From English to Computer Science and Beyond - Sonya's Journey



      Even before the interview began, Jennifer and I knew that we were going to be interviewing one very unique person. Engaging and outgoing, Sonya Allin, immediately caught our attention with her fascinating philosophies and life stories. In this interview, we will share how Sonya became interested in Computer Science after graduating with an English degree as well as her unique perspective on the different aspects of Computer Science and life. Sonya is currently a PhD student at the Carnegie Mellon Human and Computer Interaction Institute. Her other interests include - Women@SCS, pinhole photography, and CPSR.

Why Computer Science?

      What first peaked our curiosity about Sonya was why, after graduating with an English degree, did she decide to study computer science?

--"I think about that every now and again, you know? My Mom said, sometimes you just fall into things. She wanted to be an English teacher when she was in college and somehow she ended up doing a PhD in biochemistry. She seems to think that…life just happens," says Sonya.

      With this philosophy in mind, Sonya struggled, trying to decide what she wanted to do with her life after she graduated with an English degree. She spent some time working for several non-profit organizations. And through that, was inspired to pursue a computer related field.

--"I think that my interest in computer science really comes from an interest in these non-profits. It's a weird thing to say, but I think its true. It seemed to me that with the skills that I had (at the time), I had a limited degree of agency in the jobs that I had. In other words, I had a limited capacity to actually change things. It felt to me that having computer skills now gives you a lot of ability to actually change the world, and certainly to change the shape of non-profit organizations, "says Sonya.

      Specifically, Sonya remembers working in a hospital in Patterson, New Jersey.

--"The hospital was just totally disorganized! It was frustrating because there were really good people working there. So the limitation wasn't the people. I mean…the people were doing everything they possibly could. But the resources…they sucked, they were awful!" Sonya exclaims.

      At the hospital, Sonya's job was to work with the mentally ill who were unable to sustain jobs. There was already an existing program designed to train the mentally ill in basic vocational skills on computers (such as using Microsoft Word) in hopes that they would eventually become self-sufficient and acquire a job of their own. The program involved having the patients organize and systematize their own records as part of their job training. However, the program itself was very disorganized topped with a very transient staff and a large amount of paperwork.

--"They had reams of information on paper! Some even dating back to 1972. There were papers and papers and papers, and no way to store or organize them. There's a job there for someone to create a system that would automatically organize all this information. Ultimately, computerize everything. My feeling is that, for situations like these where you have an insurmountable amount of work and a finite amount of resources, if you know something about how to create organization on that scale, and you have the resources that you have at CMU, then you can really do something good," expresses Sonya.

Why a PhD?

      With her newfound interest in Computer Science, Sonya began taking classes part-time at Columbia University. She wanted to explore all the "hot research areas" before deciding which area she would actually pursue. Thus, she took some undergraduate classes in natural language processing and graphics. But the classes that interested her the most were her vision classes.

--"I really enjoyed it! I thought that the material was very challenging and exciting. It was also the first time that I started thinking about how this relates to how human beings do something on a really low-level perceptual realm. Like, how do they see things? And is what I'm doing with computers at all analogous to how human beings do it?" Sonya questions.

      However, Columbia did not place much emphasis on the other areas of perception. At CMU, Sonya had the opportunity to explore another aspect of perception, touch.

--"I was getting philosophical about it, and wondering whether vision was at all related to touch. How do you actually navigate around? I mean…it involves a complicated interaction of a lot of different senses and the integration of a lot of perceptual faculties. And then you make decisions based on that; how does that all happen? These are all fundamental perception questions. The meta-aspect of it made me feel like a PhD was a reasonable thing to pursue in order to deal with a subset of those kinds of questions in detail. Ultimately though, I'd still like to have an affect on…well…the world!" Sonya says.

Scientific Exploration and Changing the World

--"I'm still kind of looking to understand that path from the lab environment to reality in my own research, and it's just an ongoing thing. It's difficult." Sonya expresses.

      With both a desire to study the fundamental scientific questions as well as a desire to see her work's impact on society, Sonya struggles to find a balance between her two aspirations. Fortunately, she believes that this balance is not impossible, and with time, even achievable. So Sonya is in no hurry to finish her graduate studies.

--"I'm kind of flirting with a lot of problems, trying to find the one that I gravitate to and a set of tools that I really want to use to attack that problem. In a space of a year, I've been exposed to a lot but I still have a fair amount of refining…my problems…the problems that turn me on. I need to find a set of problems that are going to be mine, and a set of tools that are going to be mine. And its probably going to take me a little longer than somebody who just goes into their PhD knowing exactly what they're going to do." Sonya says.

      Although she still considers herself a "young" graduate student, Sonya aims to have a problem definition and an idea of what problem she wants to attack by the end of her third year.

Research Projects

--"It seems like the kind of research that I'm doing can have implications to many different domains and I feel like I would like to better understand these domains. It seems like my research has the power to influence a lot of different spaces. I'd like to kind of get on the other side of the problem for a little bit and understand how what I do can influence those spaces," says Sonya.

      Currently, Sonya is working on a force perception study.

--"Its experimental psychology really. I'm basically trying to gauge sensitivities to force in human beings. Its computational, I suppose, in so far as the desire is to ultimately influence systems and methodologies for physical rehabilitation. The idea is to get some sense as to what human physical capabilities are, and then engineer in such a way that those sensitivities are respected; to operate within thresholds of sensitivities. Theoretically, you can use a virtual environment to get somebody to do things in therapy that they wouldn't do otherwise. In a VR environment, you're in control, and you can distort reality. So you have a greater flexibility to create environments that may encourage people to move in ways that will be therapeutically beneficial to them." Sonya explains.

      This kind of VR training can be extended to other applications, such as training someone to play tennis or golf in addition to other therapies. Like the VR training programs that Keanu Reeves undergoes in The Matrix?

--"Well…yeah…but the difference, I guess, would be that there would be a robot in the loop. So its not like you're just seeing stuff through goggles, but rather that you're interacting with a robot. And the robot is testing you. So if there's any distortion in reality, it's not necessarily like the walls start moving around, it's more in terms of what you feel rather than what you see." Sonya says.

Sonya's Interests

--"I'm really a very disorganized person. I'm interested in a lot, which is kind of antithetical to the 'specialize in something' idea. Like, this PhD thing is an emotional journey for me. Its an attempt to reconcile myself with my personality." Sonya says.

      Her interests cover a wide area including art, education, and working with kids and young adults.

--"I like working with people who are fourteen. Unexpectedly…because I didn't like being fourteen at all! But I think people who are fourteen are pretty nice!" Sonya says.

      In addition, Sonya is teaching herself photography and even built her own pinhole camera, which was sitting on her desk during our interview. Sonya proudly showed it to us.

--"Its pretty awesome! And I'm learning stuff…like pinhole math. You can determine what field of view you're going to get and what kind of lighting. I've also been downloading little sheets off the Internet to help teach me some of the basics. Yah, I'm pretty excited! It's low-tech, yet so hands on. It's demystifying the whole process of taking pictures." Sonya says.

      So what are Sonya's plans for the evening?

--"I'm going to try take a picture tonight actually! I need to read up on my pinhole math! My effort tonight, is to figure out enough about low-light conditions so that I can try to take a photograph of my friend during dinner in a dark environment. It might just be the case that it's totally impossible, but hopefully, it'll work with a long exposure. It'll just be an experiment!" Sonya proclaims.