diversity in tech

Engineering Breath: How Dr. Maria Artunduaga is Saving Lives with Respiratory Technology

Maria Artunduaga, MD, MPH, MTM ● Founder and CEO ● Respira Labs

Maria Artunduaga, MD, MPH, MTM ● Founder and CEO ● Respira Labs

When I spoke with Dr. Maria Artunduaga, she was excitedly out of breath, having just received word that she was awarded an NSF grant to help fund research involved with the company she started, Respira Labs. She is developing a wearable device that uses low cost, off the shelf technology (including a patient’s own cell phone) to help patients with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) monitor lung function in order to identify flare-ups before they happen. A flare-up in COPD is like a heart attack in the lungs. It causes permanent damage to lung tissue and increases the risk of fatality. If a patient is able to get an alert from their cell phone that air is trapped in their lungs, indicating a potential flare-up, they can take the appropriate preventative measures (which might include using a different inhaler, starting breathing exercises, taking antibiotics/steroids, or increasing their oxygen).

Dr. Artunduaga didn’t start out as an engineer. She has a medical doctorate from Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Colombia. After working in emergency medicine she received a postdoctoral research position at Harvard University to study genetics. Her journey to becoming an engineer began when she faced discrimination, both for being a woman and being Latina, during a plastic surgery residency at the University of Chicago Medicine. She left clinical medicine and began to pursue an idea to use technology to help patients with respiratory problems, an area of medicine that hadn’t seen any major technological advances in a half a century. The idea began years earlier with the loss of Dr. Artunduaga’s grandmother to COPD. Her abuela (grandmother in Spanish) wanted to remain independent and passed away due to damage from a respiratory attack (exacerbation in medical terms). It’s difficult for COPD patients to tell the difference between symptoms from non life-threatening causes and those caused by worsening lung function that could lead to an exacerbation. If there had been a way for her abuela or family members to receive notice that her lung function was changing, her life could have been prolonged.

Dr. Artunduaga’s abuela was in her mind one day while talking to another doctor about how flare-ups are caused by air that gets trapped in the lungs of patients with COPD. Measuring the air in the lungs is a challenge. Home monitoring systems that measure blood oxygen levels are insufficient and CT scans are expensive, inconvenient, and dangerous to use frequently on a patient due to radiation. She remembered a lesson in her high school physics class where the teacher described how light changes when it passes through different substances. She wondered if sound would do the same. She began to do research and contact friends with engineering degrees to help her with some of the details. The result was a prototype. 

“Our device will replace inferior home lung function monitoring technologies with a wearable device that accurately predicts the onset of acute respiratory attacks. It continuously measures lung resonance, any change in its baseline, caused by trapped air in the lungs, and signals an impending attack.”

Dr. Artunduaga now has two additional degrees, a Master of Translational Medicine (MTM) from UC Berkeley and UCSF, and a Master of Public Health (MPH) from the University of Washington. She is working to build her company and secure funding to vet the product through rigorous research and clinical studies before bringing it to market. Always a doctor, the well-being of the patient is her first priority. Dr. Artunduaga embraces the challenges and hardships she faced because they led her on a path she would never have known existed. Her advice to others is to get comfortable facing down your fears and taking risks. Forget trying to achieve perfection and embrace your mistakes and failures as learning opportunities and incentives to keep trying. 

“Nothing matches the empowering feeling of pushing yourself to grow, to show yourself and others that you accomplished something against all the odds.”


Maria Artunduaga received a 2009-10 AAUW International Fellowship that funded her postdoctoral research at Harvard University. Her story is told in partnership with AAUW, which has a long history of opening doors for women and girls in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), from the classroom to Capitol Hill.

Building Technology for Impact: How Kishau Rogers’ Passion for Technology Starts with Problem-Solving

Kishau Rogers ● Founder ● Time Study

Kishau Rogers ● Founder ● Time Study

For Kishau Rogers, a love of technology starts with understanding the problems it can enable her to solve.

“I like the impact. I need technology to have some meaning behind the use.”

Drawn to the field of computer science while a college student at Virginia Commonwealth University, Kishau took her first job as a programmer when she was a junior in college and has been building software ever since.

“I worked primarily in the research, health, and social service space, using tech to create solutions to real-world problems. Being in that field allowed me to see the impact of the technology.”

She started her first company in the early 2000s, Websmith, to build custom software for other companies. Kishau ran Websmith for almost 15 years, designing software for numerous Fortune 500 companies. Her newest venture is a company called Time Study, a startup she founded in 2017 that uses machine learning and mobile technologies to help hospitals understand how employees spend their time at work.

“Our mission is to eliminate timesheets. There’s complexity in the healthcare space around how they collect data; it’s different from standard timesheets, because there’s different levels of stakeholders that want to know different things. Our thesis is that there’s enough data to automatically tell a story of how people are spending their time, using mobile technologies, machine learning, and data science, and categorize unstructured data in a language stakeholders can understand.”

She says that the same interest in problem-solving and impact that she found in computer science is what draws her to entrepreneurship.

“I like the idea of understanding a problem and its lifecycle completely. Studying CS, thinking about structuring solutions to problems really appealed to me, more than just hacking away at the code and creating things for the sake of it; ‘Hello world’ doesn’t do anything. Health and social services make it clear why the tech is needed, and it’s also very outcomes-driven, meaning that the conversations usually start with a vision and what impact do we want to see, and then you sort of reverse engineer it and determine whether tech can have a role in that.

Her guidance to others thinking of entering STEM fields is to identify problems they want to solve and then learn new skills with solutions to that problem in mind.

“I mentor a lot of people and I tell them to think more about the outcomes of what you’re doing, and less about the process. Sometimes we dive in with a vague concept of ‘learning to code.’ Figure out your reason for it. Think of a problem you’re interested in solving, then learn for the purpose of using the tool so that you can create a solution that you’re going to actually use. I find that a lot of people learn better when they understand why they need to know, when they feel they need to know it in order to solve the problem. Sometimes you want to learn a thing and your reason may not be the same as the person next to you. Someone may want to learn to code because it’s fascinating for them to see the function and framework. Someone else may want to learn to code for economic empowerment, so they can earn more money in their career and have more promotion opportunities. All these reasons are great reasons.”

Her desire to solve problems in healthcare and social services also led her to join the board of a technology nonprofit called Think of Us, a nonprofit building tech tools to help youth transitioning out of foster care.

Kishau’s guidance to young people considering computer science should be encouraging to anyone who wonders if they have enough experience, resources, or interest in coding for coding’s sake.

“I didn’t actually own a computer when I picked CS as my major. Computers were really expensive back then. My parents couldn’t afford to get me a computer in my dorm room. I would suggest surveying your resources: what are the environments that you can learn best in? A home office, a library, a coworking space, or a computer lab in your school.”

She is deeply passionate about mentorship, pointing out that we need to adopt a more expansive view of what it means.

“Mentorship for me is a two-way relationship. We use the term ‘mentor’ and ‘mentee’ and that implies the mentor can’t learn something from the mentee. You get mentorship where you find it, so if you ask someone for coffee, and you want to speak to them about your career, start by asking for feedback, keep in contact with the people you reach out to, and over time you build a relationship that becomes a mentor/mentee relationship. Start small and keep in contact with the people you consider mentors so that you can know about opportunities in the field, because that’s really where most of the magic happens, is through relationships.”

For Kishau, the combination of seeking and providing mentorship, identifying available resources, and learning through problem-solving have been recipes for fulfillment and creativity in computer science.

Sky-High Dreams: Wendy Okolo's Journey in Aerospace Engineering

Wendy Okolo ● Aerospace Engineering Researcher ● NASA Ames Research Center

Wendy Okolo ● Aerospace Engineering Researcher ● NASA Ames Research Center

For Wendy Okolo, a love for science ran in the family.

“My big sister is a medical doctor. Growing up, she would come home and teach me the things she learned in school. My sister was very instrumental in my decision to pursue a STEM career/field. And when you have Nigerian parents, they plant the idea in your head that you’re going to be an engineer or a doctor or something like that. At three or four years old, I already knew I wanted to be an engineer.”

Figuring out what kind of engineer to be, though, would prove to be a lengthier process. After being initially tugged between aerospace, mechanical, and chemical engineering, she found herself attracted most strongly to aerospace engineering in college.

“I’m still fascinated with it to today. I’m fascinated by planes I see going overhead. After my undergraduate degree I went on to get a PhD in aerospace engineering as well. In the PhD program you have to make an original contribution to your field. As a result of that, I fell in love with research.You get to ask questions that no one else had answered, apply techniques to things in an unconventional manner, and think outside of the box.”

Her dissertation research focused on making flights more efficient so that airplanes can run using less fuel. She drew inspiration from observations in nature, where birds fly in optimal, V-shaped formations. After finishing her PhD, she started working at the NASA Ames Research Center. She describes the environment as constantly intellectually stimulating.

“Staying a lifelong learner is easy at a place like NASA. There are so many exciting things happening, so many things you can do. I’ve never been bored once.”

She leads two different projects, one on the safe and seamless integration of unmanned aerial vehicles in national airspace, and another to enable precision landing for aircraft (particularly deployable spacecraft).

To those who might want to follow in her footsteps, Wendy advises not cutting corners when it comes to building knowledge.

“You really have to do your homework, do your due diligence. For instance, math builds on itself, so if you don’t understand a concept in math or a particular theory, go a step back and understand that. If you don’t understand that, go back another step. Keep going back until you have the base, the foundation, and then go a step further. My advice is to go one step back and utilize your resources. Go to your library, hunker down, and do the work.”

And it’s important to remember that you don’t have to look or act a certain way to be able to “do the work” of engineering, Wendy says.

“There is no mold that an engineer is supposed to fit into. I like makeup, I like to wear dresses, there’s no ‘oh because of this I can’t look like that,’ or because I like this, I can’t like that. You can like what you want. Sometimes people think that to be an engineer you have to be this kind of person who likes toy cars or likes breaking things apart, but that’s not true. I’m not that kind of person. I’m not into breaking things apart. I like to ask questions. I’m very curious about a lot of things: history, science, how the brain works, architecture, feminism, civil rights. I don’t like to take cars apart and get dirty. But I’m an aerospace engineer leading two different teams on two different projects.”

Not only is Wendy boundlessly curious, but she also exemplifies a belief that everyone has something to learn and teach.

“Mentorship is a two-way street. Someone in middle school or high school could be mentoring their five-year-old cousins and learning from them too: you can give and share as much as you receive, no matter how old you are.”


From Microscale to the Sky: How Dr. Denise Wong’s Robots are Changing our Workforce

Dr. Denise Wong ● Robotics Engineer ● Exyn Technologies, Inc.

Dr. Denise Wong ● Robotics Engineer ● Exyn Technologies, Inc.

“As a kid, I always imagined myself being an engineer, it was just a matter of what kind of engineer I would choose to be!”

As a robotics engineer for Exyn Technologies, Inc., Dr. Denise Wong spends most days at work analyzing flight data from autonomous aerial robots. Exyn is utilizing robotics research to develop autonomous aerial robots for commercial applications. The robot that Dr. Wong works on at Exyn “is a quadrotor aerial robot equipped with a wide variety of sensors and a computer that allows the robot to fly autonomously, without a pilot, and maps new environments it has never flown in before.” The goal is to create a tool that can do tasks that are dangerous or impossible for humans, as well as unpleasant and monotonous tasks that humans would rather not do. For example, an autonomous aerial robot could explore areas of a mine that are inaccessible or unstable for people, perform inventory management in large warehouses, or monitor progress on large construction sites.

Inspired by her mother, a chemical engineer, Dr. Wong started her career in robotics on bit of a smaller scale, working with micro robots. She came to the U.S. from Hong Kong for college and first started studying robots as an undergraduate at Cornell University. She responded to an engineering email her sister forwarded looking for students to work on vibrating particle robots. She was encouraged to apply by the wording of the ad, targeting underrepresented students and students with no background in robotics. From this experience she learned how to design a robotic system as well as design and run experiments. This piqued her interest in research and robotics and she went on to receive graduate degrees in engineering from the University of Pennsylvania in the robotics laboratory of Dr. Vijay Kumar. She entitled her thesis: Actuation, Sensing and Control for Micro Bio Robots. She notes that “biology is the best model for finding super small organisms that are well designed for things we’d like robots to do.” Dr. Wong says that working with genetically engineered bacteria that respond to sensor input, such as light, felt like being inside a “science fiction story.”

Dr. Wong initially found it a challenge going from researching microscale robotics to developing aerial robotics, since microscale robots involve different physics than aerial robots. The coding done in research is different than writing commercial code that needs to be more stable and interact with code written by others. In addition, research is a more solitary endeavor and Dr. Wong is now enjoying being on a team at Exyn and having a support network of people all working toward the same goal. She has learned a lot from this experience including how willing colleagues are to help if you ask. She advises anyone thinking of changing careers — 

 “don’t overthink it! It’s never too late to try something new!”

There is so much about digital technology that Dr. Wong enjoys, such as being able to solve problems that couldn’t be solved before and discovering new information from the large quantities of data that digital technology enables us to collect and analyze. New types of sensors allow humans to “see” things impossible for humans alone. For anyone interested in robotics, she advises students to look to the Internet.

 “There’s a lot of open source hardware and software, such as Arduino, that you can get experience and try out in a low risk way some of the common tools in the industry. Get experience with tinkering.” 

Dr. Wong also notes that it is equally important to understand the human-user interface, i.e. “how will a non-technical human interact with the robot?”, as well as other computing topics such as networking. She hopes that many people will consider robotics as a career. “Robotics is a great field with many, many opportunities!”

Teaching Teachers: How Harvey Mudd professor Colleen Lewis shares CS teaching tips for inclusivity with educators around the world

Colleen Lewis ● McGregor-Girand Associate Professor of Computer Science ● Harvey Mudd College

Colleen Lewis ● McGregor-Girand Associate Professor of Computer Science ● Harvey Mudd College

Colleen Lewis’s career in STEM began as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, when she met a charismatic friend in a physics class.

“She was going to be a computer science major. We started studying together, and she said to me, ‘Colleen, next semester I’m taking this CS class, take it with me? I said no that’s only for smart people, obviously not for me.’ But she is the most stubborn person that I know, so she got me into it kicking and screaming. I ended up loving the content of that first semester.”

The next semester Colleen decided to take another computer science class, without this friend and with decidedly less stellar results. She had to drop the class to avoid failing the class, and when she took it the next semester, she got 5/25 on her first exam.

“At that point, my friends might have thought, ‘maybe you’re not cut out for this.’ But later I did my PhD at Berkeley and taught that data structures class three times. Things can take time to learn, and that’s okay. We have to be really careful about the advice we give ourselves and our friends — even in cases like mine where it seemed that CS obviously wasn’t for me.”

As the McGregor-Girand Associate Professor of computer science at Harvey Mudd College, Colleen’s memories of her early experiences as a beginner in CS help inform her current work on CS education and reducing bias. Her project CSTeachingTips.org is a resource for educators at all levels who teach computer science hoping to create inclusive learning environments.

“Some tips for department inclusivity would be to listen to students, design an intro course that is welcoming regardless of students’ level of prior CS exposure, and to monitor performance patterns, looking for canaries in the coal mine.”

The CS Teaching Tips website includes printable tip sheets on subjects like encouraging help seeking, pair programming, lecturing, and more, with videos and example language by every tip to help guide educators. The tip sheet on department inclusivity reads,

“Have experienced and effective educators teach the introductory courses. This can lead to students finding the department welcoming and supportive. To address differences in preparation, you can encourage students with prior CS experience to skip the first course or offering multiple introductory courses. In addition to providing curriculum customized to their level of experience, students might be less intimidated if everyone in the classroom shares their background.”

For many educators who are committed to prioritizing diversity but unsure of exactly how to make that a reality, the website provides concrete and actionable steps that can be implemented right away.

At some schools, the tips are already visible in action. Colleen is proud of the way Harvey Mudd has fostered student community, showed students the breadth of CS as a discipline, optimized the introductory course, and encouraged students to seek help. She says that about half of her students and faculty colleagues identify as women. This is important for creating a diverse community and set of role models. She also speaks about how recognizing sexism must go part and parcel with recognizing interlinked forms of oppression.

“I think it’s important that computer scientists understand how the world works, including systems of oppression like sexism and racism. As a white woman, I think it is my responsibility to push back against the tendency for some ‘diversity and inclusion’ efforts to focus exclusively on White women. There is a tendency to treat white women as the norm and forget that sexism and racism are deeply interconnected.”

Her advice for young women who might want to follow in her footsteps comes from her time slogging through that first data structures class in Berkeley.

“Debug the process. The first time I took data structures, it didn’t go well. I would go to the lab, but wouldn’t know what to do, and I wouldn’t ask for help. Turns out that’s not a great way to learn. A lot of it was pushing through the anxiety of not knowing.”

Ultimately, Colleen’s advice to “debug the process” and be okay with uncertainty isn’t just good advice for studying CS — it’s good advice for life.


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Written by Adora Svitak, Wogrammer Journalism Fellow. These stories are proudly told in partnership with AnitaB.org in a joint effort to showcase the inspiring women in STEM at the 2019 ASU/GSV Summit.