Highlight on CREU Alum, Samantha Finkelstein

Originally Published in Winter/Spring 2013 Newsletter

Samantha Finkelstein is a 2nd year PhD student in Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII) working with Dr. Justine Cassell. She’s excited about understanding how children collaborate and learn with each other, and then figuring out how children could collaborate and learn with a virtual peer. Samantha is working on developing a model of how children learn, play, talk, and build rapport in different situations with their (human and virtual) peers. She earned her undergraduate degree at UNC Charlotte.

Q: When did you start thinking about human-computer interaction?

When I was in high school, I had sort of this existential crisis where I knew I was passionate about psychology, education, and technology, but I had no idea how these fields intersected, and what I was even able to do with them. I remember thinking that my only options were being an elementary school teacher, a clinical psychologist, or a cubicle-bound programmer, and I was so distraught. Fortunately, while I was still in high school, someone introduced me to the idea of human-computer interaction, and I first read about some of Justine Cassell’s work. She had explored how virtual peers, sort of like complex video game characters you can talk to, could be used to help teach social skills to children with autism. I first read about this study in 10th or 11th grade, and was instantly hooked. I immediately knew that I would be able to fit in with HCI, and I decided to do my undergraduate degrees in computer science and psychology as a first step.

Q: How did the CREU influence your career path?

My undergraduate research advisor, Dr. Tiffany Barnes, was an enthusiastic and inspirational woman who was consistently one of my biggest advocates and played an enormous role helping me carve out my career path. She was the one who encouraged me to apply to the CREU, and acted as my CREU mentor. That was my first experience working with a team of people on a big research problem, and one I cared deeply about: how to get women and culturally-underrepresented minorities more involved in computer science. I was able to take on the role of “HCI person” on the team, and submitted a first-author extended abstract to CHI. It was at this conference I first started networking with people who would become my future colleagues, and when I really knew that this was the right field for me.

Q: What made you decide on human-computer interaction as your research area?

I’m in research because I want to make my mark on the world by improving education. I believe technology has the ability to facilitate the research necessary to better understand human behavior, and allow us the ability to work with this understanding of human behavior to provide students with tools to best support them in their education. Human-Computer Interaction feels like an incredible place to be standing within the research world because you have access not just to these technologies, but are also deeply situated within theories of psychology, education, design, communication – anything. Everything I work on feels like it has the ability to solve important problems that I care about deeply, and for me, that makes the field a perfect fit for me.

Q: You have had significant exposure to research as an undergraduate. Any insight to share with undergraduates who might want to give research a try but don’t know where to start?

I learned two things during my undergraduate career that I think influenced, and will continue to influence, the rest of my research career: (1) enthusiasm can carry you an exceptionally long distance, and (2) people say “no” a lot less than you think they will.  Become invested in what you’re doing. Your passion will be apparent to everyone you work with, and people will want to help make avenues to support you. Your professors want to help you, and your university wants to support you as best as they can.

I asked professors if I could help out with one of their existing research projects to complete in place of performing the originally-assigned class project, volunteered in labs working on independent projects that professors agreed to help advise, and got the university to alter the requirements for my major to best support my interests (allowing me to graduate with a focus in Human-Computer Interaction, even though the university didn’t technically offer such a thing). Each of these were instrumental in my academic development, and each was the result of a conversation that took less than five minutes.

The first step is to figure out what area you care about, maybe by reading some papers on Google Scholar until you find one that you really, really don’t feel bored reading – I mean, legitimately find interesting. When you find the paper that you read all the way through without checking the time, that makes you want to call a friend and say “Guess what I just read!” then you’ve found a good area. Don’t stop until you’ve found something that calls to you.

Q: How did you decide where to apply for graduate school and what was your rationale for your final choice?

I’m sort of a weird case. I mentioned earlier that I was having academic crises in 10th grade because I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and felt like I had such competing interests. Around that time, I had read about Justine Cas-sell’s research in a news article about technology for kids with autism, and it was the first time I had heard of Human-Computer Interaction. I spent the next few weeks googling HCI programs, and kept seeing Carnegie Mellon’s HCII recommended. I was really strongly drawn both to Justine Cassell, who was a professor at Northwestern University at the time, and to Carnegie Mellon. I spent the next five or so years, all throughout the rest of high school and undergrad, stressing about whether I’d do research with Justine at Northwestern, or whether I’d go to CMU. The year I was applying to graduate school, I found out Justine was hired to be the director of the HCII, and I am now her first student in this program. It felt like complete serendipity – I was ecstatic for weeks.

Q: What challenges are you facing/do you think you will face through a graduate career?

I’ll put it this way – my homepage was the Wikipedia article for “Imposter Syndrome” for about three months. I get really overwhelmed when my advisor suggests a new method of analysis or experimentation that I’m not familiar with or haven’t heard of. For the first year of my Ph.D., my immediate response to this sort of conversation (which happened a lot!) was to go into crisis-mode. Since then, I’ve grown to have a much healthier relationship with these sorts of conversations, and have gotten to a point where I’m excited, rather than scared, about getting to learn a new method, to both my and my advisor’s pleasure.

Q: What is your career plan after you graduate?

Before I started graduate school, I was convinced I’d be a professor. Now, though, I’m beginning to think about other options. Here’s what I (think I) know: I want to be doing “basic research” that gets at understanding how children learn together and with technology, I want to have direct interaction with children as part of my own career, and I want to be mentoring students. I’m not sure what form this will all take yet, but I’m excited to find out.

Q: Are you involved in other outreach activities?

I love outreach! My undergraduate university, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, really developed this interest
in me with an amazing program called the STARS Alliance, where I worked with a team of other students to teach at-risk middle school students how to create video games using Game Maker over the course of a semester. These days, I’m a part of CMU’s Women@SCS program, which is a really great organization to support women and culturally-underrepresented minorities in STEM fields. We give roadshows about technology and research to elementary – high school students. I’m also a part of Allies at CMU, and mentor local Pittsburgh LGBT youth. These are both some of my favorite hobbies.

Q: What do you do for fun?

Outreach is a big one! Other than that, though, I’m currently working on developing a bunch of hobbies that I’m not particularly good at (yet), but do enthusiastically. These include watercolor painting, slacklining, writing slam poetry, and rock climbing. I also love board games! There are a lot of board games in my life.

Q: Any retrospective advice on what to focus on in the first year of graduate school for someone just starting out?

Be a person! I give so much credit to the HCII for teaching me this lesson on my first day. I remember one of my first days at the open house, a current student asked me what I did for fun. I said “I spend most of my time doing research – I really love it.” She instantly told me this was unacceptable. My Ph.D. program is full of people who design their own board games, juggle on slacklines, make stained glass artwork, volunteer at museums, and travel the world.  It wasn’t long before I found a better answer to “what do you do for fun?” Now, I couldn’t imagine getting through a Ph.D. program without purposefully making time to develop into a person socially, as well as academically. Start graduate school with the idea for a hobby that seems unobtainable. Pick something you never thought you’d be able to do. Plan to be an expert at it by the time you graduate.