Interview Series

Diversity in STEM with Leilani Battle

IEEE Computer Society
Published 08/30/2021
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The Diversity and Inclusion Task Force presents Diversity in STEM, with Leilani Battle, Assistant Professor in the Paul G. Allen School for Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington.

We are thrilled to bring you our discussion on her career growth, overcoming challenges, and how volunteering with IEEE Computer Society has given her a global perspective to computing.

Why did you choose your current technical field?

Leilani BattleI chose computer science out of my love for video games growing up. I thought I would become a game designer or game developer. However, once I started taking computer science courses, I saw more opportunities to use those same skills in other ways. I did industry internships and research internships during my bachelors degree at the University of Washington. I realized that I had way more fun doing research. When I started mentoring undergraduate researchers as a PhD student at MIT, I found my calling and eventually became a professor. I’ve been mentoring students in research ever since.

What’s been your greatest challenge and your greatest reward in your professional career?

Leilani BattleMy greatest challenge has been learning to communicate my ideas, insights, and research findings to others. For example, I struggled with technical writing throughout my PhD. I needed lots of extra support, including help from the MIT writing center and through an additional writing course at MIT (thank you Dr. Boiko!). But I never gave up. I continued to work on my technical communication skills and now I have a strong CV of published research. My greatest reward has been moving back home to join the faculty at the University of Washington, where I can continue to do the work I love and be close to my family at the same time.

What’s the one piece of advice you would give to early career professionals?

Leilani BattleMy advice is to become “gritty,” as Angela Duckworth would put it. Grit is a critical part of professional success, regardless of industry or occupation. It’s not the only factor, but it is an influential factor within our control. Passion develops over time. When paired with perseverance, passion makes you gritty. It’s hard to know when to give up on a chosen career path. My advice is to stick with it a bit longer and take the perspective that passion may develop later, once you have sufficiently built up your skillset.

Who is one role model who you personally admire and why?

Leilani BattleEveryone should have lots of role models. There are so many incredible people we can learn from! I have tremendous respect and admiration for Black women writing science fiction, such as award-winning authors Octavia Butler and N.K. Jemisin. These women are literary geniuses who dared to dream big technological dreams centering on the experiences of Black women. Their bravery and creativity reminds me to nurture and trust my own curiosity every day. I also love to watch athletes at the top of their sports. One athlete I admire is Naomi Osaka, who like me is Black and Asian. Seeing Osaka simultaneously dominate women’s tennis and advocate for members of marginalized groups inspires me to do my very best work and uplift the communities around me as part of that work.

What advice would you give to someone seeking a mentor or more professional guidance?

Leilani BattleThis book definitely has its limitations (Roxane Gay’s review comes to mind here), but I found Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In to be very helpful in answering this question. Sandberg recommends recruiting mentors to help you address specific problems you encounter in your work or career, such as reaching out to a senior person to help you weigh a specific career move, or asking a senior colleague for feedback on one of your projects or how you are leading your current team at work. This approach has worked well for me.



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What book are you currently reading?

Leilani BattleI prefer to listen to audiobooks. I am currently listening to And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. Before that, I listened to Kindred by Octavia Butler. My favorite science fiction series is the Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin.

What was your first job?

Leilani BattleI landed my first job in high school. I worked at Papa Murphy’s, a restaurant chain in the US that serves pizzas that people pick up and bake at home. I worked the cash register, made pizzas, and occasionally helped close the restaurant for the night. I learned a lot about responsibility, money, time management, and how to make better pizzas.

About Leilani Battle:


Leilani Battle is an Assistant Professor in the Paul G. Allen School for Computer Science and Engineering. She was previously an Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, where she led the Battle Data Lab. Her research interests focus on developing interactive data-intensive systems that can aid analysts in performing complex data exploration and analysis. Her current research is anchored in the field of databases, but utilizes research methodology and techniques from HCI and visualization to integrate data processing (databases) with interactive interfaces (HCI, visualization). Prof. Battle was named one of the 35 Innovators Under 35 by the MIT Technology Review in 2020. She is also an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Recipient (2012), and her research is currently supported by an Adobe research award, a VMWare Early Career Faculty Grant, an NSF CISE CRII Award (2019-2021) and ORAU Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty Enhancement Award (2019-2020). In 2017, she completed a postdoc in the UW Interactive Data Lab. She holds an MS (2013) and PhD (2017) in Computer Science from MIT, where she was a member of the MIT Database Group, and a BS in Computer Engineering from UW (2011), where she was a member of the UW database group.


Read more interviews from computing thought leaders:
Bhavani Thuraisingham | Ayanna Howard | Pierangela Samarati


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