Written by: Matthew Busekroos | Produced by: Nate Caldwell

Soya Park is a six-year PhD student working with her advisor Professor David Karger in the lab’s Haystack Group. The Haystack Group blends approaches from human-computer interaction, social computing, databases and information management.

One of Park’s latest projects is Who2chat, a virtual coffee break interface that started at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Coffee hours are typically programmed during academic conferences to encourage attendees to mingle and learn about research. However, with the pandemic, many of these conferences were canceled and moved to a virtual setting.

Who2chat allows academic researchers to create their profile and express interests, find researchers using their search engine, lower social barriers, and coordinate and start video chats all within a single interface. Park said the tool has been used by 500 researchers at this point.

“I try to make a system to be usable for my marginalized users,” Park said. “When I say marginalized users, I’m looking into people with less social capital, people with less knowledge, or people with a disability and people with less power.”

Park deployed Who2chat multiple times and iteratively found out social barriers during networking and upgraded it. She said they are primarily looking to use this tool among academic settings, but this kind of networking is prevalent in any setting, including industry.

In her experience, Park said she found it initially difficult to identify the problem with marginalized users. She added that she took the necessary time to build and deploy the system to get it right. She said she recognized that this is an important problem and important problems take a longer time to solve.

“Different people have different timing, but if you truly believe in your goal, it is going to happen,” Park said.

You can follow Park on Twitter (https://twitter.com/park_soya) and read more about her work here.