Alumna Stacy Branham aims to make the digital space accessible to all
The accomplishment Virginia Tech computer science alumna Stacy Branham '07, Ph.D. '14 says she is most proud of is removing barriers for people with multiple marginalized identities. "We need people with disabilities in the room," said Branham, assistant professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine (UC Irvine), when decisions get made about technology.
In May, she had the privilege of seeing her student, Ali Abdolrahmani, receive his doctorate. It is Branham's passion to support people with disabilities and reframe them as movers and shakers rather than passive recipients.
Most recently, she was awarded the 2022 Virginia Tech Department of Computer Science Distinguished Early Career Alumni Award for her demonstrated extraordinary leadership in the computing field, whether in industry, government, or academia. This award also recognizes outstanding achievements and contributions in research and/or practice made by an alumnus or alumna whose degree was awarded within the past 15 years.
While Branham was not able to receive the award in person, she recently partnered with the Association for Women in Computing (AWC) student chapter for a "Finding Your Passion in Computing" hybrid webinar. She said it was a highlight to meet with students, especially because it was sponsored through AWC, for which she served as president while at Virginia Tech.
It was through the AWC that she was introduced to more graduate students and fell more in love with the idea of creating new knowledge.
Informatics is everywhere
Quoting from the Department of Informatics on the UC Irvine website, "Informatics is the field you've never heard of, and the one you know everything about. In a digital age, technology — how we design it, how we use it, and how it affects us — touches all aspects of our lives. It shapes the way we live, the way we work, and the way we build the foundations of a global society. Informatics is a window into this dynamic relationship, examining the interplay of people and technology and what it means for our collective future."
Branham's work in accessible computing brings together the interplay of technology, users, and the community, allowing all people to benefit. “I want to create technologies that help us all by empowering people with disabilities to design them,” she said.
In 2021, Popular Science recognized Branham as one of its "Brilliant 10" for early-career innovators in science, technology, education, and mathematics, crediting Branham for taking off-the-shelf technologies, like virtual assistants, and putting them together in novel ways to address the needs of under-served communities. "This distinction brings much-needed attention to work done in my lab - in which many of us identify as being disabled - and by colleagues in the field of accessible computing," said Branham on being selected for this honor.
A happy accident
Branham admits that she backed into the field of human-computer interaction by accident in her junior year. Identifying with an invisible disability, Branham said she selfishly wanted to benefit from the systems addressing accessible computing.
Branham often felt like a "fish out of water" in her classes, as 4 percent of her 2014 graduating class were women. Today, that number sits at 27 percent.
"It was hard for women to see the bigger picture, especially when we did not see examples of women among the student and faculty populations," said Branham.
Once she was introduced to human-computer interaction, Branham got to work building a community. She credits the influence and support of many in the Department of Computer Science, including Dwight Barnette, for whom she served as a teaching assistant and in this role felt empowered to welcome students into the field.
Her first undergraduate course and research experiences were led by department faculty Chris North and Scott McCrickard, respectively. The team of Steve Harrison and Deborah Tatar, both emeritus faculty, as well as Manuel A. Pérez Quiñones, former associate professor, were deeply influential in representing the 'other' in computing and sharing about their roles as tenured faculty.
Celebrating inclusivity wins
Branham, along with one of her students, Emory Edwards, have partnered with Google to make sure all new Chromebooks include inclusive imagery with visible and invisible identities. This also includes carefully crafted alternative text and image descriptions to make them accessible to people with various disabilities.
The Inclusive Imagery Project, as part of the INclusive Studio for Innovative Technology and Education (INsite), looks at what is important when representing people with disabilities to ensure more accessible, equitable, and diverse representation in technology design contexts.
The co-developed inclusive images and descriptions between INsite and Google will be shipped on all new Chromebooks in 2022. This represents an estimated 40 million laptops that, for the first time ever, will come with accessible profile images that actually depict disability.
For example, blind or low-vision people will know for the first time what their user profile images look like and can potentially choose one that has a visible disability like their own.
On staying the course
Branham knows firsthand the power of community, like the one she has found among her colleagues and scholars at UC Irvine. She is surrounded by those working in the human components of the technical world, such as Black Lives Matter and Technology, Queerness/Gaming, as well as Education/Accessibility and Technology.
She encourages Virginia Tech students to find their community: "As soon as you get here, find the people that make you feel seen, for inspiration and resilience." Often, that means going outside of your year or major, or finding peers that are a few career steps ahead of you. "And lastly, when you get that sense that this is too hard, be curious about that part and reach out to your network. That makes all of it worth doing," said Branham.