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Raising diversity awareness inspires career of computer science alumna

November 14, 2016

Headshot of woman
Jessica Zietz Self

Jessica Zeitz Self had become accustomed to being in the minority.

As she made her way through the doctoral program in the Department of Computer Science in the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech, Self, who earned her Ph.D. in 2016, was always mindful of the fact that she was one of only a handful of women.

No wonder.

Women who earned undergraduate degrees in computer science in 2015 were just 18 percent of the academic population, according to the National Science Foundation.

When Self was hired as an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Mary Washington this year, she became part of a professional cadre of women that represents only 25 percent of the total STEM workforce in the industry.

Self’s collegiate experience at Virginia Tech allowed her to become a champion for diversity in her field, however. Being one of just three women out of a cohort of 40 in 2011, she made it a priority to weave diversity into her academic training.

“One of the main issues with the gender gap in computer science is that girls simply aren’t exposed to what computer science is,” said Self.

As a graduate student, she assisted with and also coordinated Women in Computing Day, an event that brings seventh-grade girls to Virginia Tech to learn about computer science in nontraditional ways.

Self based one of her outreach activities at the event on a data-analysis project called “Be the Data.” But she avoided snore-inducing spreadsheets of lifeless numbers.

The group used a dataset of animals and motion cameras in The Cube, a four-story-high art theater and high-tech laboratory, to generate them on a scatterplot.

The assignment?

Evaluate an array of animals from cats to pigs to tigers to squirrels using various criteria. The group measured such characteristics as furriness, how fast or slow the animals traveled, and other traits. Based on the input, the computer generated a scatterplot, creating a data visualization set.

In one exercise, the seventh graders evaluated whether certain animals would make good pets. And sometimes the results were surprising.

Though no one generally thinks of a domesticated cat as “slow,” when the group made speed a priority in evaluating pet worthiness, “the slow animals tended to be the ones we have as pets,” Self said.

In the activity, each girl embodied a single data point as one of the animals. Her position and movement were tracked with respect to all the other girls. Together, the girls explored alternative clusterings of the data points by re-organizing themselves in the space.

With the Andromeda software developed by Self at Virginia Tech, they then visualized the weighting of the data variables according to what they were measuring.

“They might not know what is going on in the back end, but this gets the girls analyzing data,” said Self, who was also a member of the InfoVis Lab, a space dedicated to visualizing big data.

Self’s specialization is human-computer interaction (HCI). Virginia Tech’s strong offerings in the subject was one of the reasons she chose to become a Hokie and pursue her doctorate here.

“In my experience, girls tend to gravitate toward HCI,” said Self. “Sometimes they think computer science is just video game programming, but it’s more than that.”

At the University of Mary Washington, Self is teaching HCI and incorporating diversity training into her classroom.

“I want my students to start thinking about why the gender gap exists,” she said. “I teach a class that is the third in the sequence of the major, and because the University of Mary Washington is a liberal arts college, my course is writing intensive. I have my students write papers and react to articles and podcasts that explore the gender gap in computer science.”

Changing the face of computer science is not only achievable but necessary, according to Self.

And if her family is any indication, it’s already happening. Self’s younger twin sisters, Rebecca and Kimberly Zietz, are both Hokies who obtained master's degrees in computer science in 2014. 

Starting conversations and engaging the community seem to be the two most-important things that Self feels she has contributed to her field. Raising awareness will be key to promoting diversity in academia and the industry overall.

“We need to get people past the stereotypes,” said Self.

Written by Amy Loeffler

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