Research with Social Impact: Exploring the Intersection of Autism and Social Media

Kirsten Chapman, B.S. in Computer Science, Brigham Young University
Kirsten Chapman, B.S. in Computer Science, Brigham Young University

This Q&A highlight features Kirsten Chapman, a Finalist in the 2023 CRA Outstanding Undergraduate Researchers award program. Kirsten finished her undergraduate degree at Brigham Young University and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in Computer Science there. 

What brought you to computing research?

My journey into computing research was spurred by the encouragement of my university, where engaging in research for class credit was highly encouraged. As a receptionist in the computer science office during my sophomore year, I often browsed the department’s website and became familiar with various labs. The human-centric projects in the Social Technology and Privacy Lab (STaPL) captured my interest, leading me to choose STaPL for my research endeavors

How did you find your first research project?

When I first joined the lab, I discussed with Prof. Xinru Page (lab PI) about where my interests aligned with her group’s research efforts. Specifically, I was interested in working on a project serving a vulnerable or underrepresented population. Prof. Page recommended that I join the ongoing Autism and Social Media project.  

What challenges did you encounter when you first started your research? 

My initial intimidation about doing research was my most significant challenge when initiating my research journey. I overcame this by befriending both undergraduate and graduate students in the lab and learning from their experiences. Asking my advisor numerous questions about human-computer interaction and our specific research helped demystify the research process. Connecting with others and seeking guidance proved essential in navigating the challenges of the early research phase.

Can you tell us about your project?

In our research, we focused on addressing the negative impacts and enhancing the positive aspects of social media for Autistic adults. To do this, we developed new social media features and educational materials specifically designed for their needs. We conducted interactive sessions with Autistic users to test these features and understand their perceptions. Additionally, we carried out a long-term study at a local site, where we taught a course on social media safety for Autism spectrum individuals. The project resulted in validated educational materials, training programs, and prototype features, all aimed at effectively supporting Autistic adults in their social media use. We presented our findings to the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services and demoed prototypes at the International Society for Autism Research conference.

What challenges did you face in your research, and how did you overcome them?

Navigating the research process was challenging, particularly in terms of accessing participants on the Autism spectrum and identifying suitable measures and scales for this population. Overcoming these hurdles required proactive steps, such as attending conferences and workshops, where I could engage with other researchers experienced in working with individuals with Autism. Networking and learning from their insights became pivotal in refining my research. 

We noticed you still work with Prof. Page; how has your role changed in their lab?

My initial role in the lab was to assist with qualitative analysis. Over time, my role has evolved to graduate student lead of the Autism and Social Media project. This includes engaging in study design for a long-term study on social media safety, leading analysis, conducting user sessions with interactive prototypes, and supporting a team of 10-15 undergraduate students.  

What were some of your favorite aspects of research, and how has it impacted your overall journey?

I enjoy the exploratory aspect of research. I find it particularly exciting to see themes emerging from the data. Initially not planning to pursue graduate school or a PhD, my involvement in research changed my trajectory. Within a few weeks of joining my lab, I decided to pursue a PhD and a career in academia, driven by my newfound passion for research.

Do you have any advice for other students looking to get into research?

If you’re considering getting into research, do it! It’s one of the best and most impactful decisions I made during my undergraduate career. Overcoming my initial intimidation by connecting with fellow students and asking questions made the research experience less daunting. Enjoy the exploratory aspect of research and attend conferences and workshops to network with other researchers in similar areas.

— Edited by Yasra Chandio and Alejandro Velasco

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