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Informatics Ph.D. candidate Mayara Costa Figueiredo is the recipient of a 2020 Microsoft Research Dissertation Grant, earning her $24,000 for the 2020-2021 academic year along with an invitation to present her research at a virtual two-day Ph.D. Summit later in the year. Microsoft awards the grant to Ph.D. students at North American universities who are underrepresented in the field of computing. Of the 225 proposals received, only 10 were selected.

“When I received the email, I was incredibly surprised and happy,” says Figueiredo, who almost didn’t apply for the grant because of all the changes going on related to the global pandemic. Earning the grant, however, has “kind of worked as a personal encouragement in such complicated times.”

The funding will help her focus on finalizing her dissertation, “Self-Tracking for Fertility Care: A Holistic Approach.” She is researching the wide range of activities involved in collecting and reflecting on personal health data related to fertility — activities such as trying to conceive, avoiding conception or tracking your menstrual cycle — and how apps can better support different activities and goals, especially during times of transition.

“Due to COVID-19 and social distancing measures, I am still figuring out if it will be possible to conduct focus groups online, so those plans are passing through adaptations,” says Figueiredo. “We are currently considering using our prototypes as design probes for an online interview study and for an online survey.” This will be her main focus over the summer, and then she will attend the Ph.D. Summit in the fall. “I am excited to meet senior researchers at Microsoft, learn from their work, and hopefully receive feedback for my dissertation.”

The grant is part of Microsoft’s effort to actively foster greater levels of diversity in its workforce and pipeline of future researchers. “Being a woman in computer science has always kind of implied being within the minority. We were six out of 40 in the beginning of my undergraduate course,” she says. “Later, in my first job, I was the only woman on the team.” She says this never stopped her, but it did make things more challenging. “Representativity matters. Recognizing yourself in your peers and professors matters,” she says. “Efforts such as this grant are important because we need to not only get minorities interested in computer science but also provide the necessary conditions for these minorities to thrive.”

Shani Murray