Interview with Julie Kmec on her prestigious Amazon Catalyst Grant and VR research

A front facing photo of Julie Kmec, from the shoulders up. She is looking into the camera and smiling.
Julie Kmec

In 2019, Professor Julie Kmec and her collaborators were awarded a prestigious Amazon Catalyst Grant. The partnership between WSU and Amazon supports the development of novel solutions to problems, aiming for global impact. Kmec and her team, Cross-Cultural Optics, were awarded a grant to develop an innovative virtual reality environment that will allow women engineers in the United States to explore the experience of women engineers in other countries. While U.S. women hold 24% of engineering degrees and represent even less of the engineering labor force, in other countries, such as Malaysia, Jorden, and Tunisia, women engineers are as equally represented as men.

Kmec was part of a team that won a National Science Foundation grant in 2016 to conduct focus groups with women in engineering in countries where men and women are at parity. The findings from that research are a key component of the VR (virtual reality) world her team is creating. Kmec and her team recently applied for another NSF grant to continue this research.

In the interview below, Kmec discusses the details of this innovative project. An initial interview was conducted last spring by Alana Inlow, the previous co-editor of Sociology News. Sadie Ridgeway, the current co-editor, contacted Kmec this fall to see how the project has developed.

Ed. Note: Interviews were lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Alana: What was the inspiration behind applying for the Amazon grant and what’s your current activity on the project?

Julie: We were inspired to apply for the grant because we have all this wonderful qualitative data from women in STEM and engineering fields from Malaysia, Tunisia, and Jordan, and it’s a lot for the public to consume. So we thought, how can we convey these women’s stories to individuals in the United States in a non-academic paper? We think we have important things to tell women who are engineers and other STEM scientists.

The Amazon Catalyst call said you had to produce something innovative and show its capacity to impact people. As a sociologist I was thinking, I don’t produce things, I produce ideas and papers, and that’s not what they wanted. At first we brainstormed, what kind of product can we create? Working with engineers they went right to VR. We were thinking, how can we use VR to convey to people what we are doing, and how would it be different than if we just set up a website they can visit?—because we feel like that’s not very interactive and there’s so many out there that it gets lost. We wanted to build a world where women in the U.S. could go and observe engineering that’s different because in these three countries women are at parity or just slightly more present in engineering fields than our women in the U.S. We wanted the U.S. women to hear these other women talking, hear their stories, and we developed the virtual reality world for this to happen.

We proposed this to Amazon and we have no idea how to do this necessarily. And then I was out at a friend’s house for dinner, and my husband called me over to meet this guy, because Jean-Marc (University of Idaho) is this VR expert. So we started talking, and I said, “You need to join our project because you have the skills, we have the data, but we don’t know how to make it into a VR world.” So four months later we got the grant, and we began working with him and Ian McGrath (graduate student at the University of Idaho).

An image of the VR space showing a cityscape, an image of a women in the center, and the floating themes on the left side of the image.
Screen capture of the beta VR space described by Julie

What we’ve developed so far is we’re going to have users be in this lobby and they’ll be on-boarded onto what’s going to happen. They’ll be told by a virtual “us,” sitting on a sofa, about the questions we asked the women in these countries. We might give them statistics on the countries, such as the proportion of women in engineering, and then they’re going to walk into a room with a table, coffee pot, and a couple of notebooks, and they’ll see in front of them a cityscape of one of the cities, and to their left, they’ll see scrolling words, which are our themes. And the woman in the United States, who is in the virtual world, will be able to pull a theme she finds interesting. For instance, one of our themes may be “impact of gender in engineering,” and she will say, “I want to know about that.” She takes it off the wall, puts it on her notebook, and then from the notebook our categories will pop out. So one of them might be “engineering women get discriminated against.” She’ll put it off to the side, hear more about that, and when she clicks on that again, an icon of a video, book, or an audio symbol will pop up, and if she clicks on the video, she’ll see and hear a short video of a woman in one of these countries talking about her experience related to the category. If she clicks on the book, it’ll be some narrative that she can read, and if she clicks on the microphone, then she’ll be able to hear the story that the woman is telling about that theme and that category.

Jean-Marc is really interested in collecting data on the users’ experience, and we’re interested in taking the information we learn and ultimately passing it on to employers. That’s the other thing we had proposed in the Catalyst Grant, they wanted to know how you can apply what you make to other places. So we decided that whatever the women are talking about and find interesting might be a relevant point for HR people or employers to know about. So they’ll take the ideas that interest them most, put them in that notebook, and carry it out to the lobby. Then we’ll have the data. We can see what interests them, we might do some exit interviews, and we’ll have our project.

Alana: It’s amazing. I can’t even, it’s so out of the realm…

Julie: If you had asked me a year ago if I would be doing this, I would have said no. I had never done VR, but I visited the lab over at UI and they let me do it and it was so interesting. We hope that by getting engaged—more than just reading a news article or a website or something like that—it will resonate with the women. They’ll recognize, because this happens in our data, that women elsewhere suffer from a lot of the same problems that women in the United States do, but their solutions to them or the situation they’re in comes out differently. That’s why there are so many women in engineering there. So we’re interested in that and hoping that, in expanding the VR project, we might think better about how women in the U.S. can utilize the data.

Fall 2020 update

Sadie: Please update us regarding the project.

Julie: We’ve connected with our colleagues in Malaysia and they are presently doing recordings that will be integrated into the VR space. Aziz Dridi, a graduate student at Purdue University in the department of engineering education, is the contact between the U.S. and Malaysia.

Sadie: And you just submitted another NSF grant?

Julie: Yes, and we’re taking what we’re doing in the Amazon project and using it as the beta test of our VR space. With the Catalyst Grant, we were able to make a much stronger case for what we wanted to do because we have all this data from women in several countries and this platform that we’ve developed. If we didn’t have the Amazon Catalyst, I don’t think we would have a big chance of getting the grant. It’s hard to describe, and people could be like, “Can you really do that?”

Sadie: It’s so different and innovative. It sounds like it would be such a powerful experience, seeing the data in that way.

Julie: We had to make the case in the NSF grant why the traditional methods of getting information from women have largely been qualitative interviews or surveys and we don’t think they capture the important things that VR can do. Jean-Marc and Alejandra Magana at Purdue, she’s another VR theory expert, they’ve understood that what you collect and see in VR is different, you can see people’s facial expressions, the length of time they spend looking at something, and the empathy people develop with the content in VR. In our grant application, we talk about why we are using it instead of other things. We couldn’t just say we’re using this new tool without saying theoretically why it’s different or unique.