South African roots, travel shape computer scientist’s research

November 30, 2020
Katrina Miller

Marshini Chetty wasn’t always sure what she wanted to be, but she knew she wanted to see the world. 

“Travel broadens my worldview and makes me appreciative of different perspectives,” she says. Now an assistant professor in the computer science department at the University of Chicago, Chetty grew up in South Africa and attended college at the University of Cape Town. 

Chetty sits on top of Table Top Mountain in Cape Town, SA. Other mountains are visible behind her
Marshini Chetty on Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa

Originally, she had planned to study medicine, but the spark just wasn’t there. “Computing sounded really interesting,” says Chetty, “And I knew that I could travel with it, so I tried it out.” 

Despite not yet knowing how to code, Chetty found natural passion and talent as a computer science major. “I liked it a lot, and I was very good at it,” she says. “So I thought: how can I do more of this?” 

It was then that she found what would become her life-long academic endeavor: “I was introduced to human-computer interaction, and that’s when the fire was really lit in me. Human-computer interaction is the art of designing technology that can integrate well into people’s everyday lives.”

A nomadic journey

That fire served as fuel for her to chase this newfound passion around the world. After graduating from the University of Cape Town with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science, she won a Fulbright scholarship to study in the United States, a ticket to a land of new experiences on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. 

Chetty enrolled in a computer science PhD program at Georgia Institute of Technology, where she continued studying human-computer interaction. During her time as a PhD student, she also explored research in the tech industry. “I interned three times at Microsoft Research in the UK, in South Africa, and at their office in Seattle. I also had the opportunity to intern at IBM Research in New York,” she says. 

Chetty poses across the river from New York City with her hand positioned over a tall building
Chetty across from New York City

Not only did this provide Chetty with more chances to travel, it exposed her to what human-computer interaction research looked like in a different setting. “I really enjoyed it, but I just liked academia more,” she says, noting that she values working with students and having the freedom to pursue a research agenda of her own making. 

After earning her PhD, Chetty continued on with postdoctoral research at Georgia Tech, then back home in Cape Town, before joining the ranks at the University of Maryland as a faculty member. She moved to Princeton a few years later and finally found a home in the UChicago computer science department last summer. 

A self-proclaimed “unintentional nomad,” Chetty's travels have shaped her identity as a computer scientist for the better. “I can appreciate different ways of doing things,” she says. “That makes me a better collaborator, as well as a better colleague.”  

‘Making the internet a more inclusive place’

Here at UChicago, Chetty leads the Amyoli Internet Research (AIR) LabAmyoli is a name in Xhosa, a South African language, that means “the clan is happy.” In the AIR lab, this name encompasses various forms of positivity, including friendship, joy, and optimism. 

“My work is very much focused on people,” explains Chetty, when asked about the research she leads. “What do people need? What do they want out of technology? And how can we meet those needs?” 

The answers to these questions are quite broad, allowing researchers in the AIR Lab to study a wide variety of topics. They target everything from how internet users interact with misinformation online, to the safe usage of smart home devices, to the development of tools for children to learn the basics of online privacy and security. 

Chetty also devotes much of her research to improving the internet user experience for what she calls “resource-constrained” populations, such as marginalized and low-income communities. “My work is also very much focused on making the internet a more inclusive place,” she says. 

This particular goal stems from personal experience: Chetty grew up under apartheid, a legal system of racial division in South Africa not unlike the Jim Crow laws of the US’s not-so-distant past. “I saw what it meant to be historically excluded, because I myself was historically excluded and marginalized in my own country,” she recalls. “Because of that background, it’s very important for me to try and make impact in whatever way I can to help people overcome these challenges.”

One way to do this is by creating resources that provide people with more agency over the experience they have online. Recently, Chetty’s group released a free browser extension called AdIntuition, which alerts users when YouTube videos they watch contain affiliate marketing. This tool promotes transparency when browsing online by giving users a sense of awareness for otherwise disguised advertising.

The human side of science

Two adults hold the hands of two children with their backs to the camera and walk on a beach
Chetty with family in Cape Town, South Africa

As much as her work bridges the gap between science and humanity, her existence as a professor does as well. Chetty emphasizes that being a computer scientist is only one part of her identity. She is a world-traveler, a runner, and an avid reader and Netflix watcher. “I’m also a woman, a person of color, and a mother,” she says. 

And while an academic career is usually deemed difficult to balance with family life, Chetty offers a new perspective, pointing out that it actually makes her more a productive scientist: “I think carefully about how to balance my working life and my personal life. I work very hard to be efficient during the day to make sure that I have down time to refresh, especially so that I can spend time with my kids.” Laughing, she adds, “Because I like my kids!”

Chetty leans on her travels, identities, and lived experiences to make her a better computer scientist, family member, and human being.

“You have one life, and it’s very short and unpredictable,” she says, reflecting on how she has redefined what a scientific career looks like. “So, you might as well make the most of it.”

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