Interview by Marija Butkovic @MarijaButkovic
Caitlyn Seim is a postdoctoral researcher in Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University. She received her PhD in Human-Centered Computing with focuses on Artificial Intelligence and Neuroscience from the School of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She has been honored as an NSF Graduate Research Fellow, Google Anita Borg Fellow and Microsoft Research PhD Fellow. Her research interests include wearable computing, haptics, HCI, rehabilitation, and accessibility. More specifically, her work examines human cognition and learning from haptic interaction, and creating new lightweight, mobile devices for rehabilitation.
Caitlyn, tell us a bit about your background and your projects so far.
I create wearable devices that apply stimulation to the body, especially haptic stimulation. I then use these devices to examine the influence of haptic stimulation on learning and rehabilitation. Haptic stimulation in wearables is most often used for alerts and virtual reality, but wearables actually provide unique conditions for stimulation - wearables can enable stimulation for extended periods of time and stimulation in the background of other tasks. Since repetition is key to practice, learning, and rehabilitation, stimulation for extended periods of time may enable intensive haptic training or mobile stimulation therapy. Training and rehabilitation also require time, dedication and sometimes exertion. Stimulation in the background of other tasks can allow passive training and therapy without requiring movement or attentional focus from the user.
For example, I designed a haptic glove system to train motor actions for typing. When I applied this system to train Braille, users were able to learn how to type the entire Braille alphabet in less than four hours of passive haptic training (wearing the system and feeling the stimuli repeated, even while they performed other tasks). Braille is quite a complicated typing system, and is related to the dots of tactile Braille. I found that this training allowed users to read the Braille alphabet as well. They could extract the explicit information from the haptic training.
In my recent work, I am examining the potential impact of tactile stimulation on rehabilitation post-stroke. Stroke can lead to chronic physical disability in the limbs. In fact, stroke is the leading cause of adult disability in the US. Preliminary evidence suggests that peripheral tactile stimulation may facilitate limb rehabilitation, but current methods for applying this technique are limited to laboratory settings. Currently, there is no device available to administer and study therapeutic tactile stimulation for extended periods of time or outside the clinic environment. I design low-cost, wireless wearable devices to provide tactile stimulation therapy and perform trials in stroke survivors.
How did you get into this industry?
My background is in Electrical Engineering. I wanted to apply engineering to real human problems, so I began doing research on new devices and computing systems. I was particularly interested in the fields of ubiquitous computing and contextual computing. Some of my first research was in wearable computing during my undergraduate degree - making a head-mounted, mouth operated gaming controller for children who are paralized from the neck-down. After that, I began my PhD training with Thad Starner, one of the pioneers of wearable computing.
What does your current job role entail?
I am a researcher in academia. We find new questions to answer through experimentation, using devices we design.
How has your career progressed since your degree? Has it been an easy industry to get into or have you had many challenges?
Academia is a community of researchers who work together and know each other, even if we work across the globe. I love the structure and the community.
There are many challenges, from hardware development to tenacious networking, but that is one reason I like training students so I can help them have an easier path to success.
How long did it take you to be where you are now?
About 10 years.
What was the biggest obstacle?
As a novice in computing or research, there are so many things to learn. Technical, logistical and interpersonal. The learning process is the greatest obstacle, and not everyone is suited for the process. For me and others, it was an enjoyable process of growth and it is funny now to look back and see how simple it all seems now that I have had years of learning.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
My scientific contributions are a lasting achievement that others will build on in the future, but I really appreciate the impact I can have on students and users of my technologies. When my students want to continue working with me, or tell me that our research was the reason they switched to computing, it is the greatest feeling. When I work with the community of stroke survivors in Georgia, and I get to know all the amazing people and their families, that is what sparks my passion for the work.
What does the #WomenInTech movement mean to you? What are the challenges of being a woman in wearable tech / STEM?
There are many challenges to being a women in STEM. Honestly too many to articulate here. One I want to call attention to relates to the societal influences that prevent women from being heard. I really like the 'amplification' strategy. It's about women supporting other women by making sure to reinforce what other women at the table say. I love it. I use it. I think you should too. It is hard to speak up. It can feel unnatural to get the attention of a group and articulate your goals and ideas. But women can practice this, and we'll all be better off, because those ideas can be very valuable.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all women in this industry out there?
Study hard and prepare well. Then, sit up straight and confidently report your thoughts in all of your interactions. This is how you make progress towards your goals.
Take notes beforehand if you need to. Do not be discouraged if your thoughts aren't embraced sometimes. This happens to everyone, but you can assure yourself that you did one thing well - practicing putting yourself out there! Tell yourself well done and keep it up.
In your opinion, what will be the key trends in the wearable tech and STEM industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
Wearables will continue to become more closely connected to the body - using new mounting features and leveraging biological mechanisms.
Who are your 3 inspirational women in wearable tech and / or STEM?
Ayanna Howard - engineer, leader, and a mentor to me since my undergraduate studies.
Anita Borg - researcher, icon, advocate and founder of the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.
Telle Whitney - engineer, leader and CEO.
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, founder and CEO of Women of Wearables and co-founder of Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.