real good look at what someone could really do with a computer science background. I met a lot of students who were in grad school working towards their PhD. I heard about some cool research being done that I learned was in the field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). Up until this point, I thought a computer science degree was good for getting a job at a software company writing code. The seed of the idea of grad school is planted.

January 2012: Industry Job Interviews

Between Grace Hopper and early 2012, I subjected myself to several really uncomfortable industry interviews. Let’s just say coding on the fly, in a high pressure situation and recalling complex algorithms and data structure optimization is *not* my strongest skill. It’s at this point I really start to question what I am doing and why I am trying to push myself into something that clearly isn’t working out.

February 2012: DREU Internship Application

At the very last minute, I decided to apply to the CRA-W’s DREU internship. It’s also around this time that I started working with a professor at my campus on his smart grid research. He had asked for volunteers, so I decided that it was worth the experience.

It was also around this time I decided that I wanted to pursue a career more in the area of HCI. I was taking the elective “Intro to HCI” offered by my school (which turns out was that great of an intro) and thought my interdisciplinary studies in Psychology and Computer Science were a good fit for this area. I applied for a scholarship to attend CHI 2012 in Austin, TX through the ACM-W.

March 2012: DREU Acceptance and Matching Results

At the beginning of March I received an email saying that I had been accepted to the DREU program for the summer. I was really excited and very worried at the same time. I hadn’t done any extensive traveling and never really on my own. They said they would email me soon with my matched mentor and the location I would be traveling to for the summer. I looked at all the past mentors and their universities. Where would I be living that summer? Who would I have to work with? The only things I had heard from friends that had completed REUs was how awful it was. The mentors just give you some project and are too busy to actually mentor you. The projects aren’t of much consequence or the results end up being something you can’t get a publishable paper out of… I started wondering if I had done the right thing.

I was up all night worrying I would be shipped off to some strange place I couldn’t survive and have a mentor I wouldn’t be able to work with. However, I was not in agony long. It was at school the next day when I got my match-up. The rest, as they say, is history. You can read plenty about my DREU internship on my blog space. Dr. Amy Hurst was the best mentor a person could ask for. She was exactly what I needed at a time when I didn’t even know what I needed or what I was doing with my life.

April 2012: CHI 2012 in Austin, TX

My first real research conference was CHI. Talk about amazingly overwhelming. It’s a lot of people. And I had never been to Texas before. And it was my first time on a plane in years. I really enjoyed it, nonetheless. I think my overall impression was excitement that so many people from so many different places were all passionate about the same thing. There were more computer-oriented people and there were more psychology-oriented people, but they all meshed together to make something pretty exhilarating.

People ask me what my favorite talk was and I don’t even remember. I think if I went back to the program notes and see what I went to, I would probably recall. I have learned a lot since I was there though. How to go to conferences and pick what talks you want to see is an important skill.

CHI is also where I met Dr. Amy Hurst for the first time and some of her students. All in all, it was a good first experience into a world I was soon to submerge myself in.

The saga continues next time in PART 2…