People in Your Neighborhood: La Jolla student pursues more equity in computer science for neurodiverse

Naba Rizvi of La Jolla is a Ph.D. candidate in computer science at UC San Diego.
(Provided by Naba Rizvi)

Naba Rizvi is a computer science Ph.D. candidate at UCSD who has been recognized for her work in disability inclusion in artificial intelligence applications, specifically for people who are autistic and neurodivergent.


Although Naba Rizvi is in her late 20s, she does have some advice for her younger self. She’d tell her 21-year-old self to disregard an ex-boyfriend who told her that computer science was “too hard” for women, and she’d tell teenage Naba to ignore the idea that she doesn’t “look like” a scientist simply because she enjoys things that are considered feminine, like the color pink.

“As a ‘girly girl’ who loves pink, women like me face negative stereotyping and are frequently made to feel like we don’t belong in my field,” said Rizvi, a La Jolla resident. “For example, a few years ago, I watched a commercial aired at the Super Bowl promoting gender inclusion in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] that said ‘I am sick of pink, I want to think.’ People seem to believe that femininity somehow impedes people’s ability to be great scientists, and to me this is a great reminder that such stereotypes are simply untrue. I hope the next generation of girls are not raised to believe feminine people cannot make great scientists.”

As a current Ph.D. student in computer science and engineering at UC San Diego, she has focused her work on making artificial intelligence applications more accessible to people with autism. As someone who is neurodiverse herself, she’s spoken on multiple neurodiversity panels, worked on engineering and research projects centering accessibility, implicit bias in health care, and gender inclusion in politics.

Her work has been recognized by the National Center for Women and Information Technology, Google, Amazon and late last year as a CSEdWeek Computer Science Hero, which advocates for equity in computer science education, encouraging students in kindergarten through 12th grade to pursue computer science careers and celebrating those making contributions in the field.

Rizvi, who lives with her partner, Khalil Mrini, took some time to talk about her work:

Q. How did you first become interested in pursuing a career in computer science?

A. I took career advice from a random stranger in a coffee shop. I had already tried many other fields, such as political science, but didn’t feel fulfilled. Growing up, I didn’t see many scientists or engineers who looked like me, so I never even considered a career in computer science would be right for me. Now I cannot imagine myself doing anything else!

Q. Can you tell us about some of the challenges you’ve dealt with in pursuit of your education and career in computer science and engineering and how you overcame them?

A. As a neurodivergent woman of color and first-generation college student, I frequently heard remarks like “People like you don’t graduate college.” Even the statistics are disheartening, as people with my disability only have a 5 percent college graduation rate. At my first hackathon, I even had a male judge say, “It took you 36 hours to make this?” Although such remarks did hurt me, I was fortunate to find a great community of supportive peers and mentors who believed in me. Through their support and perseverance, I continued working hard. Today, I am proudly working toward a Ph.D. at one of the top universities in the world.

Q. Why is equity in computer science education important to you? What kind of difference does it make?

A. Six years ago, I didn’t even know what computer scientists did for a living. Growing up, I never saw anyone like me going into the field, so I never considered it as a career option. Today, my ideas are making an impact at the largest tech companies in the world, like Google, Microsoft and Adobe! Equity in computer science is important to me because technology impacts every aspect of our lives today. From communication to travel, education, health care, music and even fashion, technology is ubiquitous. Since technology impacts every community, it is important to ensure diverse voices are represented in their design and development to avoid causing harm to minority communities. When we aren’t careful or inclusive, technology exacerbates existing inequalities in our society.

Q. Your primary area of research is in health equity and disability inclusion in artificial intelligence, particularly for people with autism and neurodivergence. How did you come to the decision to focus your work in those areas?

A. My grandfather lost his battle to cancer, as many doctors dismissed his pain and did not even diagnose him until the cancer had become terminal. As well, since my family are refugees, it was very difficult for me to even get the genetic screening for cancer, despite losing several family members, as people like me often struggle to document our family history. This caused me to develop an interest in health equity, as it directly impacted the lives of people I love dearly. I am also interested in neurodiversity because I am neurodivergent myself and have personally witnessed and experienced the struggles we face in our society.

Q. In working with neurodivergent and autism communities, what have you learned about their needs in relation to artificial intelligence, and how has that shaped your work?

A. Autism often gets treated like an illness that needs to be “cured,” despite activists, scholars and community leaders warning us about the harms of this approach. Through my work, I am hoping to challenge these conventional beliefs by treating autism as a difference that must be accounted for in the design of technologies.

Q. What are you looking at and thinking about in terms of the design of AI apps for autistic users? How is it different for neurodivergent users?

A. Neurodiversity causes individuals to experience the world differently, which means they may have different sensory and communication needs that must be taken into consideration. Affective computing is a great example of an area where neurodiverse users have been historically underrepresented or misrepresented. Due to this, AI apps that use affective computing, such as talent acquisition software, have been known to be biased against neurodivergent users. Concerns toward such technologies are so serious that even the U.S. government has tried addressing them in recent years.

Q. Can you talk about your approach to understanding autism?

A. During my internship with Microsoft Research in summer 2020, I worked with Dr. Andrew Begel, who really helped shaped my research today. Our project focused on teaching non-autistic people how to interact with their autistic colleagues, thus flipping the burden, as traditionally, autistic people are the ones expected to adapt to neurotypical social norms. Through this project, I realized that unless we start designing accessible technologies for autism the same way we do for other disabilities, we will never really make progress toward an inclusive view of neurodiversity in our field. Through my work, I have found most technologies for autism focus on “diagnosing” or “treating” it, and I believe that’s part of the problem.

Q. What inspires you in the computer science work you’re doing?

A. Seeing the direct impact that technology has on people’s lives is a humbling reminder of the importance of the work we do as computer scientists.

Q. What is rewarding about it?

A. I have had the opportunity to give back in so many different ways, from volunteering at local high schools to organizing workshops and even speaking at various events. It is rewarding to be able to inspire the next generation of youth to consider a career in computer science.

Q. What has your work in computer science taught you about yourself?

A. I never realized how intelligent and resilient I was until I started programming.

Q. What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

A. Find your people and stay close to them. ◆