This article is published in the June 2024 issue.

CRA-WP Names Martez Mott as 2024 Skip Ellis Early Career Award Recipient

By Lauren Lashlee, Program Associate, CRA-WP

Since 2019, CRA-WP has recognized an outstanding computer science researcher in honor of Clarence “Skip” Ellis, by awarding them with the CRA-WP Skip Ellis Early Career Award (SEECA). 

Headshot of Martez MottCRA-WP is pleased to announce Martez Mott (Microsoft Research) as the recipient of the 2024 Skip Ellis Early Career Award for his research and service to the computer science community.

Mott is a Senior Researcher in the Ability group and Human Centered AI Experiences team at Microsoft Research in Redmond, Washington. He conducts research in the fields of human-computer interaction (HCI), accessibility, mixed reality, and human-centered AI. His research focuses on designing, building, and evaluating novel intelligent interactive technologies that are guided by scientific understandings of people’s experiences with computers and information. A core tenet of this work is the consultation and inclusion of potential users and beneficiaries of technologies in all aspects of the research process. He is best known for his research on improving accessibility for people with limited mobility by identifying and removing accessibility barriers found in a range of computing technologies, including touch screens, gaze-based text entry, and virtual reality hardware.Mott received his PhD and MS in Information Science from the Information School at the University of Washington (UW), where his dissertation was supported by a Microsoft Research Dissertation Grant and a UW Graduate Opportunity Minority Achievement Program Fellowship. Before attending UW, Martez received his BS and MS in Computer Science from Bowling Green State University and was awarded the Outstanding Computer Science Graduate Student Award.

Mott is passionate about improving diversity in Computer and Information Science. He was an inaugural teaching fellow and served as a research advisor at the iSchool Inclusion Institute. He co-chaired the 2020 and 2021 CHI Mentoring Workshops at the ACM CHI conference, the premier international conference for HCI research. He also cofounded and co-leads the Black Researchers @ Microsoft Research employee resource group.

Read more about the CRA-WP Early Career Awards.

Get to know Martez Mott:

What brought you to computing research?

In the seventh grade my science teacher asked if I wanted to join the school’s inaugural LEGO robotics club. I declined, because I was more interested in playing sports and basketball tryouts were taking place during the same time as the robotics club meetings. When I didn’t make the team, my science teacher approached me again and asked if I would join the robotics club. I agreed. Since then, I knew I wanted to work with computers and electronics. When I went to college, I wanted a major that would allow me to explore those interests further, so I majored in Electronics and Computer Technology at Bowling Green State University. The program’s curriculum required us to take a series of Computer Science courses, and my first CS professor, Duke Hutchings, told me on the last day of class that I should consider doing an undergraduate research project with professors in the department. I had no idea what research was, or why I should do it, but I followed Duke’s advice. The next semester I changed my major to Computer Science, and I’ve been doing CS research ever since. 


Do you remember your first research project?

The first project I worked on was a collaboration between professors and students from Computer Science, Psychology, and Geology. The geologists had this problem where students would struggle with the University’s structural geology course. The psychologists believed that one potential cause was the spatial reasoning skills required to perform tasks presented by the course, such as looking at a 2D topological map and inferring what the 3D structure should look like. My job, along with the other computer scientists, was to build software that would help us measure students’ spatial reasoning skills, and to build applications that would allow them to practice visualizing some of the most common tasks found in the structural geology course. I learned a lot about research and about how our abilities impact our relationship with technology and each other.


What project was your most memorable or favorite to work on?

One of my favorite projects was the Smart Touch research I did as a doctoral student at the University of Washington. People with physical disabilities that impact their fingers, hands, or arms often experience difficulties using touchscreen devices like smartphones and tablets. The problem is that these devices expect a narrow range of inputs, such as using a single finger to select or manipulate onscreen controls or using two fingers to perform gestures like pinch-to-zoom. People with physical disabilities, however, might use multiple fingers, their palm, or their entire hand to interact with the screen, which can cause multiple errors and ultimately results in touchscreen devices being partially or entirely inaccessible. With Smart Touch, we wanted to allow people to interact with touchscreens in whichever ways were the most comfortable and natural to them. We created user-specific models of touch and demonstrated that with only a few dozen touch examples, touchscreens could be significantly more accurate in understanding users’ touch input and predicting their intended touch locations.


What are your fondest memories of your research internship with Microsoft?

The best part of the internship experience at Microsoft Research (MSR) for me was the camaraderie with the other interns. Building 99—the MSR office in Redmond, WA—was filled with hundreds of PhD interns from around the world, all working on interesting projects. I got to meet so many students from different universities with varied research interests, and most importantly, I was able to establish friendships and connections that are still strong today. The best memories were really the small moments. A sigh and a quick glance down the hall from one of us was a signal that we all should get up, go for a walk, and take a break. The support we provided each other was special and that’s what I’ll remember the most.


What advice would you give current graduate students applying for research internships with Microsoft?

Students should think about how their skill sets could be applied to studying a range of research topics. I often see interns who simply want to continue their dissertation work while at MSR, and that can work in very limited instances, but most of the time MSR researchers are working on problems that do not align perfectly with what students are doing at their universities. So, when exploring opportunities at MSR, it’s important for students not only to discuss their areas of focus and the expertise they have in those areas, but to also talk about their skills and how those skills might be useful to research teams as they carry out their investigations. To put it another way, do not only focus on what you know, but try to explain what you can do as well. 


What challenges did you encounter when you first started your research career?

A big challenge I experienced when I started my professional research career was learning how to effectively communicate with my colleagues throughout the company. Doctoral students are often taught to speak about their work in terms of the “broader impacts” or the “scientific merit” of their research, which is helpful for discussing research with grant funding agencies or academic collaborators. At a company like Microsoft, however, there can be many different stakeholders, like designers, engineers, and project managers, and determining what each stakeholder needs to know and how that information should best be conveyed takes a while to learn. Concise and cogent communication can be very effective, but researchers must often fight against instincts that cause them to overexplain. This is something I still struggle with, but just being aware that I need to adapt my communication style to match my audience helps a lot.


What challenges did you face in your research, and how did you overcome them?

One of the biggest challenges was learning how to make steady research progress in the face of uncertainty. Most students are accustomed to working on problems with known answers, so it can be a big shock to work on projects where no one knows the answer, and daunting once you realize it is your responsibility to find the answer. It’s easy to get stuck, so it’s important to find ways to break the inertia. My strategy was to develop little feedback mechanisms that would allow me to better understand if I was closer to reaching my goals. For example, when I was working on the Smart Touch project I created a set of milestones that I needed to meet if the project was to succeed. I did not put a time limit or due date on any of the milestones, I simply used them to make the components of the project more visible, and it reduced a large, seemingly intractable problem into a set of smaller, more achievable tasks. In general, breaking down large, complicated tasks into smaller, simpler tasks can help researchers think through tough problems and help them identify ways to improve or alter their research approach. 


Can you tell us about any current research projects you’re working on?

My colleagues and I are exploring how generative AI technologies can help people with complex communication needs (CCNs) more effectively collaborate and communicate with colleagues, friends, and family members. Many people with CCNs might use some form of computer mediated communication, like tablet-based augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices, so there is potential for gen AI technologies to improve existing systems and for new functionalities to be created. Our research focuses on working closely with people with CCNs to understand their current experiences and to elicit their thoughts on what technologies would best meet their needs. With this research, we hope to collaboratively design and evaluate new communication technologies that benefit people with CCNs.


What are some of your favorite things about research?

There are many things, but to keep it simple I’ll share two. First, I love the amount of creativity involved, especially in my field of human-computer interaction. We are literally inventing the future, and the scope and scale of our inventions and investigations can take us to pretty interesting places and can uncover fascinating insights into how people relate to technology. It’s a freeing experience, being able to follow your curiosity wherever it leads you. My second favorite thing is contributing to the history of my field. I love history, and being a researcher allows us to contribute to the history of our fields of study through our publications and other research artifacts. Researchers 10, 20, or 50 years in the future might read a paper I wrote and could find some interesting ideas that they wish to modify, expand, or interrogate further in their own work. I think that’s pretty cool.


Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to your younger self at the start of your career?

I would tell my younger self to be more confident. I dealt with so much imposter syndrome early on that it prevented me from going after opportunities that could have served me well throughout my career. For example, when I was applying to schools for my Ph.D. I didn’t apply for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship because I thought that I had no chance of winning, and I didn’t want to inconvenience my mentors by asking them to write me a recommendation letter for a fellowship that I was bound to lose. It took me years to realize how wrong my thinking was, but at that time I was convinced that a student from a small, not well-known state school with limited research experience would not be competitive for such a prestigious fellowship. I had many of those types of experiences, where I decided a priori that I was undeserving of an opportunity, so I just did nothing. Having the confidence, or maybe courage is more apt, to ask a question at a conference, to reach out to a senior person in your field, or to perform any number of tasks that seem scary and daunting, is important for personal and professional growth. I encourage everyone just starting their research careers to be courageous and to step outside of their comfort zones from time to time.