PittInclusion creates sophisticated research opportunities for underrepresented minorities in computing

When Department of Computer Science faculty Dr. Malihe Alikhani joined Pitt in Fall 2020, she noticed a gap in the University’s excellent research infrastructure — it was missing opportunities for experienced undergraduate student researchers in computing to participate in higher-level research. She was then inspired to partner with undergraduate student Ariana Sutanto to coordinate a new program called PittInclusion, which connects students with faculty mentors who lead them through semester-long research projects. 

Though other programs existed with the goal to give students their first experiences in research, or attract students from other disciplines to computing, few served third and fourth-year students with research experience. PittInclusion seeks to fill that gap, while also presenting opportunities to students who may not have been able to participate in research otherwise. 

“We wanted to launch a paid research program for undergraduate students at Pitt, specifically undergraduate students who are from underrepresented minorities,” Alikhani said. “We wanted to give them the opportunity to join research labs, attend lab meetings, work on small research projects and understand how interesting and exciting it can be getting involved in research.” 

Student co-coordinator Ariana Sutanto herself said PittInclusion served to change the research experience for students. Not only does PittInclusion encourage upperclassmen and students from under-represented minorities to apply, the program connects students to mentors who would’ve otherwise not been able to get in touch, and offers a paid research opportunity. According to Sutanto, these features make PittInclusion different from other research programs.

“This is one of the only programs I've seen that actually [asks] students ‘Okay, what do you what are you interested in and how can we, find a professor that kind of aligns with your interest the best?’ she said. “It is also a paid research opportunity and a lot of the time, when you reach out to professors and you’re interested in research and you’re an undergraduate, it’s not paid. So, [the program] is a helpful support mechanism to help students do this outside of their schoolwork.”

PittInclusion began in the Spring 2021 semester, with funding from the Google Explore-CSR awards, which “...aid higher education efforts to support students from historically marginalized groups to pursue graduate studies and research careers in computing.” Now, the program has finished its second year, utilizing funding from the Department of Computer Science. 

In order to begin the program and have a direct line to the student body, Alikhani reached out to then-junior undergraduate student Sutanto, who was president of the Under-Represented Minorities in Computing (UMC) Club. Sutanto said she immediately was interested in the opportunity, and has helped coordinate the program since its inception.

“I wanted to help out because, of course, the goal of PittInclusion really resonated with the club,” she said. “We’re all-around really invested in expanding diversity within computing.”

Alikhani and Sutanto begin planning for the spring semester program in the fall, recruiting both students and faculty mentors, generating a timeline and reviewing applications. In addition to working on their projects with faculty mentors, the program also features ways for students to connect with each other through digital check-in sessions, coffee hours and a Slack channel. At the conclusion of the semester, students present their research in a poster session, where awards for the best projects are handed out.

The 2022 PittInclusion cohort meets via Zoom.

Past PittInclusion projects can span a wide variety of topics, from math education using robotics, to studying how emojis help people communicate without words.

“Last year the students worked on very interesting projects,” Alikhani said. “[Those projects] resulted in building more diverse curriculum for high school students for CS in Pittsburgh and we know that people are actually using the results of their research.”

In addition to serving as founder and coordinator of the program, Alikhani works as one of the faculty mentors for participants, whose projects correlate with her own interest in natural language processing and artificial intelligence. One project, which joined existing graduate students in Alikhani’s lab, focused on online moderation on different social media platforms — including Twitter, Reddit and Facebook — and created artificial intelligence moderators to create more positive online environments. Alikhani said she saw great value in the diversity of program participants, not just from the students she mentored, but from the program overall.

“Students have been working with mentors across different departments in our school and the topics have been fascinating,” she said. “They say diverse populations build diverse technologies, so we see the kinds of projects that they choose to work on are the ones that are really contributing to diversifying AI research and voices in AI in general.”

Following completion of the PittInclusion program, some students continue researching with the faculty they were connected with through the program. Others, Alikhani said, take their increased interested in research to other opportunities at and outside of Pitt, and even graduate school. 

“We want these students to go to grad school, to find research experience that you can use on their resumes or, if they're joining industry, they use this experience to participate in research in industry,” she said. 

The program’s goal of encouraging more students to look into graduate programs has been a success, even in just the first two years of the program. Participating students showed an increased interest in pursuing graduate-level education overall, and three students from the program’s first year applied to PhD programs in computing disciplines. 

The 2022 Pitt Inclusion cohort, pictured with Alikhani and Sutanto (far left.)

In addition to continuing education, the program has seen participants succeed both inside and outside Pitt. Michelle Frenandez, a 2021 participant, is currently not only pursuing her PhD in Information Science at Pitt, but is nominated for the Emma W. Locke award recognizing high scholarship, character, leadership, and devotion to the ideals of the University as well.

In the future, Alikhani wants to stay in touch with the cohorts of students who participated in PittInclusion. She hopes to not only help those students with their future endeavors, but aspires to one day be able to invite past participants to mentor future students, deliver talks and be there for the next generation of researchers. 

 “As a woman in computing, I've had several mentors and without them, I wouldn't be here,” she said. “People who have checked in with me, people who I could go to for letters, for advice — so, having this cohort in connection is, in the long run, going to make this a successful program.”


News Type