UT researcher selected for Google Women Techmakers program

| Michaela Nesvarova

Cristina Zaga is one of the scholars handpicked for the prestigious Google Women Techmakers Program. The PhD candidate from the UT’s Human Media Interaction (HMI) group has been awarded an academic scholarship and will join the class of 2018 at the Google Headquarters in London this August.

The Women Techmakers Scholars Program by Google aims to encourage women to pursue career in computing and technology. From a huge amount of candidates, only 20 female scientists from Europe, the Middle East and Africa are selected every year. This year, one of those spots belongs to Cristina Zaga, a UT researcher who is currently finishing her doctoral thesis as a visiting scholar at the Cornell University.

Cristina zaga's research

Cristina Zaga’s PhD work at the University of Twente focuses on human-robot interaction, specifically child-robot interaction. She aims to design robot nonverbal behavior that stimulates prosocial interaction in children, helping kids develop their social skills through playing with robots. ‘I’m not interested in robots that look like humans or could substitute humans,’ specifies Zaga. ‘I work with minimalistic robots that children can interact with in a meaningful way.’ 

What is the Women Techmakers program all about?

Zaga: ‘It’s a program and a scholarship created in memory of Anita Borg, a Google employee who was passionate about bringing more women to technology. It’s a prestigious program that selects only the most promising scholars – and not only based on the quality of their research and academic output. The program aims to find people who are really involved in supporting women in technology.’

Why did you apply for it?

‘If it comes to women in technology, there is still a gap. There aren't many of us. I’m really passionate about leading my community and empowering children, encouraging them to get familiar with technology. This program brings together people with similar ideas. It’s important for me to be a part of a community of scientists that support each other.’

You will visit Google headquarters in London this summer. Why?

‘We are going there on a retreat. There will be workshops and trainings on professional and personal development; we will meet fellow scholars, become a part of the network. We will join a mentorship program and be guided by more experienced scientists.’

You mentioned that researchers are selected for the program also based on their passion for supporting women in technology. Are you involved in any specific activities related to that?

‘I’m part of the Women in Robotics network and the FFNT (Female Faculty Network at the UT). I want to use my knowledge to empower children and ignite their spark for information technologies, computer science and robotics in a developmentally appropriate way. To this end I have developed a workshop format for children to design and develop robot behavior with simple robotic consumer platforms and robot puppets. I very much want to influence young girls, serve as a role model. I want to show them that technology is fun, interesting and not just for boys.’