Life From The Trenches

Pvt. Clarence Jones, in a slit trench. African Americans served with bravery and distinction despite prejudicial treatment in WW2.
[Source: Jesse Sublett, Howlin’ Wolf in The US Army]

When I hear the word trenches, I think of fighting hard in the depths of a war (as in numerous battles spanning years). I would say that is where I am at right now. And as all soldiers do, I take both honor and pride in sharing that.

I recently unconditionally passed my Oral Preliminary Exam (the second of the three Ph.D. milestones) and now I can call myself a “DOCTORAL CANDIDATE.” Though it is a great feat, it does not feel as amazing as I thought it would sound right now. While preparing my proposal document and presentation, I was also finishing up a couple publications and starting analysis on another.

I was so overwhelmed to the point that I literally I found myself bursting into tears at the mere thought of walking into the room to present to my committee(yeah it got that bad). Now that I have finally overcome this huge hardship filled hump, I thought I would be ready to bounce back after taking a week off. Unfortunately, I came back as everything else but rejuvenated.

I was definitely nowhere near the same deep work mindset I had before my Oral Preliminary Exam. I was gearing myself up to write this amazing post about how if I beat my anxious thinking and all that jazz… but Nah. Instead, I came back feeling even more drained. I returned with flu-like symptoms, allergies kicking my ass, and a strong intolerance of all things research related. I’m pretty sure I was burnt out.

This is actually pretty unfortunate because I have a reasonable amount of research work to do. I have an informal 2-page document to send to my committee with a few thesis project updates. Ask me how far I’ve gotten with it? *waits for you to ask* That’s right you guessed it—nowhere. At this point, I had about an entire month to do it and I just put words on paper. But I am realizing now that that’s perfectly fine too.

I was talking to my advisor the other day and I was telling him about how I was feeling extremely “over it” in terms of research. I let him know that I am unsure if the pace I have been maintaining is supposed to be sustainable. To my surprise, he not only told me that it’s not, but also that it’s not meant to be. He mentioned to me that research progress is one that often oscilicates—with its strenuous times of paper deadlines and leisurely times when we have a steady pace to plant new ideas in our research garden. Similar to high-intensity interval training, the rest in between is just as important as the activity. In fact, I probably should have been taking more breaks earlier😅, but for now, I’m just trying to be mindful.

The main point I wanted to get across is that sometimes(really a lot of the time) this Ph.D. gets challenging, as in mentally challenging, but that’s okay. I’m basking in that right now. I find great honor in sharing my personal war story. Based on my run-ins with other battles, I figure that I will shake out of this someday. As for now, I’m making the best of it and trying to remember to take my breaks as I continue…Ph.D. life from the trenches.

Got a personal war story to share?  Tips for overcoming burnout? We would love to hear them in the comments below!


UPDATE: I finally sent my thesis updates to my committee. lol yay progress🙌🏾

7 Deadly Sins of the PhD Qualifying Exam

The Ph.D. Qualifying Exam(or “Quals”) is the first of the three milestones(Qualifying Exam-> Thesis Proposal-> Final Dissertation Defense) to pass to receive that Ph.D. at the end of your name. The goal of the qualifying exam is to show that we, as the budding scientist we are, know how to conduct research. At my institution the qualifying exam consist of 2 parts: 1) submitting a written document that you send to your committee of 3 faculty members and 2) presenting a 30-45 minute long presentation about that submission. Most times the only way to understand how this works is to ask a lab mate who has already passed. Luckily I had many labmates that were willing dish the deets to success(I completed mine in 2016). To help demystify what it takes to pass, I’m sharing these 7 deadly sins of quals to overcome, which ultimately helped me pass:

1. Not knowing citations

It was rather important for me to know the related work that I included in my slides. After all, I was the one that put it there! I’m not saying I had to know everything about the authors, but I at least wanted to be familiar the approach and findings since they inspired my work. In order to say my research was “real” I had to know what has already been done and what distinguished my work from the state-of-the-art.

2. Not knowing the how and why of my work

By the time I got to my qualifying exam I had not wrote about my methods and findings as much as I have today. However, I made it my goal to understand the how and what now of my results as much as possible. Since the quals are really about knowing how to do research, I would have been deathly embarrassed if I did not know what I did and why it mattered. What’s the point of me being in the PhD Program if I didn’t want to do something that impacted the world(or at least the bite-sized world I’m studying)?!

3. Too many animations, words, illegible figures

Personally, too many unnecessary animations, words, and figures on a screen that don’t help me understand a concept are big no no for me in presentation. Animations can have a pivotal role in presentations, but too many can just be annoying to sit through. I made sure I kept them to a minimum.

4. Not practicing my presentation

Practicing my slides not only helped me limit my rambling(which I always do), but it also helped me get in a comfortable pace for my slides. In fact, using a script(that I memorized, not read) for my first couple slides was a life saver! Obviously, I was nervous because my whole committee and audience was staring at me while I convince them that I know how to do research-y things. However, practicing allowed me to get in a good rhythm of how to bounce back if I got distracted by a committee member’s thinking face🤔.

5. Not knowing statistical analysis used

During my practice round I with other PhD students I was encouraged to not include any statistical analysis in your slides I didn’t feel comfortable talking about. I had to make sure I was doing the right statistical test and statistical correction(e.g. Bonferroni vs. Benjamini–Hochberg) appropriately. But even more importantly be able to justify why I chose a specific statistical test!

6. Not knowing my committee members

I mean honestly, this is probably the most important one. I made it my duty to get familiar with the research area, research ticks, and questioning style of my committee members. I really feel like knowing this saved me so much time because I knew what to avoid and how to survive and advance if I found myself in a pickle. I made sure I went to other preliminary exams where they were on the committee and the student had a similar research area as myself. This way, I had a better understand of what was expected of me and how they conduct themselves in that setting.

7. Not humbly accepting feedback

Although it was submitted, my paper was not yet accepted at a conference(which is a good signal of a successful qualifying exam). This encouraged me to be very open in receiving feedback, humbly accepting things I did not know, and defending what I did—it’s a delicate dance I still practice. After all, being a researcher is about being able to have those intellectually stimulating conversations that continuously challenge the way we think. Not to mention I could have dug myself in a deep, dark, bad reputation hole if I didn’t stand there and take the feedback well 😅.

Eating My Donuts and Basking in My Glow

It’s hard to celebrate our own awesomeness. In fact, here is a blog I wrote from about 3 months ago that I never posted because I was too embarrassed to share it.

08.08.17: Riding the Paper Acceptance Wave

So this morning I found that another paper was accepted, this time to CSCW a conference that I have not had much success with the past couple of years.

This semester I submitted 5 papers:


ASE 17

I am very pleased to say that 4 out of the 5 of them were accepted! In the moment of working on these I was feeling pretty good initially and then terribly drained afterwards. But now I’m just really happy to say that I was challenged and I see the benefits of doing that every now and then😉. ( shout out to my advisor for the push 👍🏾 🤗)


Today, 11/6/17, I am still trying to hold on to the paper acceptance wave. If nothing else, the paper wave allowed me to recognize that I needed to eat my donuts and bask in my glow. After I submitted another paper recently, I recognized it was time to give myself some shine.

On top of all of this, I recently had to write a couple short biographies about myself for a workshop (+ department press release), keynote, and invited talk. I was also pretty embarrassed and reserved when someone wanted to share an article about a recent invitation I received to attend a workshop. In fact, writing an updated bio for the talks I was giving gave me even more space to think about all of my accomplishments and how to celebrate them.

One of the talks I gave recently was at a Hackathon, where I was one of the founding members, and asked to be the keynote. I was really in awe when they asked me to give speak. Soon after that, imposter syndrome kicked in–I started doubting my abilities. I was confused as to what led them to ask me to give the talk. Have I really done enough to be giving a keynote? I haven’t even graduated yet?!

After I panicked about me agreeing to such an adult thing, I remembered that someone shared this idea of eating donuts to celebrate career achievements. One thing that I noticed is awesome about Lara Hogan’s example of this is that even the little things should be celebrated, such as finishing drafts! I thought this was an amazing idea! I have heard this idea of celebrating little wins, but for whatever reason this donut manifesto resonated so much with me. I’m convinced it was all a matter of timing. I was so inspired that I started to do it myself and decided to share some steps I used to help me eat my donuts and bask in my glow.

There IS a way to celebrate ourselves while still remaining humble. I outlined what this looks like for me and talked about it in my DiamondHacks Keynote[slides] but here is the TL;DR for those who were not there:

  1. Come up with a regimen for every time you win
  2. Get a tribe of superheroes
  3. Forget the haters, you’re the captain, you’re the heroine
  4. Stick to your regimen
  5. When others give you a donuts, take it, but give yourself one too
  6. Return the favor, and give someone else a donut

I highlighted the 5th point because that was the most important one for me. We live in a world where too much of our worth is placed in the “likes” of others and not in ourselves. People were often patting me on the back for things, but I wasn’t doing it for myself. This was really my wake up call.

Aside: Personally, literal donuts really were not doing it for me, so I took to what really soothed my soul–shoes and makeup.

 Eating Your Donuts and Basking in Your Glow from Denae Ford

The point…

I share this blog mostly for myself, but also in hopes that it will encourage someone else to celebrate themselves. Honestly, we have all accomplished a lot to get where we are today. What’s not to celebrate?🍩 ✨

Fake Grown: Engaged in Graduate school – A Semester Review

I’m excited to announce that this semester I got engaged; actually it has been about 5 months now. I’m so happy to be marrying my forever friend. However, preparing to do that while positioning my seniority in the doctoral program has kept me busy.

With that being said, I’ve still managed to stay on top of my research. I think what helps me the most is keeping the end goal in mind: successful graduation + successful wedding. All the other things that don’t contribute to either, should be done in moderation. I firmly believe that both are attainable; it’s just going to take a little more discipline to make sure they’re done.

This was the semester of being efficient at balancing personal life and research life and I want to talk about a couple of things I noticed that helped maintain both and my sanity.

Permitting and Predicting the Paper Pump

In between shopping papers at conference venues and shopping for wedding venues the paper writing show had to continue. I kept a calendar to keep both successfully going.

This is wear my super planning skills kicked in. If I know something important is coming up, making a timeline for how I’d get it done makes it much more realistic to complete. For this iteration, it was prepping for the wedding and papers to be submitted and putting them on my calendar. My fiancé and I sat down and set some hard dates when we needed to get some things done by. I in turn compared that with my paper submission deadlines and we went from there. Setting hard dates for wedding planning helped us commit to a venue.

In a way I knew the paper pump had to come for me to be on the right track this semester; but I also had to accept and allow it to happen for me to be successful.

I managed to pump out 5 full papers into submission this semester (3 of which have been accepted so far and waiting to hear back on 2 more). Honestly, that was lot to do in addition to everything else: finalize a wedding venue and date, present at research conferences, plan an engagement party, mentoring undergraduates, and more.

Caring MORE about my Partner’s Feelings

Now that my fiancé and I live together it has been even more important for me to be mindful of his feelings. To me, this means leaving the toxic energy that can be generated from the toxic work, people,or environment checked at the door when I get home. Bringing home that unresolved negativity home tended to create unnecessary conflict from my end.

Being mindful of the effect that it has on my loved ones was enough for me to reevaluate how I handled bringing the mess home to create more drama.

Setting non-negotiable time together was also helpful in making sure we kept each other in mind. One way we do this is having Tuesday date nights, an evening where we have the least going on. There are often $5 movies going on in the area, less wait times at restaurants, and not many good shows on tv. We also make sure we tried to eat dinner together most nights. We started fun DIY home projects together such as sanding our farmhouse bistro dining table and turning our coffee table into a stained farmhouse table as well. These home projects were a cool way for us to literally feel like we were building a life together.

Reinforcing that Research-Personal Life Divide

Honestly, getting engaged has helped me encourage this research and personal life divide. I had to get more comfortable with the divide and leaving it there. I DO NOT have to tell all my research colleagues the very minute details of my non-research related work. Someone once told me, “These people not your friends, they are your colleagues. There is a difference.”

This semester it was important for me to distinguish that difference. For those few that happened to be both friend and colleague we had be conscious of our dialogue among those who were not. This wasn’t as hard as it sounds. It actually made it easier for me when devoting spaces to getting a particular type of work done. For example, I was only doing paper writing at coffee shops and let my days in the lab be my meeting+social days.

I noticed that the people who did not respect this boundary I set(unfortunately there were many) ultimately did not respect my time or have my best interest in mind. In a way, setting this boundary was a way to understand other working styles that may conflict with my own.

I now see it as a privilege for others to know both my latest personal and research related updates. It’s a privilege that everyone does not need and getting comfortable with that has been vital to my success this semester. Having a lot going on made this divide easier to maintain because it was the only way to narrow down my decisions and approaches. Personally I think I thrive best when I have a lot going and preparing a thesis proposal and a wedding is the epitome of a lot going on.

Premarital Counseling

Some great advice my fiancé and I received from my parents is to seek premarital counseling. As a team, we decided to not to do it with a church pastor just yet, and I think that was probably the best decision for us. We’ve only been to one session so far, and already have homework, but we’re super excited to go back!

I’m excited and hoping this will be an experience for us to be even more vulnerable with each other and continue to grow as a pair.


My favorite thing I learned from this experience was my ability to multitask on a next level. In a way I feel like I have evolved from a measly charmeleon to a CHARIZARD! I’m fired up and ready to blast off this next year!

When thinking of what was necessary to have a wonderful wedding and a successful trajectory on thesis, these were super important. Especially, now that I wanna be all fake grown and engaged.

An En Route Masters during the PhD Program

This blog isn’t meant to be an advice blog, but I’ve gotten so many questions about my en route Masters that I decided I hash things out here.

15590205_1200711133376705_236442539807805501_nSide note: If you couldn’t tell already, that is my measure of whether or not to write a blog. By gauging how many people ask me.(Hint Hint)

First things first: No, your eyes do not deceive you. I have been in the PhD program the whole time. No, this is not me copping out and leaving school just yet. Surprisingly that hasn’t crossed my mind much 🙂

I actually have a couple reasons why I decided to do the en route Masters:

1. I couldn’t stand the thought of not getting paid the same as my peers because I didn’t have some piece of paper to measure up to my actual experience.

I previously worked at an organization where my salary was solely determined by the highest degree I completed; regardless of my research experiences. Though I had already had papers published and settled into a research topic that will most likely be my dissertation topic, my peers who did none of the previous was paid more than me because they had a Masters degree and I did not. That didn’t sit right with me. There are already a number of reasons out of my control(Race X Gender) why I may not be paid the same amount as my peers. I simply couldn’t let something I actually did have control over make that pay gap any larger.15591636_1200719586709193_1226825840525493055_o

2. It was free.

I was already in the process of getting my fully funded PhD for free so this was another free degree to grab on the way to the finish line.

3. This was something I already wanted to do when I was deciding whether to join the PhD program.

I’m not saying I planned on dipping out with my Masters from the moment I joined the PhD program. I’m just  saying that it was a reasonable option when I was applying since I didn’t really know anyone like me in the program(see presence blog) and I figured why not!

4. A way to say I’ve been doing something these past couple of years.

Not to say that I haven’t been doing anything at all. But this was nice mental checkmark for me that I’ve been getting stuff done. Though this was a seemingly minor feat for those with their PhDs already, this was something important to me. I’ve been told it’s good to celebrate the small wins and this was one of the few that I could share with my family.

5. My mom wanted me to…

So yeah I know –  “because my Mom wanted me to” sounds like I’m some dweeb that does whatever my mom says but it’s honestly more than that….I promise. In fact, this bleeds into the fact that neither myself nor my family knew anyone else who had accomplished a similar feat. Honestly, my family was a little unclear as how I could jump straight into a PhD without doing a Masters. This was an opportunity to help things make sense. In addition, education means a lot to my family. If this was something I wanted. Why not go for it?


How were you even allowed to do a Masters?

Turns out a couple PhD programs offer an “on the way” degree as an option. You just have to look around on the website and ask questions. It’s not like it’s some hidden secret, it’s just not publicized much.

In fact, many students do join the PhD program with the intention of just funding their Masters. It’s typically frowned upon though. University funding is typically involved with doctoral students so there is an agreement that the student will be successful in their PhD(4-6 years), not their Masters(2 years). If you leave early, it’s as if you have not honored your agreement to use those funds accordingly. As a result, the university doesn’t get their investment back from you staying for the entire stint and completing cutting edge research projects that would make the unviersity look good. Actually, in some cases, departments may ask for that money back. In another scenario, life happens and people have to leave the doctoral program for personal reasons. To show they did something with their research and coursework, the university will allow them to have their Masters. This situation does not happen often, but it does happen.

What is the point of this blog again?!

Well the point of this blog is to let people know that there are opportunities to get a little something extra out of your PhD….for FREE!

15585462_1200704723377346_3844124558028613944_oI’ve had many people come up to me who have been in the program longer than me and sincerely did not know that this was an option. I just want to encourage t
hose of you who may have similar reasons as I for pursuing the enroute Masters to ask questions and see if this is an option  in your PhD program.

At the end of the day the 3 extra classes allowed me to get my feet wet in a field that I was always interested in, it applied to my research, and I got another degree plus a minor out of it. Honestly that’s a QUADRUPLE win! Yes, I may have had to diverge from my research a bit to take a couple exams but I truly think it was all worth it!


A girl with a Masters in Computer Science and Minor in Cognitive Science


What’s so cool about interning at Microsoft Research Anyway?: A summer at MSR

On the low this blog is actually much overdue but we’re going to go with it anyway. There are a couple disclaimers I want to make before you, the reader, get into all this 🐸☕️.

First of all, NO, I was not at Microsoft as a developer. I was actually studying software developers while at Microsoft Research, or MSR as some of us call it. That’s actually what my whole research field is geared towards. We help developers become more efficient and productive. Personally I’m interested in how software developers are interested in participating in programming-themed communities in terms of gender.

Second, before you read this blog, let it be known that I have not officially drank the Microsoft Research “Kool-Aid”. I feel like many people who do not work at the fine organization have drank the Kool-Aid, so this was a very important point to make clear here.  The Kool-Aid wasn’t even sweet enough for me (*Prime example of an analogy taken too far. smh*). Nevertheless, I definitely did enjoy my time there.

And Third, NO, I don’t have any hookups to discounted Microsoft software. I gotta buy stuff like everyone else 😛.

I’m assuming majority of my readers are graduate students looking for a way to get into the magic that is Microsoft Research. Unfortunately, this blog isn’t that either, but if you’re interested comment below or let me know and I’ll see if I can gather up a couple interns for a blog about that. With that being said, I’ll put this in context for the grad students.

  1. Lunch Talks = Life + Research

Someone once told me that if a team goes to lunch together, that’s a good team. I can tell you that was something we did daily.  I can also tell you that that idea spoke volumes to me. There were definitely a couple of times where I had to host some meeting during lunch and meet with others outside my team, but I definitely valued that time we had together.

Lunch talks were a combination of updates on research blockers, pop culture issues, newly released papers, latest results from last night’s basketball game, and the list goes on. I can honestly say that was my favorite part of my summer.

This may have been a result of my cool mentors(which everyone may not have) for the summer, but I think their coolness definitely contributed to a nice balance. I think they’re goal was for their interns to feel as welcomed and as engaged as possible. I honestly think that idea worked best for me as an intern to open up and feel comfortable bringing research directions to them. There were a couple ways we built this rapport besides lunch. We went to baseball games, NFL training camps, movies, and we even had Microsoft Band Fitness Challenges

The picture below shows us at a Mariners game! From left to right, top row: Martin(one of the cool visitors), myself, Tom. Bottom Row: Chris and Eirini.

  1. The amazing minds that come from all over the world to be there….in addition to the amazing minds that are already there.

I mean you’re practically working with celebrities in our field right?! I mean honestly my mentors were rock stars. All three of them(Nachi Nagappan, Tom Zimmermann, and Chris Bird). My favorite part of having 3 mentors is that they all brought something different to the table – so  any time they spoke I was definitely listening! I would have never thought that they’d be so open to knowing about my general life as well as my research direction. I don’t think that’s something you find everywhere but it was a nice balance that their interns will definitely cherish.
But not only were my mentors amazing, so were the visitors.  We had researchers visit and give talks about their amazing research with eye tracking, social network, and gender inclusiveness in devices.


Vanessa, Robin, and I at the Lion King Performance
  1. The cream of the crop interns from so many different fields

When I think about the interns who were there this summer, it’s remarkable. All of the students have had some amazing accomplishments it their respective research areas and it was always a treat to be around so much of that. It’s truly like being around so many lit baby geniuses at once. I loved it!

Beyond the MSR Interns, I met so many who were doing research at some amazing companies like Google, Oculus, and Facebook. One of the awesome ones I hit it off with was Vanessa. She does HCI research in tech-enabled fabrics at the University of Maryland and we met through a couple of mutual friends like Robin and Rochelle.

I feel as though I was able to build  a group of snapchat friends that will last until the next big social media craze happens.


MSR Interns at the 2016 Signature Event
  1. Seattle was cool……but it wasn’t all that

Okay so here’s the thing that kind of blew me about Seattle. Yes it had a lot to offer in terms of exploring, but I just feel like it wasn’t everything as far as location. The biggest issue for me was that my family was too far away. It helped that I had friends who were in the area as well, but I don’t think that was enough for me.

I loved how seattle had something going on every weekend, but I just wanted more in terms of a solid community.

  1. The opportunity to PUBLISH of course

I think the cool part here is that my mentors like for their interns to spread their wings a bit when they get to MSR (at least that was my case). They purposely did not want me to work on something that would be directly related with my dissertation project. One reason for this may be(you would have to ask them for the real reason) that there are so many other amazing projects going on in our field and at MSR you have the means to try them out. You have so many resources at your disposal for the summer. Why not make reasonable use of them?

And when I say reasonable, I mean reasonable enough to form a full study worthy of a publication. From the beginning of the summer my mentors mentioned the outcome of a publication being the highlight of the summer. They meant that seriously. I mean we are still having weekly meetings right now to make sure things go smoothly. I thought that part was super amazing.

For me this was only the second research lab I’ve ever been to, outside of my university, so my comparison in that regard may be slim. With all that being said, as the 6th internship I’ve had this was definitely one of the best ones.

💰💰💰The Million Dollar question💰💰💰

Would I go back? I actually would. Once again, I definitely enjoyed myself this summer. I think it was a nice balance of intern activities and quality research getting done. I think I have sometime until I graduate so there is another summer for me to intern somewhere that’s relevant to my research. But honestly, we’ll just have to see how the year goes.

So that’s my two cents about my summer, but I wanted to provide another perspective from another former MSR intern. I’ve invited Brittany Johnson, a Ph.D. Candidate in Human Factors in Software Engineering and fellow blogger, to offer her 5-10 cents!

As told by Brittany:

As usual, I really couldn’t have put this into better words than my esteemed colleague Denae! MSR was an experience for me that helped solidify my post-doctoral ambitions and build a lasting network of passionate researchers. I interned last summer (2015) and also worked with Tom Zimmermann and Chris Bird, but one of the most valuable things about interning at MSR during the summer is that there are always visiting researchers to meet. The summer I was there, I not only met a number of MSR researchers, I met other researchers in academia that I am still in touch with to this day.

Lunch away from the office with my mentors, fellow interns, and visiting researchers. From top left to bottom right: Tianyi Zhang (fellow intern), Me, Pavneet Singh Kochhar (fellow intern/intern bay buddy), Chris, Mei Nagappan (who I’m still in touch with to this day), Tom, Prem Devanbu (Chris’ PhD advisor!), Bogdan Vasilescu, and Vladimir Fiilkov

As Denae mentioned, MSR does a great job fostering the building of these relationships and networks via social events that bring together researchers from different groups, together in the same space. The most memorable for most interns is the intern event in Redmond each summer, which bring together ALL Microsoft interns. One thing I noticed about MSR (and maybe it was just the group I worked in) is that you see much more of the “outgoing computer scientist” – I spent many a lunch on the petanque court kickin ass :). Oddly enough, I believe I made many more connections over lunches than I did doing anything else at MSR.

Finally, my final 2 cents…would I go back?

Most definitely! My passion is research: solving the unsolved and disseminating that knowledge. MSR is a champion at doing just that. Especially in my area of research, which is hard to find outside of academia.The only downside is, as Denae mentioned, the office I would want to work in is pretty far from home and I’m all about family. But maybe I can move them out with me! 😀

I’m happy to be a resource for anyone interested in learning more about MSR…and maybe I can convince Denae to organize this collaborative blog post on getting to MSR for an internship 🙂

Wading in the Shallow End: Why You Should Get Your Feet Wet at Research Conferences

Recently I’ve received a lot of questions about research conferences I attend and how do I make the best of them. I feel like I touched on this a bit in other blogs about other conferences but I’m going to put this is in context of a recent conference I went to in Cambridge, UK. The conference is titled VL/HCC and it stands for Visual Language and Human Centered Computing Conference. There are actually many reasons, some shallow and some deep, why I like to go to conferences but I’ll just touch on a few here.

P.S. All of these reasons are addressed to you, the reader,  in hopes that each one will encourage you to make it the next research conference you’ve been thinking about going to. I do want to make sure I acknowledge that these are really my reasons for going to conferences.

  1. Get to know the state of your research community….beyond what you can read online

For conferences in Computer Science I feel like this is especially important because I get a LIVE interpretation of what’s happening in the field. One important thing to mention here is that it is a different interpretation from what I get online from just reading the papers. When I’m in the presence of the actual researchers I can engage in intense conversations and go on tangents about our research. I have the opportunity to ask thorough questions and have a researcher’s honest attention rather than adding to the millions of emails that get caught in their spam filters.

Also, something else really important here is that I get to actually put a face to the researchers. This is really important for me since I struggle trying to remember which papers goes with which name off the top of my head. However, at conferences, they are no longer just names on my golden set of go-to papers to cite; they are now tangible beings that have a wealth of knowledge to share. It helped me retain more details about their work now that I had a face and a real person to match with it.

  1. Makes you get on YOUR game

When you’re at a conference you have the opportunity to present your research through a tool demo, poster presentation, or even a 15-30min talk. Preparing for these presentations can encourage you to know what you’re talking about. After all, how can you give a talk convincing others that your research project has made a real impact to the field if you don’t believe it yourself. You also have to be equipped with the ins and outs of the project to answer the detailed questions people may throw at you. Conferences are a healthy way to challenge yourself. For this conference in particular, I should have equipped myself with more of the background literature for my presentation. But this was a nice opportunity for me to recognize that!

I once heard people refer to these talks as a mini interview talks. You want to have a good presentation so audience members can ask  good questions that really make you think about the next steps of the project.

(Quick Aside: You can always tell how confusing your talk may have been if you get a lot of questions about things you already explained)

Me trying to make a “neutral face” as Justin snapped a pic at the Graduate Consortium

Another reason I would say conferences make you get on your game is because there are so many people who are at the conference who are killing the game and doing some down-right amazing things! Being around excellence really does encourage you to strive for more. Conferences are a good way to compare the strive amongst your colleagues. Especially those who are at the same stage in their tenure as you.

  1. The many opportunities to collaborate

At these conferences you will find out that you are not the only who may be investigating a particular problem. In fact, you may find that you have other people investigating a similar problem but from a perspective you never really thought was feasible before. My advice is to definitely reach out to that person! After speaking with them and discussing the pros and cons for each direction you may discover that this will be a great opportunity to team up and work together on a project.

For me it was great to small talk with people about my project at my poster and hear how they were able to connect their research to my own. This drove an amazing discussion about new directions to test out together!

I’m not saying that it’s going to happen so eloquently for everyone but at these conferences you have the opportunity for this to happen naturally.

  1. Gaining mentors (network, network, network)

If I learned anything from my undergraduate schooling, it is to always network and meet new people. Our NCSU Software Engineering rule is to intentionally hang out with people you didn’t know before you got to the conference. The unspoken rule some of us like to go by is to leave the conference with at least 3 new contacts. It’s always great to get plugged into the community and meet the other players of this game we call “research”.

In addition, I think it’s important to network with the other students as well. After all they will become your peers, if you ever graduate(*really just reflecting on my own progress here*), that will write our tenure letters in the future. It’s too soon to tell yet for me but according to what the professors keep telling me, it’s important to form these bonds early before your peers get too famous 😜.

Justin, Pat, and I at Big Ben!

At a small conference like VL/HCC there happens to be a lot of veteran researchers who are open to discuss budding research projects on an intimate level. It’s important to take advantage of these opportunities to put your name and work out there. Especially since many of them have been in your shoes before and can provide 1:1 guidance and informally become one of your mentors.

Picture of the beginning of the Graduate Consortium
  1. “Oh the places you’ll go..”

A faculty member once came and gave a talk about about glorified reasons we should actually finish our PhD and pursue faculty positions. His pitching point: “Oh the places you’ll go”. For conferences, you may travel to places you would have never imagined. Of

course it’s good to keep in mind that you are actually there for the conference, but you also have the
opportunity to immerse yourself in the culture wherever the conference is located. Often times the conference will intertwine the theme of the conference with the location. For me, it’s important to take advantage of this.

The beauty in all of this is that you get to go to these places for FREE(sometimes). The conferences may have funding from your advisor, graduate consortiums(as I participated in at VL/HCC), student volunteers, or external conference travel awards to knock down the full price of attending.

So with that being said I encourage anyone(researcher or aspiring researcher) to jump on the opportunity to challenge yourself and present your research at a conference!

Buckingham Palace and a selfie at the Queen Victoria Memorial

moving WITH the mountains

Ahhhh. As I take a deep breath and look around, I can finally come to realize that everything is going to be alright. Now that the semester is over and paper writing is mostly on pause, right now is the time to sit and reflect on the fact that I made it through the second year. WOOT WOOT! This year was an interesting one. There were times when classes wanted a bit more attention and then there were times when it was research too, but ultimately WE made it through! *does praise dance*

I think I’ll dub this year “the year of networking”. I got to collaborate even more with some amazing researchers on projects at amazing universities and research labs such as Philip Guo and Joey Perricone. I attended the CRA-W Conference in San Diego and networked with so many like minded females in computing. Many of them were actually women of color who were further along on their PhD journey so I’m really thankful for that! I also finally got the chance to meet the amazing Jamika Burge at the conference and talk about future projects we had in mind. Representation is super important to me as a mentee and as a mentor. I had the opportunity to attend smaller local conferences for minority students in undergrad presenting their research at NC-LSAMP in Pembroke and one in Chapel Hill to encourage the next wave of female PhD students in the RDU Triangle. I even went to one workshop in Finland where I got meet one-on-one with amazing researchers such as Andy Begel. Needless to say, I’ve definitely found extreme value in networking.

At these conferences I got to meet some amazing researchers from around the globe and this year has really made me thankful to be around these people. The weird part here is acknowledging that I’ve been able to meet these people, but also, recognizing this semester that I, the drooler, am slowly becoming the droolee.  What I’m trying to say is that people in my field are recognizing my work and they think it’s cool! Yes, they have been established a bit longer in the field than I, but that doesn’t dispute the fact that now more than ever I can consider myself to be one of their “colleagues”. ( I know right?! That’s downright crazy!)

**OK. Here’s where I brag a bit:…but if you aren’t happy about your accomplishments than who will be?!**

This year I was able to serve on organizing committees and program committees for relevant conferences in my field. I was also able to receive two competitive fellowships: Microsoft Research Fellowship and the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. It’s just so crazy because this time last year I was thinking the opportunity to be a worthy candidate  was looking pretty slim for these fellowship programs, but this year things just worked out. This year I was able to write more papers and submit more work than I  ever thought I would by my second year. I also got 2 full papers accepted at FSE this year and now I’m interning at Microsoft Research with Nachi Nagappan, Tom Zimmermann, and Christian Bird! I mention all these things to acknowledge the amazing difference a year and persistence makes. SO KEEP GRINDING!

From Seattle to the Olympic Mountain Range
From Seattle to the Olympic Mountain Range from Lourenco Photography

**brag rant complete**

Anyway, I think it’s super important to arrive at this feeling; this feeling of “being OF the community”. I had a similar feeling when my first workshop paper got accepted but nawww this year ended with a “next level” feeling. It’s kind of an attention shift and your perspective on how you approach research changes a bit (well at least for me it did). When the first person comes to you and recognizes you for your work it’s kind of like an OMG moment. As in you are in complete awe yourself; you didn’t even realize that you were coming off as someone who knows what they’re talking about. But the truth is YOU ARE someone who knows what you’re talking about! YOU ARE knowledgeable of what’s going on in your field! YOU ARE a valued voice at the decision table of your research area!  And that moment right there is just super refreshing. In a way it kind of gives you fire to continue the next couple of years in your program. I’m definitely not saying that I want to be in the program for 11 more years, but you get the idea.

It’s kind of like “Wow, I’ve encountered all these challenges and I know there’s more to come, but hey I can roll with the punches, yeah I can stand and hold my weight amongst the big dogs in the field, I can move with the mountains.”

tune into yourself.

This semester I’ve learned a lot (one reason why I haven’t posted a blog in a while). I learned how to be a better writer, a better proofreader, a nice listener, but most of all I learned how to put myself first. I know it sounds weird and selfish to say, but it is definitely essential to my current progress in the Ph.D.program.

I have been to several workshops for Ph.D. students where they harped on the topic of “taking time for yourself” multiple times. However, I never realized how important it was until I realized I didn’t have any time for myself. It is very easy to get overbooked and bogged down with papers and projects and disregard your well-being. But just as easy as it is get bogged down by other work it should be just as easy to know when you NEED to take a step back and take a chill pill.

Tune in

That catch here is that’s definitely easier said than done. I started off this semester as I have with other semesters doing my morning yoga, ab workouts, and road runs three days a week. As the semester continued, my courses demanded more time and my research had more deliverables. The late nights trying to get work done limited the time I had in the early morning for me; I was so drained! I eventually came to a point where I was not getting as much work done because I felt like I was just going through the motions. I was feeling overwhelmed one week and I literally had to take a step back and disconnect during a crucial time for a project. Some members of my team weren’t as understanding of what was going on with me, but it wasn’t about them, IT WAS ABOUT MY SANITY.  I realized that I had cut out everything that was keeping me balanced and took that weekend to recharge my batteries. The following week I came back strong and knocked action items out of the park!

I brought up my experience to say that it is important to also know that you are breaking no rules taking your “me time”. Whether it be 2 days or a week, I think it is integral in keeping your sanity. It often feels weird saying that you’re going to take some time away from your work, but don’t let it discourage you. Honestly, at the end of the day it’s up to you to know your limits and save that time for you. Believe me when I say others can’t tell you when to take that time.

As I approach the end of my second year in the PhD program and reminisce on this last semester, I think a #MajorKey🗝 to me staying in school was getting that non-work time. Literally, every Saturday I try to make it my goal to keep that day work free. In an ideal world that would include me not opening my laptop on Saturday (Side note: that doesn’t always work for me because I like to Netflix & Chill 😬 ). I alsListen to your body. It's smarter than you.o use this day to catch up with my siblings and try to do non research related things I may have missed throughout the week.
The same concept of taking a day off every week may not work for you, but regardless it should be essential to get that time in and do something that recharges you. Giving yourself about 30 minutes or so a day can be another alternative. Making sure I get that time as part of my routine helps me be more productive all around! I still have those times where I skip an occasional workout or two (I’m working on it geesh! 🤓 ), but I think it will all work itself out if I listen to my body and tune into myself.

Have a #MajorKey🗝 to maintaining this balance? Feel free to share your wisdom in the comments section!


The Finnish Top Five

Recently, before the break, I had the opportunity to go to Joensuu, Finland to present one of my up and coming research projects, Studying Sustained Attention and Cognitive States during Remote Programming Technical Interviews”. The workshop was called Eye Movements in Programming, from November 22-24th at the University of Eastern Finland.

This workshop style was a little different from the one I previously attended, but definitely in a good way. The style of the workshop is what definitely encouraged me to write a blog about my experience.

1. World Cafe

As opposed to having all the accepted papers stand up and give talks, there was a World Cafe. During this session there were about 6 presenters. Within this 45 minute time frame each presenter had 3 groups come to their station for 15 minutes each. During this time the presenter gave a small 5 minute talk about their work and the remaining 10 minutes was used for discussion with the visitors at the station. This format was great to have an intimate discussion about your work and get valuable feedback from different perspectives. This was awesome because presenters had time to talk about different aspects of their project with each rotation. It also gave the attendees a great reason to go follow up and ask more questions during a coffee break that they didn’t get to ask during the initial discussion. One side note: I actually received my first best presentation award from this session :).

2. Keynotes

The keynotes were very well selected. Meike Mischo from SMI Vision spoke about some of the eye tracking tools such as the SMI Eye Tracking Glasses that I used this summer and how to use them with other physiological measurement tools.


Dario Salvucci of Drexel University gave a nice talk about applying cognitive models developed for other applications to programming such as the ACT-R model.


Aside from the keynotes, there was a nice selection of 4 interesting talks selected from the paper submissions. Two of them were from PhD students:  one early in their career and one approaching graduation. The remaining two were individuals who have already completed the process, as one researcher was from industry and the other was from academia. They both offered interesting perspectives on interpretations of eye tracking research.

3. Social Activities

20151123_193241   20151123_192904

This is the first workshop I’ve attended that had planned social activities for the attendees. On the 22nd we gathered for a casual lunch and got to meet each other. Following the lunch we went for a walk around the city and watched the Christmas Celebration Kick Off with fireworks. The following day we were taught to make Karjalanpiirakat, a finnish rice pastry that you eat with egg-butter, at a local bakery. It was a fun activity and made the conference more engaging.

4. Audience of People there


The audience of people there was refreshing. Due to the small size of the workshop there was plenty of time to mix and mingle with other researchers and ask them in depth questions about their work. The attendees had a strong background in the area but were seeking feedback from others on how to tackle and emerging project. With that being said, everyone there had an open mind which really helped during the brainstorming session where we came up with confirmed theories from the research that should be reflected in the Distributed Collection of Eye Movement Data in Programming found online.

5. Location


Having the conference in Finland at the University was a good choice. There were many attendees who don’t often travel to conferences in the U.S. that I was able to network with. The amount of relevant eye tracking projects that adapt to the programming environment is amazing. This year’s workshop intentionally followed the ACM 15th Koli Calling International Conference on Computing Education Research held in Koli, Finland.  In the future I may however recommend having the conference be collocated with another Computing Community, perhaps ICPC (International Conference on Program Comprehension). There may be a different audience, perhaps more familiar with programming theories and how novice and experts actually code that provide grounded theories on what the eye movements reflect.

Overall Reflection

Overall, it was a great experience. This was also only my second formal presentation so I’m still fairly new to the community. On top of that my advisor was not there so I was a little nervous at first but the organizers did a great job of making everyone feel welcomed.  The feedback I received from the workshop was very helpful and the comments that I received after supported that this project is a problem worth investing in.

I recently was tweeted from CoderPad and Netflix developers in support of this work.

So we will see where this project goes but I’m definitely excited to have people support that my research problem is ACTUALLY a problem!

If you’re interested in learning more about the work and other projects you can check out my official research blog; I recently posted an piece about this work, “The FUTURE of Technical Phone Interviews”. The Presentation is now available on slideshare and the final version of the paper will be available on the EMIP workshop website ideally by February 2016.