Congrats to CREATE’s Graduating Ph.D. Students 2024!

May 30, 2024

Four of CREATE’s influential and productive doctoral students are graduating this spring. Please join us in congratulating Avery Mack, Emma McDonnell, Venkatesh Potluri, and Ather Sharif and wishing them well.

Avery Mack, a white, femme-presenting person with curly light brown hair shaved close on one side wearing a green blazer and grey top

Avery Mack will receive their Ph.D. from the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. Advised by CREATE Director Jennifer Mankoff, their research focuses on representation of people with disabilities in digital technologies like avatars and generative AI tools. They recently have investigated how technology can support people with fluctuating access needs, like neurodiverse people and people with chronic or mental health conditions.

Mack has been an invaluable resource at CREATE, co-leading graduate seminars, presenting workshops on accessibility, and contributing to CREATE’s accessibility research. “CREATE has been a great place to meet other accessibility researchers and get in contact with disabled people in our community,” says Mack. “As someone who tries to align my researchers with community needs and desires, this connection to the Seattle disability community is invaluable.”

Mack, whose thesis is titled, Dissertation Title: Understanding, Designing, and Building Adaptable Technology for Fluctuating Accessibility Needs in Group Settings, is on the job market, interested in a research scientist position in industry.

Emma McDonnell, a white woman in her 20s with short red hair, freckles, and a warm smile. In the background: a lush landscape and the Colosseum.

Earning her Ph.D. from Human Centered Design and Engineering, Emma McDonnell is advised by CREATE associate director Leah Findlater. McDonnell’s research blends computer science, design, and disability studies to explore ways that technology can be designed to align with disability politics and social worlds.

Her dissertation research explores how communication technology, specifically captioning, could be redesigned to encourage mixed ability groups to take a collective approach to accessibility. Along with CREATE associate directors Leah Findlater and  Jon Froehlich, McDonnell studied captioning practices on TikTok and offered steps toward a standard for user-generated captioning. With fellow Ph.D. student, McDonnell presented a workshop on accessible presentations for CREATE’s GAAD Day 2024, contextualizing the importance of accessibility within the longer history of disability discrimination and activism.

Looking ahead

McDonnell is interested in postdoctoral opportunities to continue exploring new possibilities for technology design anchored in critical disability perspectives. 

Venkatesh Potluri leans toward the camera smiling with eyes cast downward

Advised by CREATE Director Jennifer Mankoff in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, Venkatesh Potluri’s research examines accessibility barriers experienced by blind or visually impaired (BVI) developers participating in professional programming domains such as user interface design, data science, and physical computing. His work contributes real-world systems to improve developer tools and new interaction techniques to address these access barriers. His thesis is titled, A Paradigm Shift in Nonvisual Programming.

While at the UW, Potluri has been selected as an Apple Scholar and a Google Lime Scholar, and contributed to the Accessibility Guide for Data Science and STEM Classes. He presented a paper on a large-scale analysis of the accessibility of Jupyter notebooks, a new tool that enables blind and visually impaired people to create their own data visualizations to explore streaming data.

Asked about his experience with CREATE, Potluri responded, "Since CREATE's founding, I've been thrilled by its mission to take a holistic approach to accessibility with disabled experts and stakeholders—from education to research to translation. I'm grateful to have been part of this beacon of high-quality research informed by a deep understanding of disability. I aspire to carry the torch forward and help make the world accessible!"

Future plans

Potluri will join the University of Michigan as an assistant professor in the Information School in Fall 2024.

 

Headshot of Ather Sharif outside on a sunny balcony with blue sky behind himGraduating with a Ph.D. from the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, Ather Sharif is co-advised by CREATE faculty Katharina Reinecke and CREATE associate director Jacob O. Wobbrock. Sharif’s research on Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) focuses on making online data visualizations accessible to screen-reader users. He pioneered the first-of-its-kind system, VoxLens, that utilizes voice assistants for screen-reader users to extract information from online data visualizations. He also created UnlockedMaps, an open-data map that assists users with mobility disabilities to make informed decisions regarding their commute.

Sharif has garnered many awards while at the UW, including:

Sharif credits CREATE leaders, who include his advisors as well as Richard Ladner, Jennifer Mankoff, and Anat Caspi, to name a few, “who are not only prominent allies for disabled people but are always willing to advise and guide students to be the best researchers they can be.”

“I cannot begin to express how incredible it is to have CREATE as part of our ecosystem,” says Ather. “It advances the state of accessible technologies for people with disabilities through cutting-edge research. Personally, as someone with a disability, it means the world to me. As a researcher, CREATE has funded almost all of my research work at UW.”

After graduation, Sharif will be traveling on a 2024 UW Bonderman Fellowship. He plans to visit Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Costa Rica, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, and Thailand to learn about disability rights history and distinct physical infrastructure for wheelchair users and enhance his perspectives, challenge his viewpoints, and identify real-life barriers disabled people face. 

With too many accomplishments amongst them to list here, these almost-minted Ph.D.s collaborated on projects that have contributed to CREATE’s growth and success. In addition to mentoring undergraduate students, publishing and presenting papers, and working in labs and with researchers, here are a few of the ways Sharif, Potluri, McDonnell and Mack have worked together:

  • Avery Mack and Venkatesh Potluri contributed to the Accessibility Guide for Data Science and STEM Classes, available via the CREATE website, A11y in Action resource link. They, with the other lead contributors, received the 2024 UW Digital Accessibility Team Award as part of UW Accessible Technology’s Global Accessibility Awareness Day celebration. 
  • Potluri and Mack also co-led 5 CREATE Accessibility Seminars to discuss relevant reading and share accessibility research.
  • Mack and Ather Sharif collaborated with Lucille Njoo to dispel common myths about students with disabilities in an article in the Winter 2024 Allen School DEIA newsletter.
  • McDonnell and Mack presented an accessible presentations workshop as part of UW’s 2024 Global Accessibility Awareness Day celebration.