Julia Chatain

Julia Chatain

Julia Chatain

As time moves forward, so do the stories of our role models. In our ongoing quest to understand the evolving landscapes of inspiration and achievement, we revisit the luminaries who have graced our platform before. These are not just interviews; they are conversations that bridge past aspirations with present realities, and the enduring legacies of those who continue to shape our world.

Previously on WE SHAPE TECH 😊… Welcome to our series of interviews where we catch up with the inspiring role models we have had the privilege of speaking with in the past. We are thrilled to reconnect and dive into the journeys of these remarkable individuals, exploring the paths they have traveled since our last conversation. Join us as we eagerly explore the latest chapters in their lives, seeking insights, inspirations, lessons learned, and their view on the state of diversity along the way.

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Julia Chatain

It has been a while, since our last interview in March 2019. What has happened since?

At the time of the first interview, I was working as a software engineer at the Game Technology Centre, ETH Zurich. As I was curious about how technology can empower people and help them grow and learn, I continued with a doctorate, looking into how students use movement to learn abstract mathematics, and how we can leverage Virtual Reality (VR) to create these learning experiences.

I had attempted a PhD earlier in my career, but quit after a year for various reasons, and the decision to start a new one was not easy. Today, I am very happy as this new doctoral experience, while intense, ended up being one of growth, both as a scientist and as a person.

Today, I am working as a Senior Scientist at the Singapore-ETH Centre in Singapore, where I am designing a new research programme on Future Embodied Learning Technologies (FELT). We focus on researching and designing technology for learning that integrates the various sensorimotor modalities students actually utilize for learning, while accounting for well-being, diversity, and scalability. 

How has your perspective on diversity and inclusion in tech-related academic domains evolved since our last conversation?

I am still deeply convinced that diversity is important. My view regarding this topic expanded since the previous interview, and today I believe there are several facets to why we should focus on diversity. First, the basic human and humane aspect to give access to education and opportunities to anyone who has interest and relevant skills. Second, based on my professional experiences of the last few years, I believe that diversity results in more innovative and impactful outcomes. Beyond gender diversity, learning how to acknowledge and communicate with collaborators of different backgrounds, perspectives, and opinions results in richer conversations and creative sessions.

Have you observed any notable shifts or trends in the tech-related academia’s approach to diversity and inclusion since our last discussion?

Looking at Switzerland, I believe most institutions are taking gender diversity more seriously, specifically in their hiring process, for example by explicitly correcting towards a balanced gender distribution. However, there is still much to be done. For example, once hired, we must ensure that the environment is safe and equally supportive of (still) minorities. Moreover:

We need to rethink how some of our regulations impact diversity. For example, some institutions have a maximum age limit of 35 years to apply for certain academic positions that require long term planning. For cis women, this often means choosing between career and family, instead of building both.
Julia Chatain
Julia Chatain
Singapore-ETH Centre

Even though maternity leave is sometimes counted out of this limit, we know that trying and creating a family is much more than this.

And again, gender diversity is not the only form of diversity that matters. What about applicants who had a previous career and bring the richness of multidisciplinarity? What about applicants who grew up in an environment with a less straightforward path to education?

We ought to ask: What are the benefits of our institutional regulations, and what are the costs in terms of diversity?

What challenges have you encountered in promoting diversity and inclusion within the tech sector, and how have you addressed them?

As a Computer Scientist, I have almost always been the only (or one of few) woman in my team. And I often noticed that it is assumed I will be the one to take charge with all diversity related aspects, for example relaying job offers to women, or supporting new female employees or students to ensure that they feel welcomed and safe. While I am happy to do so, I believe this should be something we should all do and care about. I tried tackling this in the past by providing lists of resources of networks of women in tech.

Importantly as well, I take the time to educate myself to address my own biases, both regarding other forms of diversity as I might not have been exposed to experiences that are common for people with different backgrounds, but also regarding gender diversity, as, although I am a woman, other women may still have very different experiences from mine.

In what ways have you seen diversity and inclusion positively impact innovation and productivity in the tech field?

During my doctorate, I was supervised, in part, by Prof. Manu Kapur, from the Professorship for Learning Sciences and Higher Education. Thanks to the explicit efforts of the hiring team, the lab actually included about the same number of women and men. Again, as I studied mathematics and Computer Science, I had not experienced such context since secondary school. While I was always convinced that gender diversity is important, I never actually got to experience it until the doctorate.

While the first weeks and months were spent learning how to communicate and finding a common language, the diversity in terms of gender, but also background, resulted in rich, creative, and innovative projects and collaborations. This was particularly important as we all focused on building learning interventions, and lack of diversity in our team would mean building interventions that reinforce existing biases rather than solving them.

Tell us a bit about where you stand today.

Today, I believe that diversity is crucial, for the well-being of all, and for creativity and innovation. And I want to emphasize again that diversity is the responsibility of all, not just of minorities who already have at least as much, and often more, workload.
Julia Chatain
Julia Chatain
Singapore-ETH Centre

What are your ambitions and wishes for your career moving forward?

At this point, I am hoping to continue working in research, at the intersection of Computer Science and Learning Sciences, at the PI level. I am interested in shaping and leading impact-focused research programmes, including aspects of co-design and translation to practice. I am particularly interested in how technology can meaningfully help people learn and self-regulate, while accounting for diversity and well-being.

Diversity and its challenges are manyfold. What do you feel is one topic that needs to be tackled as a priority?

At this point, I think we still need to focus on giving access to education and professional opportunities to diverse people, both at entry level, by explicitly building communication, recruiting, and hiring strategies for diversity, and at the retention level, by ensuring that educational and working environments are safe and provide equitable support to all.

How do you envision the future of diversity and inclusion in the tech industry, and what role do you hope to play in shaping it?

My work focuses on education and technology. As we design a future of learning that is tech-enabled, we need to think of diversity at all points, to avoid reproducing, or worse, amplifying, existing biases. For example, when thinking of Virtual Reality and body-centered technologies for learning, we need to think of students with diverse bodies, diverse sensorimotor abilities, diverse relationships to their bodies and identities.

We also need to think of representation and inclusivity when designing virtual worlds: currently, the literature in this field still utilizes a vast majority of white digital avatars, and even includes more green avatars than realistic black avatars, and this is worrisome.
Julia Chatain
Julia Chatain
Singapore-ETH Centre
And obviously, this is crucial for AI learning too: we need to explicitly research, understand and address the biases held by Large-Language Models and Generative AI in general. We need to understand how these models are trained, on what data, and who benefits from these biases.
Julia Chatain
Julia Chatain
Singapore-ETH Centre

We also must think of how these technologies can solve existing diversity and inclusion related issues. For example, AI can be powerful to support accessibility: together with Prof. Gerd Kortemeyer and Dr. Andreas Fender, we developed a novel approach based on LLMs to make visual learning content accessible to blind learners.

You shared your advice for other women in tech in our last interview. What advice would you give today, looking back at your experience and what has happened since?

Dare to follow your passions and seek help when you struggle. Every time I asked for help from peers more advanced in their career, I received nothing but kindness, empathy, and support. If you are in a position where you get to define educational and work environments, consider diversity explicitly in your policies, and consider who the existing policies are benefiting.


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