School of Computer Science (QUT)
Closing distances one byte at a time: Levering technology to improve STEM engagement 

Are you eligible for Breaking Barriers Category

SUMMARY

I am a senior lecturer in the School of Computer Science at QUT. Building on my expertise in learning sciences, data analytics and psychology of games, my research focuses on designing new interactive technologies that enable remote learning, training, and work to deal with the barriers of physical and psychological distances. I enjoy mentoring young women in my research and teaching, striving to achieve gender equity and diversity in STEM fields. I teach project-based studio units on the design and development of immersive environments including virtual reality applications where there is high demand for talent. Students work with industry partners, using these technologies to help solve problems to advance Queensland. I take part in committees at QUT (e.g., Women in Research); and engage with academic communities as part of the program committee in major conferences (e.g., ACM CHI) and reviewing for prestigious journals in my field.

BENEFIT – A description of the benefit of your work to Queensland (max 500 words)

My work benefits Queensland in multiple ways: 1) raising human capacity and diversity working in Virtual and Augmented Reality fields; 2) technological innovations to overcome the barriers of remoteness to support critical collaborations; 3) strengthen the position of QLD in space exploration.

There is a high demand for talent working with immersive systems. In early 2019, I co-founded a research group called Cognitive and Learning Environments in Augmented and Virtual Reality (CLEVAR). The group focuses on projects related to immersive technologies (augmented, virtual, and mixed reality) across topics of cognition and training, motivation, and physical rehabilitation. I have been actively recruiting and training excellent research students working on topics examining how immersive technologies help solve problems and improve existing systems. The group grew from a core of 2 academics and 5 students to its current 21 students and 4 academic staff. CLEVAR is a hub exploring novel immersive interactions at QUT, and its reputation has spread across Queensland, Australia and internationally.
As a research affiliate, I have been collaborating with scientists from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA/JPL) on designing and developing a visualization software to analyse data from MARS 2020 Rover’s science instrument called Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemisty (PIXL). My 12-week visit to NASA/JPL (07/2018-10/2018) has strengthened the ongoing collaboration between QUT and JPL via the PIXL team. As the lead Human Computer Interaction researcher from QUT, I am collaborating with the PIXL science team, led by the distinguished Australian scientist Dr. Abigail Allwood, to design collaborative features of the data visualization tool that will enable scientists to work together to analyse Martian terrain data. We will be studying how the visualization software facilitates science enquiry. I have recruited a visualization software developer to work on the software at QUT, and JPL/NASA has a team of designers and developers to participate in this study. My recent Australian Research Council Discovery Project is extending the data visualisation efforts from this tool in virtual reality systems which will enable distributed scientists to interrogate their data together in an immersive environment.
My recent ARC Discovery Project, started June 2021, aims to research, and develop interactive virtual fieldwork environments to overcome current challenges in conducting scientific fieldwork and open new possibilities for scientific discovery. Scientific discovery is an inherent human trait, but it is also an expensive endeavour that requires large scientific teams and significant equipment to gather data for analysis. For instance, NASA’s next rover mission, Mars 2020, has a budget of US$2.1 billion. It is crucial to innovate methods and technologies that will enable this investment, and others like it, to yield creative and effective research outcomes. My project deals with the very significant problem of remote scientific collaboration with complex data. It is opening opportunities for distributed teams to perform collaborative virtual fieldwork in immersive environments. The project is helping geologists and planetary scientists to interrogate their data in situ, using multimodal data to improve scientific discovery. The findings will benefit fields including mining, remote healthcare, and ecology across Queensland and Australia. 

ROLE MODEL – Why do you think you are a good role model for women and girls aspiring to work in STEM? (max 500 words)
I am a good role model for women and girls because: 1) I work on a cutting-edge field of innovative technologies which should have more gender diversity; and 2) I actively recruit and train young women who is interested in working with immersive systems and videogames.
Australia is a remote country. The recent pandemic has proven that we need better solutions to connect people for education, work, and socialisation. Indeed, I experienced isolation firsthand during the pandemic as my partner was locked out of the country for five months while I was expecting our first child. He was with me at my child’s birth through a videocall. While he could not hold my hand, I could see and hear him. We need to innovate technologies to be a lot more immersive, not just to solve complex problems, but also to better support social and emotional connections for people who are socially and physically isolated. Industries from aerospace, to health, to construction have been investigating Virtual and Augmented reality technologies as part of their strategies to be better prepared for the future and deal with remoteness. This is crucial for wellbeing and flourishing of the society. My research examines how these interactive technologies and immersive environments can be designed effectively to be part of the solution to remoteness and isolation. Successfully leading several government-funded and industry partnered projects, and developing and teaching various units (e.g., IGB388: Designing and Developing Immersive Environments) towards these efforts, I stand as a good role model for women and girls aspiring to work in STEM.
Women make up only 13% of STEM-qualified occupations in Australia. This is too little. This percentage should be significantly higher given the value women can add to the STEM fields. I actively recruit and train young women who are interested in working with immersive systems and videogames. In the last year, I recruited nine young women to my research team. Five of them are currently undergraduate students. I am training them to be excellent designers and software developers, whether they work in industry or academia to help solve wicked problems of the present and future. Of my current 12 research students, eight are young women. I support agency in my mentees through providing guidance and encouraging their independence and leadership ambitions. This is crucial if we expect women to be leaders in STEM fields.
I have mentored multiple female sessional academics in my units, and they have received excellent student evaluations. My teaching is inspired by my research, which focuses on using affordances of learning environments to foster students’ sustained motivation, engagement, and learning to close the psychological distances women may have towards technology.  I teach by designing learning activities with the goal of making the classroom a meaningful and engaging environment where students can freely explore their interests within the frame of the unit. I provide my students scaffolding through formative feedback throughout the semester to help their learning and improve their sense of competence and independence.
 
ENGAGEMENT – Describe any STEM promotion or engagement activities that you have undertaken, including both scientific and non-scientific audiences, particularly with women and girls (maximum 500 words)

I have been promoting STEM engagement since I was a little girl. From very young age (~5 years), I loved numbers, and I loved playing with them (i.e., solving math problems). My mother would make math problems for me every day as an activity, calling them games. I looked forward to those “games” my mother brought from work. I had also realised that my girlfriends did not share my enthusiasm for the games. I took it upon myself to explain the fun of math to my friends. While I did not come very far, it gave me a purpose in life. I tutored mathematics for the next 20 years, always trying to find ways to make it approachable (e.g., I would take a bag of dice, and coins to my class to showcase probability concepts, use paper and scissors to show conic sections before teaching to formulas) to tackle with phycological distance students had to learning mathematics. 
During my graduate studies at Columbia University, I worked on numerous projects where I used innovative technologies (e.g., robotics, videogames, simulations) to promote STEM. One example project was Science through Second Life, a semester-long initiative by a non-profit organization Global Kids in New York City.  I closely worked with high school science teachers to create the lesson plans and ran the project evaluation.  Most of the class was low-income black students who had very little exposure to STEM role models. In the virtual world Second Life, they got to roleplay being a scientist and solving problems, from energy sustainability to pollution to mining. At the end of the semester, students’ attitudes towards STEM careers had changed significantly. This project had a tremendous impact on my academic trajectory encouraging me to work with immersive systems to maximize students’ motivation to pursue STEM careers. 
At QUT, as a woman in a male dominated field, my primary method for promotion of STEM is through mentorship. I work with and train peer-leaders at my units. This year I am working with five young women as peer-leaders. The leadership activities they involve help them develop their self-efficacy. Seeing them grow as confident designers, programmers, animators is one of the most satisfactory aspects of my teaching. In addition, I am a core member of Women in Research Subcommittee at QUT. Through my role, I advocate and support for young women’s academic careers in STEM through activities including grant writing workshops. 
I invite successful women who work in academia and industry to my lecture classes, and to the CLEVAR group’s bi-weekly meetings as role models with whom my students may relate with. In return, I have given numerous talks in my field encouraging women and girls to pursue their dreams in STEM. While the field is still male dominated, women can and should be part of the scientific and technological innovations that will shape the future of our society. 

VIDEO