Maroon banner with yellow beam of light highlighting Zahara Spilka

CSpotlight: Accessible Art Through Virtual Reality

Why did you choose to pursue a Ph.D. in computer science specifically at the University of Minnesota?

I went to Macalester College for undergrad and I didn’t want to leave Minnesota. I had a professor I worked with at Macalester named Bret Jackson and his Ph.D. adviser was at the U of M. I knew I wanted to explore virtual reality (VR) and I found out that my professor's former Ph.D. advisor shared similar research interests with me. 

I want to pursue a Ph.D. with the ultimate goal of leaving the world a little better than I found it. I want to help groups that don’t get as much attention - minority groups such as people with disabilities, LGBTQIA+, People of Color, etc. I want to give them more representation within the research and produce solutions that help them in their day-to-day lives.

How did you become interested in computer science? How does your minor in psychology and art relate to your interest in computer science? 

I always enjoyed doing logic puzzles and jig-saw puzzles as a kid and coding is basically another puzzle to solve. I enjoy it because I get to solve puzzles all day and I have a lot of fun. It barely feels like a job, more like a fun activity. During undergrad I knew I wanted to keep psychology and art in my life since that’s what I did in high school and they have been passions of mine since I was a little kid. Knowing me, the only way I would continue to take classes in those areas is if I have to, otherwise I would hyper focus on coding, my major, and what I needed to get done to graduate before taking classes I found enjoyable and fun. So I decided to minor in psychology and studio art in undergrad to keep those passions in my life in a prominent and structural/secure way. 

Those two really crossed over well with coding and visual computer sciences like computer graphics and VR/AR. So that is how I kept art in my work. Then with psychology there is a huge gap in the research area regarding how virtual reality and computer science can positively and negatively impact people. There is a lot of work on how social media is interacting with our brains, but I wanted to know how VR fis into that. VR has the potential to really help people get out of their comfort zones and maybe can help in a therapeutic setting - like if someone had agoraphobia. But it also has potentially negative impacts by blurring the lines between reality and fiction. So I wanted to dig deeper into that dynamic. 

Tell us more about your current research project! How did you decide to do research about the topic?

I’m currently working on a VR research project to explore if we can create a program that allows users to control two or more of the three aspects of drawing, which are direction, pressure, and rotation. I think this could really help further 3D drawing. We are still in the development stage so there are no findings to report quite yet. 

I hope this work can eventually lead to more accessibility when it comes to drawing. Further down the line I want to tie this into psychology and see if VR could serve as art therapy for people who can’t leave their house or have mobility limitations. They could still pursue art in a virtual space. It also might help with financial constraints if someone can’t afford all the supplies they would need for art therapy, though VR technology is still not financially accessible for everyone. 

How did you enjoy your internship at Dose Health? What kind of projects did you work on?

The internship with Dose Health was in 2020. I helped them clean up their ticketing and shipping process so it ran more smoothly. I fixed a bunch of bugs on the website and added new web features. It was great to be in the working world and get a sense of what it is like to work in tech. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience. 

Additionally, earlier that summer I did research with my undergraduate advisor to help design my research project about drawing and VR. We worked on testing 3D drawings to see if we could mimic textures like wood carving, clay and paint brushing. It was during the pandemic so we weren’t able to get many users to test it out. So eventually I switched over to another one of his projects which was testing text input for virtual reality.

What advice do you have for incoming Ph.D. computer science students?

My advice to incoming Ph.D. students is to not rush anything and take your time. Also make sure to check in with yourself to make sure you are doing OK. During my first year, I realized that you don’t have to do everything at once. I was dealing with the death of my childhood cat and that cast a really dark shadow over everything. It’s OK to take the time to focus on your mental health and wellbeing and just keep getting by. 

It’s also worth it to be open with your teachers when you are going through a hard time, because they are really understanding and are willing to support you. I felt that support from my teachers, staff and faculty, and my family and friends, especially this past spring. I have a great relationship with my advisor, Daniel F. Keefe, and I feel like I can go to him if I need something academically or if I am going through something personally and need support. I also talk with Dr. Jeffrey Bye in the educational psychology department. I knew him before starting the program since he taught at Macalester. It is nice having someone else to talk to that understands the Ph.D. process but is removed from computer science. He is a great third-party perspective, friend, and mentor to me and someone who I feel like I can go to for advice or just to talk. 

I also think it is also important to take “fun classes” that are just for you; these can be within your department or outside that have nothing to do with what you are currently studying but a class you want to take. I took Professor Bye’s class in advanced cognitive psychology, as well as fundamentals of graphics with Professor Victoria Interrante which was a lot of fun. I actually made a friend in the latter class which has been really great and highlights the importance of having connections both within and outside of the computer science field. 

What are your plans after graduation?

Well first and foremost, I have to get the Ph.D. But beyond that I want to learn new things about the field and about myself. I hope to learn and grow both personally and professionally. Hopefully in that whole process I can find a job as well. Plus, once I graduate I can get back to reading for pleasure!

Are there any additional experiences you did that you would like to highlight?

Yes! I am involved in BAAAM! which is the Black African American African Meeting space. It is basically a space for grad students across all disciplines who identify as Black, African, African American, etc. to connect for an hour every Friday. I learned about it from one of the welcome emails from the University. I decided to go so I could meet more people and develop a connection to the BIPOC community on campus. I had so much fun after the first one and I decided that it would be my thing outside of academics. It’s not restricted to just students or graduates; there are alumni and professors that stop by which is really nice and helps build a larger community.

I also want to stress how important mental health can be no matter where you are in your life. I have been going to therapy for a long time and it has been a huge help. When I came to the U, I began seeing a new therapist and she has been a huge help, especially after the passing of my cat. I do not think I would have been able to handle it as well as I did without them. So if you have an inkling that you might want to talk to someone or need some extra support, you should go. Therapy is great, especially when you have a therapist you connect to and even more so when you go for yourself and yourself alone.