Highlight on Alum, Lydia Tapia

Originally printed in the Summer/Fall 2014 Newsletter

Lydia Tapia is an Assistant Professor in Computer Science at the University of New Mexico who does research on methodologies for the simulation and analysis of motions. She has applied these ideas to both robots and disease causing proteins as the director of the Adaptive Motion Planning Research Group at UNM. Before coming to UNM, Lydia was a Computing Innovation Post Doctoral Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin. She received a Ph.D. from Texas A&M University and a B.S. in Computer Science from Tulane University. At A&M, Lydia was a fellow of the Molecular Biophysics Training Program, GAANN, and Graduate Teaching Academy programs. She was also awarded Sloan and P.E.O. Scholarships. Prior to graduate school, Lydia was a member of technical research staff at Sandia National Laboratories. She lives in Albuquerque with her husband, Bill, and four year old daughter, Iliana, along with their two cats, Marvin and Fresa, and, recent dog adoptee, Sammi.

Q: What challenges have you had to overcome to become a professor?

I almost didn’t make it through graduate school. I realize all graduate students feel that way sometimes.  But, for me, it was a reality.  One night I was grading papers and feeling a little ill.  Later that evening, I was having seizures and was rushed to the emergency room.  It turned out I had a massive blood clot in my brain that caused two strokes.  I couldn’t walk, see, or use my arm.  But, luckily, I was talking and still making jokes.  I spent three months in the hospital, relearning how to walk, pick up a pencil, and write.  I remember a neuropsychologist encouraging me to take heart in my remaining speaking skills.  He suggested I should pursue a career in telemarketing.  I guffawed, but I did wonder if I would ever be able to get back to graduate school.  Some parts of rehab were particularly fun, e.g., the memory and logic games to test the amount of brain damage.  The testing staff was often amazed by my performance since I had most games figured out in a couple of rounds.  I was the best the testers had ever seen before.  However, ever the scientist, I had to point out that their sample set was skewed; I was the best [of all the patients with traumatic brain injury].

It took almost a year of rehab, family support, and a friendly professor to help me rejoin graduate school.  But, I was soon back on campus, publishing my first paper in the first year of coming back.  Now, I work within my limitations:  motor, sensory, and endurance.  I’ve learned to pace myself much better than before while maintaining my productivity.  However, I am still an Assistant Professor, with all the pre-tenure pressures, so it is difficult some days.

Q: How did you become interested in pursuing a career in computer science? 

My route to a career in computer science was almost pre-destined, but I had a hard time seeing that. I participated in a local high-school program, the New Mexico Super Computing Challenge, where I got my first email account and learned UNIX and a little programming. However, I was sure I wasn’t going to work in computing. My senior year of high school, I interned at Sandia National Laboratories in a Virtual Reality Lab. My bosses were two strong women computer scientists who taught me so much in that year. However, when I left for college at Tulane University, I knew I wanted to be a biomedical engineer, not a computer scientist. Due to my computer experience, the Department Head of Computer Science encouraged me to take a few classes. It took a couple of years, but I was hooked. I was really good at it, and I really enjoyed the upper level classes.

Q: What CRA-W programs have you participated in and how did your experience with them influence your career path? 

When I returned to graduate school, I was offered a position as the CRA-W Webmaster.  It was amazing.  I was communicating with these amazing women running exciting programs daily.  I tried to be creative and offer them web-based solutions they might not have ever had or thought of, including web-based applications, interactive webpages, and new short-cuts.  Being the Webmaster allowed me to afford graduate school for several years, and I only quit because I had secured fellowship funding for the remainder of my Ph.D.  I’ve also attended and spoken at Grad Cohort events, attended Career Mentoring Workshops, and been a DREU Mentor.   The Career Mentoring Workshop really gave me useful advice as a new faculty member, and the DREU program has brought some amazing women into my lab.

Q: When did you decide to pursue an academic research career in computer science?  What do you enjoy most about this career path? 

I was torn about an academic career for a long time.  I decided to apply and see what offers I might get.  I ended up getting a faculty offer that would really support my research direction, helped establish research collaborations, and that would establish a path to my success.  Then, the choice was clear:  Assistant Professor at the University of New Mexico. There are probably two things I enjoy most.  The first is that I get to set the research agenda.  Any idea that I find exciting, we try to pursue.  The second is more rewarding.  I enjoy seeing my students find interesting and novel ways to pursue these ideas.  I know I’m doing a great job when they come up with their own ideas, solutions, and evaluations.

Q: Do you have any insight to share with undergraduates who might want to give research a try but don’t know where to start? 

I really love working with undergraduates.  My most recent student left this summer for graduate school after selecting from top schools and having an amazing career with me: publishing papers and winning third place (Finalist) in the CRA Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher Award.  The best place to start is to talk with a professor.  I usually have interested undergraduates come to my research paper reading group.  I warn them they might not understand much, but that will come with time.  If they persist and try, I give them a self-contained research project.  So, I recommend talking to a professor, being persistent, and really trying to be involved.  Also, don’t be scared; no one expects you to be an expert!  But you will find that you will be able to participate over time.

Q: What attracted you to the world of motion planning and its applications in robotics and computational biology?  Tell us a bit about what excites you most about your current research. 

I love working on biology-related problems.  It is exciting that my research could be used to identify new allergenic treatments or better understand diseases.   Working on biological problems is challenging since they are often complex and high dimensional.  That work really pulled me into two domains:  molecular and robotic motion.  While these sound really different, they actually are very similar.  Both molecules and robots need to move to perform their assigned function, and the way they move is critical to their success.  I get the most excited by the potential applications of our work.  For example, the medical school has been using our animations of aggregation of antibodies caused by a common shrimp allergen to demonstrate molecular impacts of allergic reactions to immunologists.  Also, our work on autonomous quadrotor package delivery has great potential impact, as Amazon is getting ready to use drones to deliver packages.  We’ve even had a provisional patent issued that will make quadrotors safer, thus making them better vehicles for delivery!

Q: What was your experience as a CI postdoctoral fellow and would you recommend the postdoc path to recent graduates? 

I look back fondly on my time as a CI fellow.  It really exposed me to another area, pure computational chemistry, and I en-joyed having the time to think about research.  I would recommend doing a postdoc to all graduates.  It is the one time you get the time and the freedom to really do research.  When I say this, I often get the comment, “isn’t that what grad school is about?”  But, it is only when a student is graduating that he or she really understands how to do research.  As a postdoc, you already know how to be a successful researcher; therefore you can just enjoy focusing on the ideas.

Q: What are your future plans (over the next 5 years)? 

My first plan is to get tenure!   But, I think even more exciting things will happen in the next five years.  First, I think that our antibody aggregation work can suggest new allergenic therapeutics.  I would love to see those tested.  Second, I would really like to build an interdisciplinary bridge between physics, biology, engineering, and computer science.  There are so many interesting problems that we, as computer scientists, can help solve, and the key to addressing these is to really gain an understanding of the other fields.  Finally, the most exciting thing is getting to work with amazing students.  I like working with them on research and seeing where they end up when they, sadly, have to move on.

Q: What have been the challenges and opportunities you’ve experienced as a Hispanic in computer science? 

When I was in graduate school, I was told I was selected for a fellowship since I was a woman and a minority.  I was horrified, and I didn’t want to accept it.  I soon found out that this wasn’t true, but I was still hurt that my gender and ethnicity were a focus.  At the time, it made me feel that I was not good enough to really succeed. Years later, I realized that I was a bit too sensitive about these issues.   Would I ever recommend a student not to apply for DREU since it was intended to help women and minority students, NO!  These opportunities are there for a reason.  We need the diversity in the field!  But, I am sensitive to the way these issues are addressed.  We should never put down someone’s merits to focus on their minority status.

Q: Are you involved in other activities supporting women and minorities in computing? 

For years, I was on the scholarship committee at the Grace Hopper Conference.  My recent focus has been to co-organize panels and send students to present their work.  As a faculty member, I really love directly giving back by doing panels at Hopper and Tapia.  My most recent amazing experience was sending each of my DREU students to the most recent Tapia and Hopper Conferences to present posters!  Going to a conference was a new experience for them, and I had fun helping them prepare and practice their posters.  I must admit I was probably more nervous than they were.

At UNM, we have not had a strong support system for women in computing.  Along with a female Ph.D. student, I founded a Lobo Women in Computer Science Group.  Even though we’ve been meeting for just over a year, we have had great impact.  We’ve helped multiple undergraduate students get into research, hosted resume writing workshops, and provided a safe forum to talk about challenging issues.  The years I spent in graduate school helping to run a Women in Computer Science group have really helped develop this new organization.

Next year I am the lead organizer for a Coalition to Diversify Computing Mentoring Workshop in Robotics.  This work shop will be the first of its kind, focusing on how to address robotics-specific research challenges.  We will have sessions led by top researchers in robotics for both undergraduates and graduate students Since research means so much to me, I love to involve women and minorities in research.  Our research group is often thought of as atypical for computer science, but I think this diversity brings new perspectives.  This summer I even had the pleasure of mentoring the high school daughter of my mentor from my high school research at Sandia National Laboratories!

Q: What do you do for fun and how do you balance life outside of work with your career objectives? 

My husband and my daughter are the biggest supporters of my career.  Since my daughter is four years old, my free time is usually filled with ballet, gymnastics, or playing pretend.   Often I think I’m not the best example of work-life balance.  But, given that I’m able to balance the emotional needs of a four year old and my hectic career, I’m probably not too bad.  One way we’ve been able to cope with my travel has been to get my daughter a calendar and a globe.  She loves keeping track of the dates and locations of my travel.  Also, I do try to take her with me when I can.  We went on a “Girls Trip” to Grace Hopper last year, and it was fun for both of us.