This year’s recipient of the Rosalva Gallardo Valencia Graduate Award is María J. Anderson Coto, an informatics Ph.D. student in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS). Anderson Coto grew up in Costa Rica, spending part of her childhood in Honduras, and worked as a marketing consultant before starting her graduate studies at UCI. “My research is about helping Latinx and other minoritized communities be heard, seen and understood in today’s digital world,” says Anderson Coto, who was elated to hear she had received the $10,000 award, open to all Ph.D. students in ICS. “My first reaction was to call my family to let them know about it,” she says. “I’m so grateful Ms. Gallardo Valencia opened this opportunity and believed in me.”
Representing Minoritized Communities
Anderson Coto first decided to come to UCI after meeting with Informatics Professor Kurt Squire. “His research was a perfect match with my interests,” she says, “so I thought he would be the perfect advisor for me. I’m forever grateful that he gave me the opportunity to work with him.”
Anderson Coto’s research brings together machine learning, human computer interaction, education, and team science to empower minoritized communities. “I use participatory design and educational methods to co-design and transform AI-based technology, tools, and ideas so that they truly represent and reflect the community’s interests and priorities,” says Anderson Coto, who was drawn to informatics because of its interdisciplinary nature. “I found it fascinating that you could study the intersection of humans and technology from so many different lenses and backgrounds,” she explains. “It is a flexible field that has allowed me to explore topics I’m interested in like games, education, social issues and privacy, while at the same time being able to apply my background in business.”
Her goal is to become a professor while maintaining strong relationships with industry and non-governmental organizations. “I’m really passionate about working with minoritized communities on topics that involve social justice,” she says, while stressing that “to make lasting changes, we need stronger relationships between the minoritized communities, academia and industry.”
To students hoping to follow in her footsteps, her message is to never give up. “If you come from a Global South (‘developing’) country or a minoritized community, it is normal to feel that it is impossible to reach your academic goals,” she says. “It will be difficult, but it is possible; you have to keep pushing.”
A Chain of Giving Back
Anderson Coto says she was impressed to learn that Gallardo Valencia decided to create this award after receiving an unrestricted $10,000 during her own graduate studies. For those who don’t know Gallardo Valencia’s story, the following excerpt is pulled from an earlier article:
Rosalva Gallardo Valencia, a native of Peru, first came to UCI in 2006 after receiving a fellowship. She left her job as a software engineer in Lima to pursue her Ph.D. in ICS. “For the first three years, I didn’t have a car,” she says, recalling how it took her two hours by bus to get to Ikea — less than 10 miles from campus — to buy items for her apartment. “And with all the stress of working on my Ph.D., I really wanted see my family, but that was something I just couldn’t afford.”
As Gallardo Valencia worked fervently on her candidacy exam during her third year of studies and served as a teaching assistant for 100 students, her advisor, Informatics Professor Susan Sim, learned about the Miguel Velez fellowship for Latin American graduate students. “She saw my struggles financially and applied on my behalf,” says Gallardo Valencia, who knew nothing about the fellowship application. When Sim showed her the acceptance letter, she could hardly believe she had been awarded $10,000. “So do I use this for tuition or books,” she asked, “or to attend a conference?” She was shocked to learn there were no restrictions on the funding.
“The first thing I did was buy a car and also a ticket to go back home to see my family,” says Gallardo Valencia. While she did use some of the funds to buy books and attend conferences, she says the initial purchases were just as important to her academics. “It took a huge weight off my shoulders and had such an impact on my well-being.”
She made a vow to one day return the favor, and almost a decade later, Gallardo Valencia – now an engineering program manager for Google Shopping — established her own fellowship. In 2020, the first award was presented to Adriana Meza Soria, and Anderson Coto is now the second recipient. “This has also inspired me to give back in the same way, “says Anderson Coto. “I hope I can create a similar award in the future that reflects this purpose of giving back to others.”
Gallardo Valencia says it is personally rewarding to see the fellowship’s impact on students. “This award helps students financially and also gives me the opportunity to mentor the recipients. I love hearing that this is planting a seed for them to pay it forward in the future,” she says. “I am also happily surprised by the response of the community to the creation of this award to celebrate my Latinx heritage and support graduate students in need. Thank you to all who contributed.” You can help support this award at https://bit.ly/RosalvaFund.
“Maria is a well-rounded researcher and a self-starter, and her research on creating more inclusive AI is positively impacting communities affected by AI biases,” says Gallardo Valencia. “Maria is also leading programs to help young minorities focus on wellness,” she says, referring to Anderson Coto’s work on the Youth Connections for Wellbeing project, funded by Pivotal Ventures. “Congratulations Maria for being a change agent in our society. You deserve this award so much!”
— Shani Murray