People of ACM - Patti Ordonez

July 6, 2021

What is an exciting project related to biomedical data science you are working on now?
I have been working with a graduate student who is in the lab of biology researcher and Circadian Rhythm expert José Agosto Rivera to cluster and classify the circadian rhythm of bees caught in the wild in Puerto Rico. The project is one of the first of its kind. My student has always been a bit of a hacker, but combining her hacking with her research in Biology was a refreshing challenge. We met at a Design Thinking workshop for the National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded Increasing Diversity in Interdisciplinary Big to Knowledge (IDI-BD2K) grant. We have been working together ever since. She joined me for a Data Carpentry training at Georgia Tech, where we both became instructors—she in R and I in Python.

Since then, we have been working on the problem of clustering and classifying bee behavior and creating more Biology hackers like her. These Puerto Rican bees are very social, and social insects can help inform about human circadian rhythms because their circadian circuitry is similar to that of mammals, and they, like us, have complex social interactions. They can help us understand how human social time may affect our body’s internal clock. She will be graduating this summer with her Master’s in Biology and heading to the University of California Davis to take her computation and biology skills to complete a doctorate in behavioral biology.

What made you decide to pursue a PhD in Computer Science after having worked as a K-12 math teacher? What was an important lesson you learned from this career transition?
Many of my 9-12-grade students inspired me to learn more about the internet and computing because they were so enthusiastic about it. They debunked the myths and stereotypes that I had in my head that computer science was only for math geniuses because I taught them math and I knew that most of them did not fit the stereotype. The other thing that concerned me was that girls were not taking the computer science courses and very few were in the computer science club. When I was in high school, I took my first programming class in Basic and it was all women because I went to an all-girls’ school, so seeing so few girls in these classes and clubs was bothersome. I, on the other hand, had been very good in math in middle and high school and liked the computing class so much that when I started college, I declared myself as an electrical engineering major. However, when I took my first programming class in college (Minicomputers), it intimidated me so much that I switched majors to Mathematics. I remember asking a question and the professor’s reply was, “You should know that by now.” I finished the class and received a grade of C for the first time in my life. My experiences at the time made me believe I would never excel in this field.

Fast forward to 1999: I left my job at a startup software company, disillusioned once again with the tech world. I decided to start the new century on a backpacking trip through Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil. Everywhere I went in South America—no matter how remote or poor—had an internet café. My passion for tech was born again. I also realized my privilege. Many folks here would never be able to travel in the way I was travelling, because the devaluation of the local money made travel extraordinarily expensive. I also realized that being white and having a blue passport and US dollars allowed me to enter parts of countries that its own citizens could not. I saw the potential of computing to change all of that. My mission for broadening participation in computing in Latin America was born there.

I returned and found a job with a startup technical training company founded by Michael Saltzman and Susan Schneider. Within three to four months, my employer was teaching me to program, and he said, “I think you have an aptitude for programming.” Not only did he and his business partner (and wife) pay for my education at night, but he also mentored me through my classes. They allowed me to study on the job and become a technical trainer of programming languages and web technologies. I knew I wanted a degree in Computer Science, but my passion for biomedical research came from my parents and grandfather. I could see the potential of computing in the field of medicine when I saw a program on converting CT scans into three dimensions, but I did not think it was for me until I was in graduate school and took a course created by a female professor, Marie desJardins, about research basics for Computer Science. She also fueled my passion for artificial intelligence. It is very important for women to see women as leaders in the technologies they want to develop.

The greatest lesson I learned from this transition was the importance of mentors. I stand on the shoulders of great mentors—men and women, black, white and brown—who believed in me when I couldn’t. There were no Latina computer scientists on my path. It was their voices that I listened to and gave precedence to in my head to move ahead. They know who they are, and I would like to thank all of them for believing in me when I was not able to. I am grateful that my doctoral dissertation advisor, Tim Oates, could see the value and potential of biomedical data science before it existed. I must also mention the PROMISE program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) because it is also important to see people who are succeeding in academia and getting PhDs who do not look like you or like your stereotypes. Through PROMISE, I had an academic family that was mostly African-American, thus helping me break the ones I had about them and myself.

Will you give an example of an assistive technology for programming and communication you have worked on to improve the accessibility of computing?
The focus of my research in assistive technology has been to create a voice programming language that can be translated into any language: procedural, object-oriented, functional. That language would consist of many constructs that most all-purpose programming languages have in common and basically serve as an abstraction of programming. Our target population is people who have little to no mobility in their hands or who are blind. However, I envision it as a language that could help children learn to speak and visualize code and thus become computational thinkers and problem solvers.

I am working with Keith Vertanen at Michigan Technological University to analyze how people speak code. We are doing surveys in Michigan and in Puerto Rico to see whether different native languages would influence how you speak code. We are simply trying to see whether we can improve a speech recognizer by training it to recognize spoken code. The results so far are promising.

As the CMD-IT/ACM Tapia conference celebrates 20 years, what would you say are some of the highlights of this year’s conference?
There is always the chicken dance. That is the grand finale. It really is. There is a great story about why that is, but you will have to attend to learn about it.

All kidding aside, the Tapia Conference was critical for me because I got to see for the first time the social science behind what I was experiencing in the classroom and throughout my career in technology. I met so many Latinas and Latinos in computing. There are so many diversity, equity and inclusion efforts that have brought me here from ACM-W, CRA-WP, CMD-IT, and NSF.

This year at Tapia, to celebrate the 20 years since the first conference, we will have a panel of former General Chairs talk about it from a historical perspective. As always, we have a series of outstanding keynote speakers that aim to inspire everyone and to serve as role models for students from our target communities. This year we have Cecilia Aragon, the first Latina full professor at the University of Washington, an HCI researcher, co-founder of Latinas in Computing, and an aerobatic pilot; Omar Florez, a machine learning researcher at Twitter Cortex examining algorithmic bias; Jenny Lay Flurrie, Chief Accessibility Officer at Microsoft, speaking about the intersectionality of being a woman of color with a disability; and John Bennett Herrington, a retired United States Naval Aviator, engineer and former NASA astronaut who in 2002 became the first enrolled member of a Native American tribe to fly in space. We are elated to recognize Jamika Burge, HCI researcher and co-founder of the Coalition for Diversity in Computing, BlackComputeHer and Black Girls Rock! Tech Summit, as the recipient of the 2021 Richard A. Tapia Achievement Award for Scientific Scholarship, Civic Science and Diversifying Computing. All of the speakers represent the target communities we support: African-Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native/Indigenous Americans and People with Disabilities.

One of the best parts of Tapia is its focus on creating connections and community. Connections to resources and leaders you might not have at your colleges and universities and community with people who look like you in computing that are in small numbers in your department or company. Leaders from companies, colleges and universities are eager to work with you and see you succeed. We always offer great opportunities for professional development, no matter what career path you take. We have focused areas in academia, industry, and government, with various tracks addressing broadening participation, professional development and technology. We also have many sessions in computer science education and outreach, as well as sessions in topics that are very relevant and empowering for our historically marginalized communities in computing, such as algorithmic bias and stereotype threat. The conference also has sessions on current technical topics such as data science, artificial intelligence/machine learning, human-computer interaction, and quantum computing. Our Birds of a Feather (BoF) track focuses on creating communities of students and professionals with common interests and experiences. One of our well-recognized BoFs is Hispanics in Computing, which has grown more inclusive over time to become a mailing list of over 300 Hispanics in computing. This year, since we are going virtual, it will be a more of an intimate setting. We know people are tired of being online, so we have created an Engagement Committee to come up with creative activities that will build community and speak to the times in which we are living.

As incoming Co-chair, in what areas would you like to see the ACM Diversity & Inclusion Council become more active?

I would like the ACM Diversity & Inclusion Council to be more active in promoting research that bridges the data and digital divide locally and globally. The pandemic has demonstrated the chasm that exists and I believe the Council is in a position to be a leader in addressing the problem through the field of computing.

Patricia (Patti) Ordóñez is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at the University of Puerto Rico Río Piedras. Her research focuses on applying visual analytics, data mining, machine learning, visualization, and human-computer interaction to medicine and assistive technologies. One of her goals is to help medical providers create better diagnosis and treatment plans by learning from the data of previous patients with similar conditions. As one of her initiatives in this area, Ordóñez founded the Symposium of Health Informatics for Latin America and the Caribbean. Among her honors, she was named a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow.

Ordóñez followed a nontraditional path to earning her PhD in Computer Science, after having worked for many years as a math and Spanish K-12 teacher. She is passionate about diversifying the field of computer science, and mentors and develops mentoring communities in K-12, undergraduate and graduate educational settings. She also creates assistive technologies for programming and communication to help ensure computing is accessible to all. Ordóñez is the Program Chair for the 2021 CMD-IT/ACM Richard A. Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing Conference, which will be held from September 14-17. She also recently began a term as the Co-chair of ACM’s Diversity & Inclusion Council.