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21 May 2021

An Interview with Elaine Short, #Tapia2021 Scholarships Deputy Chair

Elaine Short Photo

Elaine Schaertl Short is the Deputy Chair of the 2021 Tapia Conference Scholarship Committee and the  Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Tufts University where she directs the Assistive Agent Behavior and Learning (AABL) Lab.  We spoke to Elaine about her background and work.

Tell me about your background – where did you grow up, what did your parents do?

I grew up in Central PA.  My mom was a Professor at Penn State.  Mom was a professor of health policy and administration.  She was a health economist and studied the economic effects of cancer survivorship.  She studied the under and un insured and investigated how often do they go back to work or retire early.  My Dad has a master’s degree in Math and CS before it was a thing. He liked kids a lot more than working in math so he retired early to take care of my brother and I.  

How did you get into Tech?

My dad was adamant that we not be computer scientists but mathematicians.  I said I was never going to become an economist.  I became a computer scientist and a professor.  I was encouraged in Math and started as a Biomedical Engineering Major in College.  I did 1 ½ internships in labs and discovered I was both squeamish and not good at lab work.  I took my first real CS class in college because I wanted to understand how a computer worked. By sophomore year I changed to a major in CS.  I liked Robotics and specialized in AI by taking AI, Machine Learning, Robotics.  I got involved in research in Bryce Casseleties Lab. I was very interested in social robotics with an interest in how humans think and work .Grad school.  Went to USC for grad school in LA.  Maya Matarik – advocate for women in computing.  Big mentor in good trouble – goes to bat for her students.  Involved in making computing a better  place.

What are you working on now?

My current research is in robotics and human/robot interaction.  My PhD was about socially assistive robotics, finding ways to use socially intelligent robots.  These robots often have a face and hands and talks and can often be used in health, wellness and education applications. My research is from both worlds of robotics.  I have a real interest in adaptive and socially intelligent assistive robots, robots that are doing physically useful tasks for people with disabilities. 

How did you become involved with Tapia?

I have a rare form of Muscular dystrophy that impacts my mobility – sometimes I am like a 90 year old grandmother.  My disabled identity has been increasingly big part of my life.  My condition is progressive.  As a graduate student I did a lot of advocacy for women in computing.  From 2009- 2014 I went to the Grace Hopper Celebration every year. When I became faculty, I didn’t know who to talk to about being disabled in computing.   I wanted to talk about how you manage things like conference travel, teaching, getting to DC.  I wanted to find my community.   Through my connections I met Jen Mankoff who is the chair of AccessSigChi.  I found myself becoming an advocate for people with disabilities.  When I started working at Tufts I leaned into my disabled identity and focused on my advocacy work.  I became involved in AccessComputing and was invited to be on the program committee for Tapia.  My first year was 2020 and what I enjoyed was being in a diverse space.  I appreciate we all share a commitment to diversity and inclusion and making computing a better place.

What are you excited about for this year – it is the 20th anniversary since the first Tapia in 2001.

I am very excited about being in a diverse room and making connections to other people who care a lot about not just diversity but inclusivity.  It is fun to get to be a part of a cool network focused on making the world and computing a better place.

What would you like to see change in Tech in the next 20 years?

I feel like there is an obvious short answer – I would like computing to be a more diverse place and more inclusive place but that’s not interesting.  In 20 years, I would like to not have to think about inclusivity – it’s the default and not something you have to work on in your spare time.  There is some chance I’ll always be doing activism but it would also be nice to be a roboticist and not have to spend time fixing the culture.  My vision would be  every conference should be like a Tapia with lots of people from different backgrounds at the table.