Ph.D. Adventures!

A Minority (A Personal Rant and My Hope for the Future!)

As a female in games and an engineer to boot, I am in an extreme minority. I rarely see and interact with women in my field. This is a travesty! Women gamers now make up 40% of the market. Where are the female developers? I think part of the problem is in not encouraging women into the games field, and also not fully supporting women in their many roles, especially when they enter this extremely male-dominated field. An example of the latter is not providing maternity leave for Ph.D. students. I believe that women have every right and should have all the support to pursue both career and family goals. If you don’t support women in both areas, you’re not supporting her! I hope as a woman determined to pursue both family and career desires, to be a model that other women can see and find encouragement through: that it can be done! You don’t have to sacrifice one for the other! I hope to find this true! I hope that schools will reform their leave policies to provide pay for female students on maternity leave, especially in STEM fields! I am a firm believer: if there is a will there is a way! And I believe that being a woman in games should not be a hard, lonely experience. (Shout out to all the men and women who have supported me in my role, especially my mom who role-modeled to me that a woman can do anything!)

Ph.D. Adventures!

Understanding Literature Reviews, Game Genre Trends, Psychotherapy Games (Ph.D. Year 1, Fall Week 14-15)

TLDR:

I computed the literature review cycle and have begun to code and exclude papers based on their abstracts. My Data Vis course team finished a visualization for game genre trends (check it out!), and my HCI group finished up an MTurk survey and created a poster based on our academic results from our literature review, interviews, and the survey. Three final projects down, two exams, a lit review draft, a scholarship to apply for, and one last final project to go: and that’s just the next 7 days!

For the Interested Reader:

Accomplishments

Lit Review

I have learned a lot about Zotero, scientific paper databases, and literature reviews these past two weeks. I understand now why there aren’t very many literature reviews. I pulled al the papers that I want (just over 100), and now I need to code (i.e. categorize) them and exclude several because in order to pull relevant papers from certain databases I had to be more lenient with my search terms (e.g. I removed a “forced” term to include more papers) and as a bi-product I now also have more papers that are not relevant to my research question. Rogelio gave me great feedback last week and suggested I aim for a first-pass read through draft by end of the semester which I feel is doable.

To give you an idea, even with the limiting search parameters I have ended up with just over 100 papers. Let’s say it’s 100 for now. If each paper is on average 10 pages long and I exclude 15% of the papers, that is 850 pages of technical writing I need to read to write the paper. 

IEEE TOG Journal is having a special issue on serious games for health and I am wondering if they would be interested in a literature review… so at this point, I might pivot my research question to answer the special issue topic. It will be a tight deadline to hit.

Exploring Game Genre Trends

This last week my team for Data Visualization finished our project on exploring game genre trends. It was very interesting being able to go through and examine all the data with our completed visualization. I worked on the infobox, interactive (and animated) wordle, did nearly all the styling, and some supportive code structure. As a team, we designed all the visualizations and interactions together. I rather like how it turned out. You can check it out on Keith’s webpage (To launch the visualization scroll to the bottom of the page).

Psychotherapy Games

For HCI class I had the good fortune of having a team that was happy to pursue my interest in psychotherapy games. After reading over 20 articles related to the area we decided to explore, academically (not in a research capacity) the attitudes people have about games and how that may, or may not, influence their attitudes towards psychotherapy games. We conducted interviews and an MTurk questionnaire. As it wasn’t officially research I can’t share the results of our investigation (as human research has ethical standards to project participants, we would have needed to get approval of our IRB in order to share our results), but it did get me more excited about the idea of using games in psychotherapy and there is certainly plenty of room for interesting research in this area.

What’s next

Got to do these things:

  • Submit my application for Google’s Women Techmakers scholarship (Due this Friday 12/6)
  • Write up a first pass draft for my lit review (This includes completing the coding of the papers I pulled based on their abstracts) OR pivot and write a literature review for the IEEE TOG special issue
  • Survive the end of the semester: two exams and one more final project to go!
  • Finish registering for Spring 2020
  • Read the many papers that have been sent to me to read from my advisor, Julian Togelius, and my peers.

Roadblocks

Still unsure what to fill up my spring semester with. Lots to do, not a lot of time and I am sick again — lost my voice. Should be a fun week.

 

Ph.D. Adventures!

Star Struck! Meeting Julian Togelius (Ph.D. Year 1, Fall Weeks 11-13)

Oops, life got away from me, but that’s okay! Here’s a three-week update!

TLDR:

I had a minor procedure done (all went well), I updated my website with an about me, I completed and got rejected for the HERTZ, we didn’t have time to complete the AISL, and I got great feedback and direction from Tallie the librarian for my literature review! OH, and I met Julian Togelius the editor in chief for the IEEE Transactions on Games Journal! What?!?!? 

For the Interested Reader:

Star Struck!

I should preface: I don’t usually get star struck! But when I met Julian Togelius, I definitely felt the struckness!

Julian Togelius visited our university and I had the opportunity to attend the grad luncheon. He politely, and with good humor and an upbeat spirit, listened to and engaged with us and our research areas and ideas. It was a great experience. Afterward, he emailed me personally with two papers he had written on psychotherapy games (a core interest of mine), and I got to talk to him for a bit after his talk also. I was def star-struck. It was great!

Taking Time for Me

In my last post, I talked about being a woman pursuing both career and family goals: in that pursuit, I had to take some time away from school and I fell a little behind. I am all caught up now, if not with the all-star A’s I had before, I am feeling I need to push through so as to let other women know you can do both, and it’s okay to shift from one to the other. As a doctoral student being a 4.0 isn’t as important as it used to be, though I love getting my A’s, it’s okay to let perfection in the pursuit of better, more impactful things!

Accomplishments

I got rejected from the HERTZ!

We’ll be applying to the AISL (or another related grant) next year.

I took time for my personal and family goals.

The Marriot Library has FREE research consultations for students and employees. At the suggestion of my advisor I did one, not really expecting much. Boy was a blown away! I got SUPAH great guidance feedback from Tallie the librarian on my literature review. She definitely helped me frame my research question, get to my target databases, how to save my work, emphasized the Prisma (which I think will be a fun visual to include in my paper), and was in general fun to talk to and very supportive.

What’s next

Got to do these things:

  • Start the meat of the literature review: downloading, reading, and writing
  • Survive the end of the semester
  • Register for Spring 2020
  • Read the many papers that have been sent to me to read from my advisor, Julian Togelius, and my peers.

Roadblocks

I’m burnt out from the semester. My classes are only slightly related to my area of research and I’m getting really tired of reading and doing writeups on papers that aren’t even remotely related to my core area of interest. There’s a reason I didn’t go into writing, as much as I loved being an editor and journalist, I get really bored when writing and reading is all I do all day. This semester has been one very long reading-writing session. I’m all burnt out.

I need to work with Rogelio on what my schedule is going to look like next semester and how my work this semester can be carried into my lab rotation with Eliane next semester: I’m excited to see what we can possibly collaborate on.

Ph.D. Adventures!

Being Mom (Ph.D. Year 1, Fall Week 10)

TLDR:

Being Mom and doctoral student last week was a success! Refined my search terms for my systematic review. Worked on the HERTZ. Got my schoolwork done. Did well on my exam.

The Full Story:

If I thought last week was busy… well, I knew this week would be worse.

Accomplishments

Being step bonus mom while doing my Ph.D. last week was successful! I think the kids would have preferred to play with me more, but it’s good for them to see my work ethics too. My advisor and group members for projects were all very supportive of my need to be with the kids, and since I also accomplished my tasks at hand, and even went the extra mile, no one was complaining. Of course, going the extra mile isn’t always feasible, but I always get my work done and I always make time for my family. This last week was a busy one, and being able to juggle family and school life, a first for me, showed to me that we can do it and there is no reason why not.

Research / School-related accomplishments

  • Refined my list of search terms for systematic review.
  • Got my four recommenders for the HERTZ
    • Note to self: ask for recommendations WA-AY sooner!
  • Getting better at the academic paper reading, finding, reviewing, analyzing. 

I almost quit my application for the HERTZ when I realized last week I hadn’t asked for letters of recommendation and they are due this week. Rogelio my advisor encouraged another member of our lab to got for a grant. She decided to drop it, but I knew he’d say the same things to me (to go for it!), so I took that as encouragement, swallowed my pride, and prepared to need to profusely apologize to the people I was asking so late, which I did. It was a lesson that I need to be more on top of next time. It could have very negatively impacted my relationship with these people. Thankfully they were willing to forgive and were very supportive.

What’s next

Got to do these things:

  • HERTZ due this week
  • Schoolwork, projects, and exams
  • Begin testing systematic keywords in various databases. 
    • Meet with a librarian to see if I’m missing anything
  • AISL grant proposal due Nov 6th!
  • Meet Julian Togelius at his talk this Friday! (I’m super excited!)

Roadblocks

Just buys and tired. Not sure if a certain large homework assignment is going to be completed because everything else is more pressing, more important, and I do not like the class… should still be able to pull off a B though… ??

Being a Mom while Completing a Ph.D.

I got a taste of what it will be like to have kids while doing a Ph.D. and I believe it is completely doable. There is no reason why you can’t pursue a degree and be a mom. You just have to remember your priorities: faith and family first, then career. Of course, you still need to meet your work responsibilities, but family ones are just as important, so I made sure to schedule in playtime this past week with the kids while we had them despite a heavy workload. So glad I did!

Between my husband’s work schedule and my school/work schedule, we were able to watch the kids without calling in for reinforcements. It helps that we have a live-in uncle, but he was sick so mostly I had the kids check on him, not the other way around. Ha ha. 

 

Since we had the kids we did some pumpkin carving (forgot to take photos since the hubby did that), and lots of Halloween crafts and decorating. We spent most of last weekend doing the big adventures since last week I knew I’d be in school. Glad we did it. I didn’t get to play with the kids as much as would have liked, but while I worked on homework and research my daughter was on the bed next to me playing games. 

Looking Back, Missing My Mom

This past Friday, October 18, 2019, marked the two-year anniversary of my mother’s death. She died during my last year of my Master’s. So we bought some fall flowers and went to her grave. She always supported me in my education and work. It’s hard to not have her as my cheerleader anymore. I think she would be proud.

When we were at the cemetery we decided to also see my little brother Ben (who died as a baby and is buried in the same cemetery as my mother). On the way over we saw a very decorated grave, all out! It looked beautiful. It was for a baby who died recently. That day was the baby’s birthday. Birthdays and Death Anniversaries are important days. It was bittersweet. It’s good to remember and celebrate lives, and take time to live your own.

Ludology, Ph.D. Adventures!

The AISL, Sickness, Arches, Campfire, and a Corn Maze! (Ph.D. Year 1, Fall Weeks 6-8)

TLDR:

AISL grant proposal won in the University of Utah competition. WAHOO!! Celebrate! Now we (Rogelio the PI and myself) need to write the full proposal. Need to complete my Hertz application, finalize my keywords for my systematic review, and lots of homework and an exam all need to be completed (or taken) all in the next eight days. Should be fun. 😉

Despite being sick, kept up with school work (at least the minimum required), and had a good fall break with camping and fires, Arches National Park, and a corn maze!

The Full Story:

An exam review, two weeks of sickness, and fall break made me miss the last couple updates. Here is my three-week catch-up.

Accomplishments

I wrote up a draft for the AISL grant proposal for the University of Utah competition. Because we found out about it close to the deadline, my illness, and Rogelio’s own busy schedule, he took my draft and finalized it for submission (he is the PI on the grant as it is anyway). If you compare the two you can see my content throughout, just elevated, by a large margin. I’m excited to be working with someone who is such a good writer so I can learn from him. Oh yeah, our proposal was accepted! Now we write the full proposal. 😉 More on that later…

I did preliminary searches and read a previous literature review on educational game design and have found that no one has addressed my specific research question about educational game design, so I am moving forward with my research topic. It also fits very nicely into our AISL grant proposal.

I got sick but somehow managed to keep up with the MVP for my classes. My professors are all really kind and understanding. Hopefully, I will be nice professor one day.

Over fall break I specifically did not do anything school-related. I thought I might get bored, and I did start to, but then my husband decided we should go on an adventure after all, called his work and received the time off, and we headed down to Arches National Park for two nights! That meant we got to build two campfires! That was fun.

On Saturday we took the kids and their uncle Zeke, my younger brother, to a corn maze in Lehi, Utah. My husband’s favorite part was seeing how fast he could throw a baseball, my favorite part was seeing how good my soccer skills still are when kicking a ball at various targets, Mikey’s favorite was the zipline (despite hitting his head on the rope at the end), Uncle Zeke’s was lifting a 400 lb haystack (all by himself), and Chelsea’s favorite part was the corn maze. Gotta take time to have fun!

What’s next

In order of priority (for the next 1.5 weeks): finalize keywords for systematic review, finish Hertz application, keep up with classes (I’ve got a lit review, group project announcement, two-week homework assignment, multiple reading writeups, and an exam), and the AISL full proposal.

Also, try to get the rest of the way better. 

Roadblocks

I’m still recouping from my two-week illness, still feeling sick, and having side effects from being sick so long and from all the medication. I’m back on herbal and essential oil remedies so the side effects should start subsiding. 

I really do not enjoy one of my classes — it is not related to my area of study and the class is mostly busywork. The professor himself even told me that last part before classes started– and it takes a very long time to do the homework assignments, so motivation is low.

Cool Stuff!, Game Dev Adventures!

MY FAVORITE SEASON! (Ph.D. Year 1, Week 5)

TLDR:

I wrote a very rough draft for the AISL grant. Narrowed down research questions and aims for systematic review along with a pretty comprehensive list of keywords and databases to search. I need to get the AISL proposal written up and fast. The deadline is next week and I need to somehow fit that in with my course load. Where has September gone? On the bright side, it’s officially my favorite season and my husband and I just passed our half-year wedding anniversary.

The Full Story:

Accomplishments

It’s officially my favorite season! YEAH AUTUMN! Pumpkins, cute jackets and boots, and bring on the hot chocolate! My husband and I just passed our six-month anniversary. (We’re not very good at celebrating on specific days, but we do celebrate!). We started our marriage with his favorite season — we married on the spring equinox — and now we get to celebrate the rest of our first year kicking it off with my favorite season. I picked a good wedding day. 

Last week Rogelio made me aware of the NSF’s AISL program and potential funding. AISL is “Advancing Informal STEM Learning” which is right up my games ally! He asked me to write up a 1.5-page draft proposal. We first have to compete with others from the University of Utah (each university can only submit three proposals for AISL funding). It’s final is due next week on Wednesday, Oct 2nd! Wish us luck.

With the help of my advisor, Rogelio, I narrowed down my systematic review questions, created aims, and with the help of others from the QED lab, I now also have a pretty comprehensive list of databases to search and keywords to search on. (Thanks QED lab!)

What’s next

Write up a hero narrative for the AISL. Get all my notes from the systematic review all in one place (they are a bit of everywhere right now). Somehow fit in my coursework and study for my upcoming midterms.

Roadblocks

I somehow have to fit writing up the AISL and do my research amongst many large projects from my courses. I can see now why taking three courses, two seminars, and doing research is a bit much. I am definitely feeling burnout. Mostly because one of my courses workload (just one) ate my weekend. 😦

 

Game Dev Adventures!

Down to Brass Tacks (Ph.D. Year 1, Week 4)

TLDR:

This week I got down to brass tacks (which idiom no one knows the origin of): I began an application for outside funding, and started a list of research questions to use for a systematic review. I further refined my research interests which is almost ready to be shared on the QED lab page.

The Full Story:

Accomplishments

I officially changed my name! I am now Nancy N. Blackburn. Hooray!

I have a list of several systematic review questions.

I started a dreaded application for outside funding. (They are a lot of work!)

What’s next

Do a search in the current literature to see what literary reviews have already been compiled and use that data to select a research question to move forward on.

Continue to fill out my applications for grants.

Finish my QED bio and get it published.

Roadblocks

Feeling discouraged about my applications for outside funding. The competition is stiff and while I feel that I am deserving I am definitely wondering how I “prove” my value. 

Game Dev Adventures!, Ludology

The Plan and Burnout (Ph.D. Year 1, Week 2 & 3)

TLDR:

Finished semester plan. Main two research goals are to apply for outside funding and  write a systematic review.

This week I’ll create a set of research questions for a systematic review and begin applying for outside funding.

The Full Story:

Accomplishments

I have been reading meta papers and looking at different ways to read and write different kinds of research papers. I have decided this semester to focus on writing a systematic review in the educational games/intelligent tutoring systems area.

I also shared several of the games I made in 24-48 hours with my lab and discussed the design ideas and purpose behind each. It was a good review to me. My chosen area in games is for pedagogical reasons, however games have purpose far beyond just entertainment and education.

It’s one of the other things I did this past week was defending the rigor of games research. I have come across several researchers who use game terminology without actually understanding the field of games. It is particularly important to note that what many researchers have called “game design theory” is actually gamification. Without proper understanding of the difference of game design and gamification, the application of these principles can actually backfire and undermine the overall purpose of the application as a whole. 

Two books I am enjoying delving into are Dan Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things, and Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design by Scott Rogers. Part of what I want to do as part of my Ph.D. is to define and further develop design principles for learning games.

Something I realized 2.5 weeks in is that if I don’t take time between research and coursework projects to work on personal & family goals then I don’t make progress my personal or family goals. The thing is research and school is that those things can balloon and take up all your time. It’s important to set appropriate boundaries for everything and not allow those things to consume your life unknowingly. With this in mind I was able to start making progress on personal and family goals as well which has made me feel better about my life overall since I am not ignoring important aspects of myself.

Finally, I finished my semester plan and have a clearly defined path to accomplish my goals this semester.

What’s next

Create a set of research questions for a systematic review.

Begin applying for outside funding.

Roadblocks

Adhering to my scheduled time blocks to accomplish different tasks. Issues here are: under/over estimating (mostly under) time it takes to accomplish tasks, unplanned activities (such as having to spend an extra hour getting somewhere, forgetting lunch, etc.), and burnout. The burnout bit is an issue for me when I’m working against a deadline and I’m sick of doing the task in front of me.

I think I have a solution, by switching up tasks, going for walks, taking time to eat, relaxing about perfectionism (which has been a big thing for me), but when you have to get something done and you need all the time you have been given to accomplish it burnout sets in…

This semester has also been a lot heavier on the reading/analysis then expected and not so much on math and programming. I have done little programming and not in any way that I truly enjoy, and I don’t have time to make games, which makes me sad. So yeah, burn out is an issue.

Game Dev Adventures!

Ph.D. Year 1, Week 1 – Starting a Journey, GBA Workshop

TLDR:

I survived my first week of my phd, read lots of papers, attended the first ever GBA workshop at which I met lots of interesting academics, industry professionals, and peers with similar research interests, and then slept a lot (#TravelWipesMeOut).

This week I will be writing up my Ph.D. overall goals and coming up with a semester research plan. (Plus of course my coursework, but that is implied.)

A roadblock would be the need for some read/want-to-read research paper organization system suggestions, and just waiting on research papers from my advisor and contact information for people at the GBA workshop.

The Full Story:

This past week, starting 2019-08-19, I began my long journey to doctorate at the University of Utah in the School of Computing. My Ph.D. is in Computing on the HCC, Human Centered Computing, track, with a research emphasis in educational games. I started the week by attending my courses and ended the week by attending the first of its kind, GBA conference at the University of Minnesota, which made for a great start to my professional academic career, and made me a little behind in my coursework. Aw, the life of a Ph.D. Student.

As first weeks go, it was very exciting, both on the new and exciting, and scary and near panic inducing ends. For instance, because of funding and for personal reasons I am taking a more course-heavy load than typical: in all I have five courses, with one being for my research and one a required seminar for all fellowship Ph.D.s in the school of computing. As a gameplay programmer enrolled in four cs courses I was a bit taken aback that only 1.5 of my courses will be requiring programming! For the most part I will be reading and analyzing research papers in my and related fields, studying from textbooks, a little bit of math, a little bit of programming, and adjusting as best I can to Ph.D. student life.

So far so good.

I have been warned repeatedly of the cycle of a Ph.D. journey, with all its highs and lows, and I believe I have gone through the cycle multiple times this week ending on a bit of a high note.

So far so good… 😉

GBA Workshop

The GBA Workshop was very well organized, especially considering it was the first one ever. There was research presented by people in academia (from the graduate to tenured professor positions) and industry, from different disciplines (from I/O psychology to cs), and different countries (mostly U.S. and European). It was great to mingle with people from so many different backgrounds.

My favorite presentation was by a Ph.D. student at Northeastern University, Chaima Jemmali, entitled “Insights on Debugging Processes of Beginner Programmers in an Educational Puzzle Game.” Her presentation was the only one that directly correlated to the kind of research and work I want to do with my background and degrees. Specifically, she designed and programmed the game by herself and then tested it, analyzed the results, refined her project, and presented her results: a validation for using games to teach programming. I spoke with her briefly after the conference (she didn’t speak until near the end) and I hope to get to speak with her more in the future.

Accomplishments

I didn’t give up! As an industry professional turned academic I didn’t believe my experience was valued in academia, but advise from my advisor was that I should wear my experience as a badge of honor, which I did. I found that at the workshop I attended my industry experience was highly valued. I had important experience to share that all could learn and benefit from.

My main goal at the GBA workshop was to network with my peers in multiple disciplines. The conference was very interdisciplinary. I met people from I/O psychology, game design, educational games, and the social sciences, as well as people from multiple different countries (majority representation from the U.S. and Europe from my limited sample pool). There were also industry and academic professionals as well as other graduate students, both MS and Ph.D.s. Again following the advice of my advisor, I never shied away from a conversation from my fellow students (my career-stage peers), nor from beginning or experienced career and academic professionals. It was a very good first experience networking in as an academic. I’d say I killed it. Perhaps in the future I’ll share some networking tips (both that I received and that I used from experience networking professionally).

I managed to stay afloat in course-work by waking up early in my second week to do catch-up.

I have read and listened to several research papers in my broader field of research interest.

What’s next

The major two goals I have this week are:

  • Write down my Ph.D. Goal – I can revisit/revise this idea each semester
  • Write down my semester plan.

The rest of these will be part of my semester plan, some to be accomplished this week

  • Create a list of 5-7 academic/professional conferences and workshops that are related to my field. Plan to attend 1-3 of them in the coming year.
  • Start organizing/recording the papers I have been reading so I can keep track of the important things I have read and ideas for future.
  • Discuss paper ideas with my advisor. Pick one of the paper ideas and begin background and supporting paper research.
  • Start preliminary process of applying for two grants that I qualify for.
  • Start reading papers directly related to my research interests.

Roadblocks

I have been directed to two different research paper managers – I would like some guidance on organization strategies so I can track important papers.

I am also waiting on some research papers from my adviser to begin reading research related to my areas of interest.

I am awaiting contact information for people at the GBA workshop. I brought my business cards, but some of the people I spoke with didn’t have one of their own and promised to contact me. I’ll follow up once I have their contact information from the workshop organizer.