Pew Research Center’s 2021 report on diversity in STEM fields found that Black and Hispanic adults are underrepresented in the STEM workforce — including computing fields — and women are underrepresented in computing and engineering fields. At UCI’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS), third-year informatics Ph.D. student Lucas Silva is working to increase minority representation and achievements in STEM as the department’s diversity ambassador.
Silva’s responsibilities as a diversity ambassador encompass connecting students who are from underrepresented minority groups or have diverse backgrounds and life experiences to Ph.D. opportunities at UCI.
“Many students in these populations/conditions don’t have a family history of graduate studies and can benefit from a contact with a peer in the program like me to help navigate informatics/computing and the application process,” says Silva. “Hopefully, this can help prospective students decide if graduate studies are a fit for their goals as well as increase the diversity in our department and field more broadly.”
His own journey to UCI and studying STEM underscores the importance of investing in diversity in STEM education so that students from all backgrounds have opportunities to further their studies.
“I wanted to shift to human-computer interaction, which is a growing but still relatively new area of research focus in Brazil. UCI’s informatics program is considered one of the best in this area so I figured I would have more opportunities to learn and grow here,” says Silva, who completed his undergraduate and master’s education in computer science in Brazil. “It has paid off immensely and I am really grateful for being in my program at UCI.
Silva said he has “personally benefited from people that have made the effort” to make STEM more diverse and inclusive. The support he has received motivates him in his role as a diversity ambassador because he wants to be an “additional ally for other students as a point for honest and close contact.”
“I also think that my experiences with navigating STEM, being an international student, and being a Latino in the field/U.S. can resonate with others who have less traditional paths to the program,” he says.
Increasing diversity in a discipline such as informatics, which aims to “create innovative information technologies that serve the diverse needs of society,” is especially impactful because unique groups have unique needs. Inviting people with diverse backgrounds to the table aids in the effort to create technology that improves lives and is accessible.
For example, Silva’s research at UCI focuses on personal and family informatics for health and well-being. He is advised by informatics professors Daniel Epstein and Gillian Hayes. One of his ongoing projects supports children with ADHD through wearable technology that tracks data to enhance “family collaboration” and “self-regulation.”
“People have increasingly more access to different technologies that can help track data about themselves (e.g., smartwatches) and help them reflect about their health and well-being (e.g., voice assistants). I am really excited to explore ways people can better benefit from their technological ecosystems to improve their daily living, both at a personal and at a family level,” says Silva.
He adds that “thinking about my own health and that of my family” inspires his research in personal informatics. A few experiences he’s had outside of academia also support his education: Silva previously interned at Netflix and Google doing user research.
“I was very lucky to have these experiences. It really helped bolster my training and I was able to gain diverse experiences to complement my Ph.D. learning. There are many incredible people in these companies and I loved learning from their journeys and mentorship,” he says. “Another benefit was seeing a quick impact from my research project on the teams I was working with and the products I was focusing on.”
With his research focus in personal and family informatics, it’s no surprise that Silva spends much of his time outside of school with his two children. You can also find him reading or gaming something sci-fi- and fantasy-related in his free time.
— Karen Phan