We recently caught up with Connie Chau, class of 2020, to talk about her time at Carnegie Mellon. Our conversation is below, formatted as Q&A style.
HCII: Hi Connie! Tell us about yourself. What was your undergraduate major at Carnegie Mellon?
Connie: I was in the BxA program studying Economics and Music Harp Performance and joined the BHCI program in my sophomore year. I graduated undergrad in May 2020 and again in December 2020 from the MHCI program. I’m curious about the world and I like sweets, celebrating the small things in life, and my cat named Spaghetti.
You have many talents! Harp Performance and Economics sounds like quite the combination. Those majors aren’t in the School of Computer Science. How did you find out about the field of human-computer interaction and our additional major in interdisciplinary HCI?
I’m flattered haha, but lots of people have many talents since what you major in could be just a tiny sliver of your interests. I found HCI mostly by accident. I have always been intrigued by human behavior. Why do people make the choices they do? How does technology affect our relationships with others and ourselves? Combine this fascination with people and how they interact with the world around them and my introduction to using technology for art and creativity, and I thought, “is this HCI?”. I talked to my advisors and found the application to apply for the additional major in HCI during my sophomore year. I’m just someone who likes lots of things and HCI is the perfect home for that -- it’s an exciting space to be in, especially with how much technology there is around us.
During your senior year, you were accepted into our competitive Accelerated MHCI program. This allowed you to jump right into an MHCI capstone project and start your masters degree during the spring semester of your senior year. What was your 2020 Capstone project?
My Capstone team [Team Oasis] was given a more open-ended prompt of developing a technological intervention that could help people who struggled with substance use by our project sponsors, local nonprofit, The Oasis Recovery Center, and Pittsburgh-startup, Biomotivate. We designed “LiveLine”, an online support platform that focused on serving the needs of young adults, whose familiarity with technology and generational differences created a gap in care and recovery resources that was unmet by the traditional recovery journey. Because of the pandemic, we had to pivot and adapt quickly to understand how the pandemic and shelter-at-home orders affected the recovery experience because traditional recovery methods often relied on in-person support group meetings and care. It was not always easy and there are definitely lots of things to improve but it was a great and memorable experience thanks to my wonderful team.
What an important research area with the power to change lives. What was it about this HCI project that inspired a new trajectory for you?
This project opened my eyes to the problems that not only people as patients have, but also the challenges that social workers, therapists, counselors, and healthcare workers face. We spoke to rehabilitation center directors, addiction counselors, and social workers in our research and I just felt like these people, who are literally trained and working towards helping underserved communities, seem to struggle with issues of burnout, access, and outreach. How could we help these people manage this essential work? Could we scale their efforts to help more people? Is inserting design and HCI methods actually going to do anything? How can we design and do research in a way that really involves the people we’re trying to help? There were many other ideas that I found intriguing throughout the course of our project but we just didn’t have the time so I was left with a lot of questions. I learned how to do mindful and ethical research with sensitive populations and it got me really interested in this health equity, social work, community, and technology space. It led me to work with Ken Holstein from the CoALA Lab where I now lead research on co-designing clinical decision support technologies for suicide risk prediction. Research isn’t always easy, especially with really heavy topics, but I’ve been so lucky to have people in sessions tell me, “I really want this to exist” or “I’m so glad someone cares and is working on this” -- it makes me want to do my best to persevere and support others, too.
We enjoy having you on the HCII team as a Research Associate with the CoALA Lab, but we hear an exciting opportunity awaits you in the fall. What’s next for you?
I’ll be joining Northwestern’s Technology and Social Behavior joint PhD program and working with Dr. Maia Jacobs on an action research approach to community-based digital mental health. Basically, we want to involve community leaders and organizations in the processes of planning, designing, implementing, and evaluating interventions and try to develop technologies that are personalized to not only individuals, but the whole ecosystem of healthcare workers, social services, and access to care that can contextualize mental health outcomes. A person’s relationship with their mental health can also change and they might need different kinds of support at different parts of their life. Personally, I think I’d like to help find ways to help people through the healing process, whether it’s from loss, grief, or otherwise. I’d really like to also work in the domestic/interpersonal violence space and other traditionally stigmatized domains that I think could use more support.
Congratulations on your acceptance to Northwestern! We’re so excited to watch you continue on your HCI journey. What advice would you give to others interested in learning more about HCI?
If you’re interested in HCI, give yourself time and ways to explore if you’re unsure where HCI might fit with your own interests and goals. And talk to people! I love HCI for its great diversity of people and perspectives.
Looking ahead, how do you think HCI can make a positive impact?
HCI has a lot of potential to not only help develop cool new things, but also change how we’ve traditionally thought about technology and improve the way we do more ethical and impactful research. I think HCI can help us really question and evaluate norms with technology that we’ve just learned to accept because it happened so fast; should we have robots taking care of babies? Should young children learn about data privacy and security in school? Is technology really going to help resolve power imbalances in the world? It’s up to us to think about where and how technology could be used, hopefully for the better.
Just for fun, do you happen to have a favorite design or prototyping method?
My favorite ideation method is “worst possible idea”. It’s really fun and silly but you can get some surprisingly in-depth conversations and good ideas from it. If you’re a perfectionist or super self-critical, this is a great exercise to break out of that mindset.
Is there any part of your HCI education that you apply to other things in your life?
There are lots of things that I think apply to our daily lives. Treat yourself and others like you would a user or participant -- with respect, patience, empathy. And also that there’s always something we can learn about ourselves or others or the world. It’s a bit cheesy, but I think we are our users in our own life so taking care of ourselves goes a long way in our line of work.
Thank you so much for your time, Connie. Best wishes as you continue your education at Northwestern. :D
Thank you, Karen, for your hard work and big thanks to those at the HCII and CMU who support students as they learn and grow as people!
Interested in HCI? Feel free to connect and chat with Connie on LinkedIn (: