This Q&A highlight features Ellie Young, an Honorable Mention in the 2022 CRA Outstanding Undergraduate Researchers award program. Ellie graduated from New College of Florida and is now a Societal Computing Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon University. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Congratulations on your Honorable Mention! How did you first join the project you were recognized for?
As a computer science student, I was staring down the possibility of spending life after graduation making widgets for a huge corporate machine, unintentionally complicit in societal harm. I felt an obligation to do work with as little potential to hurt people as possible. Having really enjoyed a class in usable privacy and security and an initial research experience at my home institution, I applied to research programs, mainly in privacy/security and human-computer interaction. I also applied to the Research Experience for Undergraduates in Software Engineering (REUSE) at Carnegie Mellon University after a classmate recommended it. REUSE offered me a position working in the exact sub-area of usable privacy and security I was most excited about!
What did you end up working on in the REUSE program?
That experience was so fun that I convinced them to let me stay for the fall… and then I stayed for the spring… and then I applied to do the REU program again the next summer (they let me in)… and then again I stayed through the academic year after that.
And now you’ve started a Ph.D. program in the same lab; can you tell us more about what influenced that decision?
I really enjoyed what I was doing (the UX and privacy research). To do this kind of research, especially straight out of college, you kind of have to be in a grad program. I’m not really motivated by the prospect of having ‘Dr.’ in front of my name and I don’t really want to become a professor; I just really wanted to keep doing this work, and this is where the work happens.
Oh, and I liked Pittsburgh. (laughs) Pittsburgh’s awesome.
Can you speak to any differences between doing research at a small college versus a bigger university?
My advisor, Dr. Lorrie Cranor, essentially invented usable privacy and security. I was pretty intimidated at first—me, from a 600-person public school, working with the professor who literally wrote the book on my subject? I thought I was totally out of my element. But everyone in the lab was really nice and had the same nerdy interest in privacy as me. Sarah Pearman, the first Ph.D. student I worked closely with, went above and beyond to welcome me. Every day I’d bother her for advice about talking to professors and navigating academia. Eventually, I gained enough confidence to ask other Ph.D. students too. After enough conversations, I began to feel like I really belonged.
I also noticed that the group’s distribution, diversity-wise, was opposite to that of my undergrad. With only a dozen or so members, Dr. Cranor’s lab managed to have more female, nonwhite, neurodivergent, trans and non-binary individuals than the 50-some-strong cohort of computer science students at my home institution. I thought wow, I want to work in an environment like this—Dr. Cranor is clearly doing something right if these are the voices present in this lab.
How have you balanced your research activities with your other interests?
I think the culture of computer science, maybe even academia as a whole, over-emphasizes the archetypal genius who lives and breathes their work. I’ve found it can be easy to fall into this trap as a researcher—when you are one of the only people in the world working on your specific problem, I think it’s natural to make that work Your Thing. But I don’t want my identity to be my work, so I try to fit in as much not-research as I can. I’m admittedly not perfect at work-life balance, but I really make a conscious effort to do other things that make me happy: playing obscure Japanese video games, racing my car (LEGALLY), making vegan dinners, and bothering my cats. These things have no interplay with my research and that is the point. Researching privacy has such a pervasive effect on my outlook; it’s important to find meaning elsewhere.
— Edited by Nadia Ady and Yasra Chandio