Carnegie Mellon University

Alumni Profile: Stephanie Jones

Stephanie Jones is an alumna of the 2017 REUSE program cohort. She holds degrees in Computer and Electrical Engineering from Villanova University, where she also minored in Computer Science. A recipient of both the GEM PhD Science Fellowship and the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, she is now a PhD student in the Learning Sciences and Computer Science program at Northwestern University.

Stephanie, tell us about how you found yourself applying the CMU REUSE program...

I found the REUSE program pretty much because I could see two paths ahead of me, in terms of my career.

On the one hand I was thinking about going into industry. I'd done an internship at Lockheed Martin after my freshman year, where I was working on satellite technology. After my sophomore year, I worked at Rockwell Collins on the autopilot system for the Boeing 777X. And it was all very exciting.

But, on the other hand, I was actually very interested in research work, in becoming a professor. I was interested in diving deep into a singular problem - exploring it, asking tough questions, devising a way of going about formulating an answer.

But, up to that point, I'd never had the experience of doing research across a significant span of time. I wanted to find some way to do that - to see if that's really what I liked. So, I set out to find experiences that would give me a glimpse into what academia looked like on a deeper level. Something that would allow me to fully immerse myself in a research environment.

And I found the REUSE program at CMU!

Tell us about the moment when you realized that research was the path that you wanted to walk.

I think that happened when I was having meetings with my project lead, Dr. Travis Breaux. I was talking to him and he actually listened to my ideas. He recommended me a handful of additional articles to read, based on my interests. It was eye-opening. Even though my ideas weren't perfectly in line with his research expertise, he was still so aware of what was going on in the field and, at the same time, genuinely interested in helping me grow. I knew that I wanted to be like that, I wanted to have that breadth and depth of knowledge. I wanted to help others like he does.

What do you think makes the REUSE program so unique?

Like I mentioned, regarding Dr. Breaux, it's the personal relationships that you're able to build with the faculty and the graduate students that makes you feel accepted as a researcher.

Also it's been interesting to see where the other REU students have come. One person from my cohort is actually in the CS department with me here at Northwestern! So it's pretty cool to see how a lot of us - despite having different research interests and coming from all different sorts of backgrounds - have gone on to pursue their PhDs. It’s been really exciting to see that play out.

So tell us about the research project you were working on as a part of the REUSE program.

I was working with Dr. Travis Breaux and Dr. Hanan Hibshi (Societal Computing PhD, 2018) on a vignette project; the goal of which was to help security experts tell stories about what's of concern to them. For example, if there's a low firewall, what's the kind of language that they use to describe that and how can we help them be consistent in their descriptions?

For my part, I was working on a tool that could generate these sorts of surveys in a way that wouldn't bias the participants. We were actually able to test drive the tools format at the Black Hat Conference. And we learned a lot from that, for example it was too long and we had to figure out better ways to encourage more consistent responses.

What was it about working on that project that you found exciting?

It was all about the process of doing research - that was the most exciting part. Taking apart the documentation and reading other people's articles, developing a solution based off of that deeper understanding...that was the most exhilarating part. By the end of the program, I was thinking about how I could take this same sort of approach to answer questions and apply it to my own research questions!

So, the program wrapped up at the end of that summer. You were going into your senior year at Villanova. How did you carry what you learned in the program with you?

So, in short, I carried my interest and passion for research back with me. In addition to applying to PhD programs, last summer I was at Idaho National Laboratory and I was working on analyzing electrical grid solutions. This was as a part of my GEM Fellowship, which is a graduate scholarship program for Black, Latino, and Native American students. In addition to funding, you have the chance to do an internship with a research lab before your first year of graduate school.

So now you are a PhD student in the the Learning Sciences and Computer Science program at Northwestern University. Tell us what your research is all about!

I'm currently doing research on informal learning environments and informal learning programs. I am exploring how we can support maker identity so that people can think about ways to build with things they have at home and also how these same people can have the chance to experiment with digital fabrication tools. And I'm also working on a series of projects which are concerned with developing teachers' maker mindsets - so that they can help youth engage with that kind of thinking. Additionally, how we can better support the development of skillsets for makerspace facilitators.

That sounds exceptionally cool! I am sure that you've had a chance to work on some other fascinating projects as a part of the CSLS program. Any that you can mention?

Actually, yeah! We just got back from a trip to Kenya where, alongside collaborators from the MIT Media Lab, we were running a workshop to help design better ways of supporting Kenyan students and professionals to develop local technology solutions in the areas of accessibility, design for manufacturing, and agriculture. It was really exciting to see what the Kenyan students came up with, even in that short period of time!

Stephanie, it sounds like you are really excelling. We're so glad the REUSE program could play a small part in the awesome places you have gone and will go to in the future. For anyone out there who finds yours your story inspiring and who might be thinking about applying to the REUSE program, what advice do you have?

I would say that even if you're mildly interested, apply, because it's always better to have the option to pursue research if you so choose.

I wasn't sure I wanted to do research. I knew that if I attended the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) Conference, I could get another internship for that summer. But, at the end of the day, it would have been another industry internship. I would never know whether research was really something that made me happy, something I could dedicate a significant portion of my future to. I could still go for the PhD without doing the REUSE program, but I would have been taking a big risk and going in blind. I am really thankful that I didn't skip applying to REUSE, if only because it was here that I realized that research is my passion and that I can contribute to the world in a meaningful way.