Q&A with PhD Candidate and 2020 Computing Innovation Fellow Houda El mimouni

Houda El mimouniHouda El mimouni, a doctoral candidate at Drexel University's College of Computing & Informatics, was recently awarded a 2020 Computing Innovation Fellowship as part of the Computing Innovation Fellows (CIFellows) Program.

Presented by the Computing Research Association (CRA) and the Computing Community Consortium (CCC), the CIFellows 2020 Program is offered to recent and soon-to-be PhD graduates in computing whose academic job search was impacted by COVID-19 and aims to provide them with a career-enhancing bridge experience. With funding by the National Science Foundation, the CIFellows 2020 program offers 2-year postdoctoral opportunities in computing, with cohort activities to support career development and community building for this group of Fellows.

The fellowship will support Houda in working on her proposed project on telepresence robotics as a postdoc at Indiana University, beginning in January 2021. Houda is the recent recipient of the Beta Phi Mu International Library and Information Studies Honor Society’s (BPM) 2020 Eugene Garfield Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship, which will also support her dissertation research.

With research interests centered around human-computer interaction and computer-mediated communication, Houda seeks to understand how humans use technology to communicate and how culture and gender influence such use. She also studies to what extent designs align with social values and how to make the process of design a value sensitive one. 

She holds a master’s in library and information science at the Pratt Institute (under a Fulbright grant), a dual bachelor’s in language & pedagogy and linguistics from the Mohammed V. University, a bachelor’s in information science from the School of Information Science in Rabat, Morocco, and an associate of science degree with specializations in computer science and software development from La Référence School in Sale, Morocco.

We recently spoke with Houda to learn more about her background, passions and upcoming fellowship:

What inspired you to pursue your research in telepresence robots?

When I started my PhD at Drexel, I involved myself in several projects. Some of which were not related to what I did in my master’s studies, but I was interested in discovering new areas of research. In one of the side projects, I had to work on a literature review about telepresence robots. I read so many research papers to complete the work, and by then, I became fascinated with the potential of these robots in contributing to human welfare in different contexts such as in classrooms, nursing homes, hospitals, conferences, work and so on. This experience sparked a passion for doing more research about telepresence robots and exploring them in educational contexts.

How can today’s world benefit from value presence design and telepresence robots?

Photo of two telepresence robots interacting

COVID-19 has impacted all aspects of human life and the expectation is that we will be managing its impact for years to come. While telepresence robots are already useful in so many contexts, during the COVID-19 pandemic, they can be even more useful in supporting a safe attendance. For instance, many educational institutions are already beginning the transition back to campus with low-density and hybrid online/face-to-face classes. To facilitate low-density classes and to support students and faculty who have immunodeficiencies or other risk factors, telepresence robots are a promising solution. This same solution applies to other contexts where we need to minimize contact or density, but also, allow the remote person to feel immersed in the distant environment and be able to move around and interact with others.

What are you passionate about?

In general, I am passionate about the social aspects of computing. I like to focus on particularly the design and use of technologies in different social and cultural contexts. I also like to study to what extent designs align with social values and how to make the process of design a value sensitive one.  Aside from research, I like to spend time with family. I enjoy kayaking, sewing, bricolage and foreign language learning. I also love cats; I don’t have one yet but I am looking forward to it one day soon! 

How did your experience at Drexel CCI prepare you for your postdoc position at Indiana University?

My experience at Drexel has been so rich and constructive. I got the chance to work on many projects that allowed me to interact, learn and build interesting relationships with many professors and colleagues. In particular, working with my advisor, Professor Andrea Forte, PhD, was a very enriching experience, in terms of both knowledge broadening and research skills building. I also enjoyed and learned a lot from the experience of teaching the INFO608 [Human-Computer Interaction] class for two academic years. Both my experiences in conducting academic research and teaching equipped me with analytical skills and opened my eyes to a myriad of interesting Human-Centered Design aspects that I would like to investigate as a postdoc.

How does it feel to be selected for the Computing Innovation Fellowship?

Winning the NSF Computing Innovation Fellowship to pursue postdoctoral studies is an incredible opportunity. Getting to work on the topic that I was tremendously excited about, but was not able to investigate as a PhD student because of COVID-19, is thrilling. Plus, being mentored by a social robotics super star Dr. Selma Šabanović makes it all a dream come true. I am looking forward to all the projects and research that I will be working on in this next chapter.

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