Updates on ACM-W Scholarship for Attendance of Research Conferences

The ACM-W Scholarship for Attendance of Research Conferences program provides support for women students in Computer Science and related programs who wish to attend research conferences. The student does not have to present a paper at the conference to be eligible for a scholarship. Applications are evaluated six times each year, to distribute awards across a range of conferences. The ACM Scholarships are made possible nowadays by the generous support of Google and Oracle. The program was started in 2013 by Elaine Weyuker and has been run without any funding interruptions since then.

The scholarship exposes students to prominent researchers in their field, introduces students to new research, and excites them about doing research themselves. We ask students to share with us some of their thoughts on the conference they attend, preferably with a picture, so that we can show our readers and funders the diversity of our winners. The full collection of previous reports from the students awarded scholarships, with their pictures can be found now at https://women.acm.org/scholars/acm-w-scholars/.

This month, almost nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic, with many conferences postponed, cancelled or transformed into online events, fewer people are submitting applications. Thus, we decided that this was a convenient time to write about our Scholarship Committee, some about our origins, and motivations, some about the people that keep it running.

We first had short inteviews with the Chairs of the Scholarship Committee, professors Elaine Weyuker and Viviana Bono, in previous editions of the newsletter. But it also seemed appropriate to ask the members of our committee about their personal histories. Of course, as you may have noticed yourself,  working from home has not made life easier for researchers and professors. Everyone who teaches  has had to adapt to the new conditions. For many, this has proved a very difficult journey to digital teaching, without any time for learning or preparation. Still, everyone in academia is l trying to cope with the new reality of the pandemic as best as they can, and we are not an exception.

This seems a good time to tell you a bit about why we run the Scholarship Committee the way we do and also a bit about the stories of the people behind the scenes. And we’re glad to start off with a  researcher who was an alumna of the program herself, only a few years back. Yelena Mejova is a Senior Research Scientist at the ISI Foundation in Turin, Italy, a part of the Digital Epidemiology Group. Her research concerns the use of social media in health informatics, as well as tracking political speech and other cultural phenomena.

1. Could you tell us briefly how your career has been so far (your background, your motivation to engage with computing, your initial research, your intellectual influences)?

I received a PhD in Computer Science at The University of Iowa in 2012 and since then worked as a postdoc at Yahoo! Research in Barcelona, as researcher at Qatar Computing Research Institute in Qatar, and now as a senior research scientist at the ISI Foundation in Turin, Italy. It is an amazing time to be in this area, since the notion of “data science” was being born right as I was doing my PhD, and now there are actual graduate programs in it! During my studies, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my interest in sociology can be combined with the computing methods I was learning, in something that is now defined as “computational social science”. Now, my research involves studying phenomena ranging from political debates and elections to medical misinformation and news, all through the lenses of big data available on social media. Throughout, I have realized that it is not easy to do social science using quantitative means, as is expertly described by Duncan Watts in `Everything Is Obvious’, and this idea now is central for my thinking even about everyday life. I am skeptical about “common wisdom”, and I’m always looking out for truly robust, experimental ways to verify causal (and even correlational) hypotheses about people. These days as social media become even more important in public opinion formation, understanding the mechanisms of belief, group think, bias, etc. is an exciting field of research.

2. Did you experience any special difficulties as a woman? If so, could you tell us about it? If not, what would you attribute this rare situation to?

I am glad to report that I did not experience any special difficulties that I can attribute to being a woman. In universities, even though I was a minority (and in 10% when doing PhD), I never felt alienated, I had a female advisor, had female classmates, and even when I didn’t, it didn’t bother me. I never felt discriminated against or left out of important meetings. I have noticed that teams working on computational social science tend to be more gender balanced (just see attendance of, for instance, ICWSM, CSCW, CHI, IC2S2, etc). I have also been outspoken whenever I felt something needed to be done and did not hesitate to approach my superiors to get it done (for instance, at my current position I am pushing for investment in a backup server, and formalization of rules around smart working). It also may be because as a child I grew up in Russia (until 9th grade), where gender differences in STEM did not seem to be drastic or in the culture. 

3. What were and are your main research interests? What is your main research focus at the moment?

At the moment, my research interests revolve around how people understand health-related information, and how that affects their behavior. For instance, I’m interested in how pro- and anti-vaccination sentiment is being expressed online, whether two sides communicate (or are in “echo chambers”), and what information they use to support their stances. I am looking to see whether dangerous diets and home remedies have sprung up around COVID lockdowns when people may be more desperate for solutions in uncertain times. Finally, I am looking into whether women express experiencing different hardships during these lockdowns than men, in an effort to see whether there are unmet needs both in health access, and in socio-economic matters. Much of this research revolves around social media — a resource that is becoming more and more important (something I couldn’t have predicted 8 years ago when I used it for my PhD).

4. Would you like to see any changes in your sphere of work? Could you tell us which one or which?

As a member of ACM, and as an academic, it would be great if there were more resources about how to plan for, seek out, and apply for funding. As this is an important way that a researcher builds their line of research, makes connections, and makes an impact that is beyond an individual’s work (no matter how productive one person may be). I have always felt that funding depended too much on “who you know” (network, wasta, etc), and often knowledge of funding opportunities or collaborations are passed along established lines of power. Especially for women breaking into male-dominated areas, this could be a real difficulty and obstacle to career development. I hope this can be addressed by the community.

Many thanks Yelena for sharing your ideas and enthusiasm!

We hope all of you and yours are healthy and well!

The next application deadline is December 15 for conferences taking place February 1st—March 31st, 2021.   For more information and to apply visit: https://women.acm.org/scholarships/

If you have any questions, please contact the scholarship committee chair Prof. Viviana Bono, bono@di.unito.it