Helena Mentis, Post-Doc Researcher

Helena MentisWhat did you dream you would be when you were younger?
Once I was past the stage where I thought I would be a ballerina, doctor, and President of the United States – all at the same time of course – I was pretty set on being a scientist. I loved science! I had a geology set, microscope set, and chemistry set growing up and used them often to explore the world. I would read everything I could find in my family’s encyclopedia set related to science and in particular biology (this of course was far from the days of the Internet). When I applied to university I naturally chose biology as my course of study. I wanted to do something meaningful and important and, with my limited view of the world at 17, I thought biology was the best way to make a difference.

Why did you become a [CS] researcher and how did you go about becoming a one?
At university I became very interested in the brain and how people behaved. I changed my major to psychology and was involved in research in the neuro-cognitive laboratory. I recognized that computer science was an important field (this is 1998 keep in mind) so I went over to the CS department and told them I was a psychology major and wanted a CS minor. As a female, psychology student with no prior programming knowledge, they gave me a very funny look, but I was persistent. Luckily there were a few professors in the CS department who introduced me to the field of human-computer interaction, which let me apply my knowledge of psychology to computer science. I’ve been in HCI ever since.

What's it like working at Microsoft Research and what do you do?
Exciting and stimulating. Numerous innovative ideas mingle with a tremendous array of knowledge and world-class resources to constantly challenge and encourage me to find new ways to apply social science research to the design of new technology experiences. It sounds very glamorous, but from day to day, I spend an inordinate amount of time reading and writing. However, I live for the times when I can take a new system out into the field and watch the transformative effect it has on practice – like the introduction of the Kinect in the operating room!

What are your aspirations within your role?
My research tends to be in the medical and health domain, so when I started at Microsoft my aspiration was to innovate new techniques and applications in the health sciences and to drive that innovation into Microsoft products. I also see my role as being a role model and mentor for young women in the STEM fields.

How has working at Microsoft Research affected your career/research goals?
The array of disciplines within computer science that I have been able to collaborate with and learn from here has by far made me a well-rounded HCI researcher.

Tell us an unusual/interesting fact about yourself?
I like to really experience what the world has to offer and so I have traveled much and, to date, have lived in four countries (US, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the UK). I am lucky in that I quickly pick up new languages and so over the course of my life I have had varying levels of proficiency in five different foreign languages (Greek, Spanish, Dutch, German, and Swedish). Right now, I’m trying hard to improve my Swedish and Greek.