Self-Assessment & Reflection

Below is my reflection on my growth and progress in the PhD program at UMBC. I discuss how my background led me to do the work that I am doing, how I have grown within the program thus far, and my future personal and professional goals.

The Past

There were a few key components of my past that have had a major impact on my current work and future plans. Starting my freshman year of college, I took on a position as a rowing coach at a local high school as a part time job to cover some of my education expenses. Luckily for me, I loved working with kids and being an educator. Through that role, I was offered another position as an after school teacher for a non-profit organization in Pittsburgh. Both of these experiences taught me about education and about the educational inequity present in my hometown.

Separately, I had always wanted to travel but never had the means to do so. I was offered an opportunity to participate in a research experience in Singapore as a part of the computer engineering program at my undergraduate university. Though I accepted the position for the free trip, I enjoyed the experience so much that I sought more research opportunities when I returned home. I quickly discovered, however, that hardware research wasn’t for me and began to look for opportunities to do research that was more human centered. This opportunity came from the Human Engineering Research Lab at Pitt. For three months at a time as a part of my university’s co-op program, I would work full time as a research assistant while continuing my informal education work work at night.

After graduating, I accepted a full time engineering job. I worked in the telecommunications industry for just over a year before deciding that work as a full time software engineer was not as fullfilling to me as work as a research assistant.

I returned to the Human Engineering Research Lab to do my master’s degree in rehabilitation science. There, I was able to work on more human focused research projects as well as to spend time working on brain computer interfaces at the Rehabilitation Neural Engineering Lab. Even though I really enjoyed these expereinces, I often found that my knowledge of computer science locked me into a role as the “technical expert” on teams. I was often designing websites or databases instead of getting to do work with real users.

As I was considering what to pursue for my PhD, I was searching all over the country for a position that would allow me to combine my knowledge and expertise in computer science, rehabilitation science, and informal education. Luckily for me, that position existed at UMBC.

The Present

My current position in the DARE Lab at UMBC have given me the opportunity to conduct the exact research that I have always wanted to do. I have two main projects and focuses: the rec-2-tech project and accessible making. The rec-2-tech project has many moving parts. We are working with two cities, Baltimore and Pittsburgh, to co-desgin curriculum to introduce maker concepts to youth in rec centers. This work involves me going into rec centers and working with kids regularly, something I have always loved and feel very confident doing thanks to my previous education experiences. I am working to learn what the barriers and facilitators to tech education are in rec centers in order to develop curriculum that is localized and easy to implement in these spaces.

The accessible maker work has been primarily on campus. My first semester at UMBC, a new organization formed called the disability advocacy union. From this organization, we have recruited individuals to develop their own custom AT using 3D printers. Both projects are on-going and have allowed me to utilize all of my previous experience in the perfect way.

Aside from research, the education and mentorship I’ve received at UMBC has also been very impactful. The quality of my writing has increased exponentially because of the feedback from my advisor and going through the process of submitting to journals and conferences. Dr. Hamidi’s guidance has helped me to quickly learn how to navigate a new field and successfully get my research published. I have also learned a great deal about methods and how to apply them from my qualitative and quantitative methods courses with Dr. Mentis and Dr. Pan. Even though I had done research for several years before joining UMBC, I had never really been taught the reasons behind methodology or how to conduct high quality research and communicate about it effectively. This is something I am very grateful that UMBC has taught me.

Most importantly to me, however, has been learning that doing community work demands creating and sustaining genuine connections with individuals within these organizations. In previous work, it could feel like the end users were people that we “needed” to prove our effectiveness. Since doing work with the community and implementing participatory methods, I have learned how to properly involve individuals as experts who can offer a great amount of knowledge and expertise in deisgn.

Finally, at UMBC I have been given many opportunities to participate in the HCI community through volunteering, peer-review, and mentoring other students in the HCC program. I was given the opportunity to be a student volunteer at ASSETS 2021 as well as to peer-review articles for CHI 2022 and 2023. This work has helped me to understand the process of sharing academic work and has given me a greater understanding of what goes into being accepted at and attending a conference. I have also had the great opportunity to present work at ASSETS 2022 which was the perfect venue for a first HCI conference presentation. Meeting my peers and professors in the field has helped me to better understand the landscape of the field of HCI in general.

My favorite part of my PhD thus far, however, has been mentoring younger students. I have had the opportunity to mentor two master’s students and three undergraduates. They have assisted me in data collection, analysis, and several of them also came up with their own projects. Sharing my experience and mentoring early researchers has been a wonderful experience for me. The great mentorship I have received from multiple professors within the HCC department has given me inspiration for how to work with and mentor students through this process.

The Future

It is my hope to remain in academia after graduation. My dream would be to return to my hometown and get a full time professor position at a university in Pittsburgh. As there are several great universities in that city, I hope that this will be a reasonable goal. There are many other wonderful universities that I would be happy to work at if I am given the chance! In the mean time, however, I am hoping to do an internship in industry to see what the experience would be as a PhD before I full decide to remain in academia.

It has always been my hope to someday get a PhD. All of my interests have led me directly to where I am today and no other program had such a perfect fit for me as UMBC. With any luck, I will be continue to develop community relationships and utilizing participatory design methodologies to create inclusive makerspaces and increase diversity in tech for many years to come.