This article is published in the September 2011 issue.

My Experiences as a CIFellow

Entering the workforce following the support and protection of graduate school can be challenging. These challenges were compounded by a difficult economy with limited prospects for research and academic positions in 2009.

It was such an honor to be selected as one of the 60 inaugural CIFellows out of 526 very worthy applicants. The CIFellows Project1 was designed to provide new doctoral graduates postdoctoral opportunities to continue research careers and develop new skills to improve their marketability in the academic and research job market.

My dissertation research focused on the use of affective expression in appearance-constrained robots for victim management in robot-assisted urban search and rescue. Though this research was exciting and interesting to me, I wanted the opportunity to learn about different applications for robots and how robots can be used with different populations. The CIFellows Project allowed me the opportunity to explore new research ideas and gain new skills.

As a CIFellow, I started exploring new research interests by working with students in the Social Robotics Laboratory at Yale University and with professionals at the Yale Child Study Center. I assisted with a project that investigated the use of robots for interactions with children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). It appears that the rate of diagnosis for ASD has become more prevalent and it even personally touched my life, so it was important to me to be involved in determining if robots could impact these children in a positive way.

The CIFellows Project and Yale University provided me with the opportunity to learn to work with protected populations in a clinical setting. I would not have gained this type of experience in any other research position. It was exciting and rewarding to watch these children respond to the robots and learn how to evaluate their reactions. My participation in this type of research endeavor required an entirely new skill set and review of literature. The CIFellows Project provided me the support to develop these skills and the time to acquire this new knowledge to enhance my research expertise.

My mentor, Brian Scassellati, was very supportive in allowing me to explore my own independent research ideas and investigate the viability of new research topics. My most recent research investigated whether young children would be as willing to share a secret they had been told to keep with a robot as they would an adult. This research was a preliminary investigation to determine if robots might be a useful tool for gathering sensitive information from children who may have experienced maltreatment and/or trauma.

The preliminary results from this research were promising and the observations indicated that the children (4 to 6 years old) were as likely to share the secret they were told with both the robot and the adult. The children interacted with the robot using similar social conventions they exhibited with the adult (e.g., greeting, turn-taking, etc.). It was exciting to have the opportunity to explore a research track that was high risk with the potential for high reward in a supportive postdoctoral environment without the pressure often associated with the tenure process. It was helpful to have a mentor to share ideas with and discuss the possible pitfalls associated with the development of a new line of research. This investigative process provided a strong foundation for a new line of research that improved my marketability in an extremely competitive research-oriented job market.

The CIFellows Project provided me with the opportunity to continue my professional development while at Yale University. As part of this program I was able to enhance my education by taking a machine shop operation and safety course so that I could develop the skills necessary to build parts for creating and repairing robots. I was also given the opportunity to participate in a week-long summer workshop on the latest medical and therapeutic developments associated with Autism Spectrum Disorders. I attended workshops on mentoring to improve my knowledge and skills in teaching and mentoring others in research, science, and engineering environments. Additionally, I attended workshops on writing grant proposals and had an opportunity to co-write a proposal with my mentor.

As part of the program, CIFellows attended an annual research and career mentoring workshop2 sponsored by the Computing Research Association. The benefits associated with attending these workshops were invaluable for networking and career development. The workshop presenters encouraged the Fellows to make appointments with NSF and other government funding agencies to learn more about the grant proposal process and to meet with Program Managers. By following their advice, I had the opportunity to serve on a NSF review panel.

The CIFellows Project enabled me to gain new skills and to be more competitive in this challenging job market. This year, when academic institutions were receiving 300 to 400 applications for one posted position, I was able to secure an Assistant Professor position in the Computer Science and Engineering department at a research-intensive university. The CIFellows Project provided me with a means to continue to develop my professional skills, remain in the computing research community, and continue to pursue my dream of a career in academics.

In 2009, opportunities to find employment in computing research were extremely limited, and unfortunately that situation has not improved much today, but I am appreciative for the opportunities that the CIFellows Project provided me to continue a career in research that will impact society and make a difference to others.

Cindy Bethel received her Ph.D. in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of South Florida in 2009 under the direction of co-advisors Robin Murphy and Larry Hall. Her research focuses on the areas of human-robot interaction and social robotics. She has spent the better part of the past two years as a Computing Innovation Fellow (CIFellow) at Yale University, working with Brian Scassellati in the Social Robotics Laboratory. This fall, Cindy will begin a tenure-track faculty position as Assistant Professor in Computer Science and Engineering at Mississippi State University.


1 For more details about the CIFellows Project, visit

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My Experiences as a CIFellow