Chaturvedi receives NSF CAREER Award

July 6, 2021

Snigdha ChaturvediSnigdha Chaturvedi, assistant professor of computer science at UNC-Chapel Hill, has received a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The CAREER program is a Foundation-wide activity that offers NSF’s most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.

This five-year, $549,700 grant, titled “Harnessing Interpersonal Common Sense for Social Grounding in Natural Language Processing,” will support Chaturvedi’s continued research of natural language understanding under the context of the narrative and social aspects of language. 

As part of this study, Chaturvedi will utilize natural language processing (NLP) systems to allow computers to develop common-sense knowledge characteristic of human social language. When interacting with other individuals, human behavior significantly depends on the relationship between the interactants. For example, when speaking to someone with a higher social status, people often exhibit language coordination by mimicking the linguistic style of the other speaker. Even children as young as 12 to 18 months old can adjust their behavior based on their company. Humans possess and employ interpersonal common sense: common-sense knowledge of the behavior acceptable in different interpersonal relationships, and use it in their day-to-day interactions. In contrast, computers lack this interpersonal common-sense knowledge.

The goal of this CAREER project is to instill interpersonal common-sense knowledge and reasoning capabilities in computers. To achieve this goal, the project develops resources that store interpersonal common-sense knowledge together with techniques to leverage them for designing computer systems that are more aware of social dynamics prevalent in the human world. The project involves interdisciplinary efforts by researchers and students from within and outside of Computer Science. It includes developing interdisciplinary courses and seminars for graduate and undergraduate students in computer science, linguistics, and psychology. 

More details on this award can be found on the NSF website

Chaturvedi joined the Department of Computer Science in 2019. Previously, she was an Assistant Professor at University of California, Santa Cruz (2018-2019) and a postdoctoral researcher in Professor Dan Roth’s group at the University of Pennsylvania and University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (2016-2018). She received her doctorate from the University of Maryland, College Park, advised by Professor Hal Daume III, and her Bachelor of Technology from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur in India. She also worked at IBM-India Research Labs from 2009-2011.

Chaturvedi joins Shahriar Nirjon and Mohit Bansal as UNC computer science faculty who have received NSF CAREER awards in the last two years. 

UNC CS faculty call on Board of Trustees to review Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure case

June 25, 2021

The faculty of the Department of Computer Science have written an open letter condemning the inaction of the UNC Board of Trustees in the tenure case of Nikole Hannah-Jones and urging the Board to review the case at its next meeting in July. The letter is published here, and the full text can be read immediately below.


June 24, 2021

To the Board of Trustees:

We, the undersigned members of the Department of Computer Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, are writing to express our strongest condemnation of the Board of Trustees’ recent decision not to review Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure case, effectively denying her tenure. We call on the Board to take immediate corrective action by reviewing Ms. Hannah-Jones’ tenure case in an open and transparent manner.

We are proud to be part of the UNC-CH community, and we embrace its core values of academic freedom, scientific inquiry, and freedom of speech. These values have led us to explore new directions, establish new technologies, and produce cutting-edge research. However, we are deeply saddened by the Board’s action, which we believe is in direct conflict with these values. Ms. Hannah-Jones’s tenure case has been reviewed and enthusiastically endorsed by external scholars, the faculty of the UNC-CH School of Journalism and Media, and UNC-CH administration. By failing to review the tenure case without providing any good-faith reason for this action, the Board has inserted itself into the academic affairs of the University, putting the academic integrity of UNC-CH and the UNC system in jeopardy and the future of our scholarship at risk.

It would be beyond disingenuous to pretend that race does not play a role in this case. Nikole Hannah-Jones is a Black scholar whose research revisits the history of our nation’s founding, insisting that the full story of slavery, race, and racism in the United States has not yet been told. She has received the highest possible recognition for her work from the scholars in her field, winning both the Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur “Genius” Grant. She has also received the strongest possible support for her tenure case from her academic peers. It is difficult to imagine a situation in which the Board would not rush to offer tenure to a white scholar whose work had earned such profound and widespread acclaim.

If the Board of Trustees finds no other argument compelling, we urge it to consider the following example of the effects of its actions. The decision to effectively deny Ms. Hannah-Jones tenure has cost the Department of Computer Science crucial funding in the form of an alumni donation intended to fund a chaired professorship. The potential donor retracted their offer because they “are unwilling to support an institution that denies tenure to a Pulitzer Prize winner for purely political reasons”. In this way, the Board’s actions have already damaged our ability to attract the strongest candidates to our faculty and graduate program and retain our position as one of the top computer science programs in the country, which can only further damage the University’s national and global reputation.

We urge the Board to take up this business in your next meeting on July 14th-15th.

Sincerely,

Cynthia Sturton
Associate Professor and Peter Thacher Grauer Scholar
csturton@cs.unc.edu

Tessa Joseph-Nicholas
Teaching Professor
nicholas@cs.unc.edu

Kris Jordan
Teaching Associate Professor
kris@cs.unc.edu

Natalie Stanley
Assistant Professor
natalies@cs.unc.edu

Brent C. Munsell
Teaching Assistant Professor
munsell@cs.unc.edu

John J. Majikes
Teaching Assistant Professor
jmajikes@cs.unc.edu

Jeff Terrell
Professor of the Practice
terrell@cs.unc.edu

Martin Styner
Associate Professor
styner@cs.unc.edu

Marc Niethammer
Professor
mn@cs.un.edu

Colin Raffel
Assistant Professor
craffel@cs.unc.edu

Montek Singh
Associate Professor
montek@cs.unc.edu

Snigdha Chaturvedi
Assistant Professor
snigdha@cs.unc.edu

Diane Pozefsky
Adjunct Professor
pozefsky@cs.unc.edu

Don Smith
Research Professor
smithfd@cs.unc.edu

Stephen M. Pizer
Kenan Professor
pizer@cs.unc.edu

Jan F. Prins
Professor
prins@cs.unc.edu

Donald E. Porter
Associate Professor
porter@cs.unc.edu

Junier B. Oliva
Assistant Professor
joliva@cs.unc.edu

James H. Anderson
W.R. Kenan Distinguished Professor
anderson@cs.unc.edu

Mohit Bansal
Parker Associate Professor
mbansal@cs.unc.edu

Ketan Mayer-Patel
Associate Professor
kmp@cs.unc.edu

Leonard McMillan
Associate Professor
mcmillan@cs.unc.edu

Jasleen Kaur
Associate Professor
jasleen@cs.unc.edu

Stanley C. Ahalt
Professor
ahalt@cs.unc.edu

Henry Fuchs
Federico Gil Distinguished Professor
fuchs@cs.unc.edu

Shashank Srivastava
Assistant Professor
ssrivastava@cs.unc.edu

Kevin Jeffay
Gillian Cell Distinguished Professor
jeffay@cs.unc.edu

UNC CS wins GRAIC autonomous racing competition during CPS‑IoT Week 2021

May 27, 2021
Abel Karimi and Sridhar Duggirala
Abel Karimi (left) and Parasara Sridhar Duggirala

Doctoral student Abel Karimi and assistant professor Parasara Sridhar Duggirala took first prize in the Generalized Racing Intelligence Competition (GRAIC), a simulated vehicle race affiliated with CPS-IoT Week 2021, the premier event on cyber-physical systems and Internet-of-Things research.

The GRAIC challenges teams of researchers to design a controller for a simulated autonomous vehicle that will enable the vehicle to navigate a track with a variety of obstacles as quickly as possible without colliding with obstacles or going out of bounds. Because the vehicle and track are simulated, the differences in performance are determined by the controlling algorithms.

For GRAIC 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, competitors only had a couple of months to prepare their submissions. The entry from UNC bettered submissions from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Pennsylvania. No strangers to autonomous racing success, Karimi and Duggirala were part of a larger UNC CS team that took first place at F1/10, an autonomous race utilizing RC cars that was held during CPS-IoT Week in 2019.

For more information and to watch the GRAIC 2021 live event, visit popgri.github.io/Race.

simulated autonomous lap at GRAIC
Each algorithm was run on the same virtual vehicles and tracks with the results recorded and penalties assessed.

Alterovitz receives Amazon Research Award

April 30, 2021

Ron AlterovitzProfessor Ron Alterovitz received a 2020 Amazon Research Award for his research in cloud-based motion planning for autonomous robots.

The Amazon Research Award provides unrestricted funds and AWS Promotional Credits to academic researchers investigating research topics across a number of disciplines. Each award is intended to support the work of one to two graduate students or postdoctoral students for one year. The 2020 awards, announced in April 2021, recognized 101 recipients from 59 universities and 13 countries.

Alterovitz’s proposal, “Cloud-based motion planning: an enabling technology for next-generation autonomous robots,” seeks to enable robots with low-power embedded computers to perform more complicated motion planning tasks. To work around the limitations of the embedded computer, Alterovitz and his UNC Computational Robotics group split computation tasks between the embedded computer and a high-performance, cloud-based computing service. The robot communicates its configuration, goals, and obstacles to the cloud-based service, and the cloud service returns a motion plan, taking into account the latency and bandwidth of the connection and the time frame necessary to meet the goals. The group’s work with cloud-based motion planning will enable lightweight and battery-operated robots to perform tasks previously limited to bulkier, high-powered devices.

Amazon Research Award recipients have access to more than 200 Amazon public datasets, as well as AWS AI and machine learning services and tools. Recipients also are assigned an Amazon research contact who offers consultation and advice along with opportunities to participate in Amazon events and training sessions. Researchers are encouraged to publish research results and related code under open-source licenses.

For more information about the Amazon Research Awards and a list of all awardees, see the Amazon Science announcement of the awards.

UNC researchers earn Best Paper at IEEE VR 2021

April 14, 2021
The system is demonstrated by a wearer who is being coached in a 3D virtual environment by a trainer
The user (top left) has his motion and environment recorded by the wearable system. The trainer (top right) can then interact with the 3D reconstruction in a virtual environment (center) to provide feedback without being in the same physical location.

A paper co-authored by students Young-Woon Cha, Husam Shaik, Qian Zhang, and Fan Feng; research scientists Andrei State and Adrian Ilie; and professor Henry Fuchs received a Best Conference Paper award at the IEEE Conference on Virtual Reality and 3D User Interfaces (IEEE VR) 2021, which was held virtually in March and April 2021.

The awarded paper, titled “Mobile, Egocentric Human Body Motion Reconstruction Using Only Eyeglasses-mounted Cameras and a Few Body-worn Inertial Sensors,” presents a real-time system for dynamic 3D capture of a person using hardware conveniently worn on common items like eyeglasses, wrist watches, and shoes. The system is able to convert the captured visual and movement data into a high-fidelity 3D reconstruction of the wearer. Where high-fidelity motion capture would typically be possible only in a studio full of mounted cameras, the presented system enables motion capture anywhere. When combined with existing telepresence and virtual reality technology, such a system has applications in healthcare, education, athletics, and many other fields.

The paper was one of three at the conference to be recognized with a Best Paper award. The UNC Graphics and Virtual Reality Group, led by Fuchs, has been frequently recognized by the conference for its research in virtual and augmented reality, winning Best Paper in 2017 and 2016 in addition to 2021.

Three egocentric cameras worn by the user record both the wearer and the surrounding environment.
Three egocentric cameras worn by the user record both the wearer and the surrounding environment. The drone footage (bottom right) shows how accurately the user’s movement is reconstructed in the virtual environment.

Fang receives 2021 Horizon Award

April 7, 2021

Shiwei FangGraduate student Shiwei Fang has been recognized with a Horizon Award from the Graduate School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Fang was one of five Horizon Award recipients for 2021.

Since 2003, the Graduate Education Advancement Board (GEAB) has provided Impact Awards annually to recognize graduate students and recent graduate alumni whose discoveries directly impact the state of North Carolina. The Horizon Award, created in 2017 to be awarded alongside Impact Awards, recognizes those whose research “holds extremely high potential for making a significant contribution to the educational, economic, physical, social or cultural well-being of North Carolina citizens and beyond at some future time.” The award focuses on research of a more theoretical or basic nature that is likely to one day solve major problems in the state and beyond.

Fang’s awarded research addresses public health issues by providing low-cost, energy-efficient sensing and tracking technology. One project combines data from multiple low-cost sensors to enable body cameras to operate with significantly reduced power consumption and record much smaller video file sizes. These changes allow body cameras to operate autonomously and remain on at all times, producing smaller video files that can be archived and transmitted more easily.

Another application of Fang’s research is indoor human sensing and tracking, which could help mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic as well as future viruses. Fang’s work provides low-cost and privacy-aware methods to scale up contact tracing using sensor data from Wi-Fi and cameras. In addition to aiding public health experts, the data collected could inform business in areas like retail and dining to improve customers’ safety and overall experience.

“These tools enable communities to build trust between law enforcement and the public,” Fang writes, “and they also provide valuable information to policymakers, officials, and store owners, without sacrificing privacy.”

The 2021 Horizon Award carries a $500 cash award. Fang will be honored at the annual Graduate Student Recognition Celebration. Fang is advised by Assistant Professor Shahriar Nirjon of the Department of Computer Science.

To read Fang’s award announcement, visit the UNC Graduate School website.

Lei named 2021 Adobe Research Fellow

March 29, 2021

Jie Lei

Computer science doctoral student Jie Lei has been awarded a 2021 Adobe Research Fellowship in the area of natural language processing. The Adobe Research Fellowship recognizes “outstanding graduate students anywhere in the world carrying out exceptional research in areas of computer science important to Adobe.”

Lei was one of only 10 fellows selected worldwide for the prestigious fellowship. Fellows are selected based on their research, technical skills, how their work would contribute to Adobe, and personal communication and leadership skills. As a recipient, Lei will receive a $10,000 award and a one-year subscription to Adobe’s Creative Cloud software, as well as an opportunity to interview for an internship with Adobe.

Lei’s primary research interest lies in the intersection of computer vision and natural language processing, particularly video and language understanding. Some of his primary projects tackle video question answering and information retrieval. Video question answering involves training a computer to analyze a video in order to answer questions about its content, while information retrieval trains the computer to isolate and retrieve only information that is relevant to a given question answering task. These research areas study and reflect the complicated methods through which humans communicate in the real world. Lei’s research will help enable computational systems like robots to communicate effectively with humans and operate efficiently in our world.

“My long-term goal is to equip computational systems with the ability to interact with people in various environments using language, including online video platforms and real-world environments,” Lei said. “I am so thrilled and humbled to be selected as an Adobe Research Fellow. This fellowship will be very helpful in supporting my future research.”

Lei is advised by Associate Professor Mohit Bansal and Adjunct Associate Professor Tamara Berg and is a member of the Multimodal Understanding, Reasoning, and Generation for Language (MURGe) Lab. Lei has previously worked as an intern with Microsoft and Tencent AI Lab and will intern with Facebook this summer. He has published papers at numerous academic conferences, including the Association for Computational Linguistics (ACL), the Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition (CVPR), the European Conference on Computer Vision (ECCV), and the Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing (EMNLP).

For more information about the Adobe Research Fellowship and a full list of fellows, visit research.adobe.com/fellowship.

Post-pandemic life: our digital habits, health care [Junier Oliva interviewed]

March 26, 2021

In part three of a three-part series, Carolina experts discuss some lasting effects of the pandemic on digital technologies and health care.

Scott Jared, The Well, Friday, March 26th, 2021

Carolina’s Pandemic Year: This week last March, the University shifted to remote instruction. The Well is marking the occasion with a week of special stories, including ways the University has addressed the crisis, reflections from Chancellor Guskiewicz and, below, predictions from Carolina’s faculty on lasting changes to post-pandemic life.

Less travel, more virtual meetings. More protection of patient privacy to improve drug discoveries and medical care. New versions of home health care and psychiatric care provided to every North Carolina community.

These are some of the ways the pandemic has changed how we use digital technology and how we receive health care.

In the wake of this past year’s devastation, death and adaptation, The Well asked experts in various fields about how daily life may look different after the crisis lifts.

Virtual reality, data and diagnoses

Junier Oliva, assistant professor in the College of Arts & Sciences’ computer science department, is an expert on machine learning and artificial intelligence. He sees broad changes in the digital world stemming from the pandemic, starting with more demand for virtual meetings using the latest technologies.

“We are seeing that since there is little travel, one upside is that it’s much easier to invite folks to give a talk, meet with a class, do a seminar or a group or a happy hour. It’s a lot easier to do this virtually,” he said.

Junier Oliva.

Junier Oliva

“I think generally people are connecting more virtually across the U.S. and beyond because there isn’t that expectation that you would bring someone in-person with all the associated overhead. That is something that may stick,” Oliva said.

Oliva said that computer scientists and industry leaders such as Xerox have been thinking about virtual meetings and collaborations for more than 50 years.

“It isn’t something that came out of the blue for computer scientists. As far as the latest and greatest innovations, I would imagine that things like virtual reality and augmented reality, virtual meetings and being able to collaborate remotely will be in demand,” Oliva said.

Another area that the pandemic accelerated is problem-solving with digital tools. Oliva is working on ways to take in sensitive medical data, then protect patient privacy by generating fake synthetic data that is useful for researchers without leaking private information.

“Once the pandemic hit, computer scientists were keen on solving some of the issues related to COVID-19. For example, I’ve been collaborating with folks trying to develop algorithms that can take in sensitive data related to health care, things that would be of interest to downstream researchers trying to make drug discoveries or trying to better diagnose patients. But, we can’t just release these data sets because they contain sensitive patient information.”

Even when no name is associated with a raw data record, a lot of information such as a person’s height or weight might allow for identification. “We’re looking for ways to perturb these values that would make it hard to track back features to one particular person and preserve their privacy,” Oliva said, referring to methods of replacing or distorting data so that unauthorized users cannot access it.

“For predicting if someone has COVID or trying to predict what drugs are going to be useful for a particular patient, it’s important to keep patterns intact as a whole in the data while perturbing and destroying any factorization that could be tracked back to an individual.”

Oliva said that computer scientists are also exploring digital means for less invasive medical procedures, more efficient COVID-19 testing and a machine-learning algorithm that can hear someone cough and predict whether the person has a certain illness.

New models of patient care

Dr. Ian B. Buchanan, president of ambulatory and post-acute care for UNC Health, is responsible for coordination of outpatient and continuing care in over 600 physician practices and at 12 hospitals.

Buchanan said that health care, normally a conservative, relatively slow to change industry, has experienced more flexibility and change in the past year.

Dr. Ian Buchanan of U.N.C. Health.

Dr. Ian Buchanan

“Some changes have been really positive advancements, and some have simply been a response to the greatest public health crisis in 100 years,” he said. “We’ve had to adapt and do things and flex in ways that we never would have been willing to under other circumstances.

“The biggest sea change in terms of direct patient care that absolutely is going to stick is a recognition and a growing expectation by our patients that we care for them where they are. The pandemic is the first time in modern memory that people have felt really scared to go into health care settings. Our typical patient a year ago viewed our clinics and hospitals as safe places to be. Now, they’re concerned. ‘Gosh, who’s the person sitting next to me in the waiting room, and who is the person being wheeled past me in the hallway?’”

The confluence of patients’ expectations and maturing technologies brought an explosion in the amount of care that “we can provide and our patients would like us to provide when they’re not physically sitting in one of our clinics,” Buchanan said. And increased familiarity with using digital services for tasks such as ordering groceries makes people more comfortable interacting with health care providers via telemedicine.

Health care providers are engaging underserved populations in new ways. The pandemic has “laid bare existing inequities in health care delivery to minority, rural and underserved communities across the state and the nation,” Buchanan said. “That’s been a major focus for us throughout the pandemic.”

Increased telemedicine has created positive changes in psychiatric care that will benefit North Carolina, especially in communities without psychiatrists. “It’s no longer just folks who are able or willing to drive to Chapel Hill to see a psychiatrist,” Buchanan said. “We can provide psychiatry services across the state.”

Buchanan credits Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody, the UNC School of Medicine’s psychiatry department chair, with tailoring virtual care that has succeeded for physicians and their patients.

“Out of all the specialties in the state, we have per capita fewer psychiatrists than just about anything else. Even in a lot of medium-size communities, never mind small communities or rural areas, there are few or no psychiatric resources available,” Buchanan said.

UNC Health has enhanced home health care, building off a traditional model in which nurses evaluate and care for patients in homes. Buchanan said that new technology allows nurses to see and talk with patients, monitor their condition and also have immediate access to a physician.

That model enables patients to return home more quickly after hospitalization. It has also decreased emergency room visits because in situations that exceed a nurse’s licensure and normally require an ER visit, the nurse can contact a physician.

“We’re pushing the boundaries of our continuum of care at home,” Buchanan said.

This summer, UNC Health will begin admitting patients needing lower-acuity care into an at-home program. “It’s essentially a hospital admission, but in the patient’s home,” Buchanan said. “Nurses and physicians at a command center will monitor patients at all times. Patients will have all the resources available in their home for their nursing care, respiratory care and pharmacy needs.

“Patients who are relatively lower acuity move to the comfort and safety of their home while freeing up hospital beds,” Buchanan said. “It’s a much less expensive care model, which is good for patients and good for us.”

See all the stories from Carolina’s Pandemic Year.

2021 IEEE Virtual Reality Conference awards recognize Whitton, Luebke

March 23, 2021

The two major awards at the upcoming 2021 IEEE Virtual Reality Conference will honor individuals with long-standing connections to UNC Computer Science, retired Research Professor Mary C. Whitton and Research Professor and NVIDIA Vice President of Graphics Research David P. Luebke. 

Whitton will receive the 2021 IEEE VGTC Virtual Reality Career Award for her lifetime contributions to the field, while Luebke will receive the 2021 IEEE VGTC Virtual Reality Technical Achievement Award, given annually for a seminal achievement in virtual and augmented reality. 

Mary WhittonMary Whitton

Whitton is being recognized for her lifetime contributions to “the technologies, techniques, and theory that enable virtual and mixed reality systems and applications to better achieve their intended goals.” 

Whitton has been undertaking research in interactive 3D computer graphics and virtual and mixed reality since 1976. She founded two successful graphics hardware companies in 1978 and 1986 and joined the Department of Computer Science in 1994. At UNC, she co-led the Effective Virtual Environments (EVE) research group for 20 years, driving cutting-edge research in areas including computer graphics, virtual reality, and mixed reality data exploration. In addition to her research, Whitton has mentored generations of doctoral students and held leadership roles with ACM SIGGRAPH and IEEE Virtual Reality. In recent years, she has worked with ACM committees to preserve computer graphics history.

David LuebkeDavid Luebke

Luebke is being recognized with the Technical Achievement Award for his “research and leadership at the intersection of rendering algorithms, display technology, and human perception” that has “advanced the state of virtual reality across topics as diverse as real-time rendering, low-latency display, foveated resolution, redirected walking, haptics, and focus-supporting displays.” Over a career in both academia and industry, Luebke has led research projects related to graphics rendering, display hardware, and even the use of neural networks to generate photorealistic imagery.

Luebke co-founded NVIDIA Research in 2006 and currently serves as vice president of graphics research. Prior to joining the faculty, Luebke also earned a doctorate in computer science from UNC in 1998.

Established in 2005, the IEEE VGTC Virtual Reality Awards program recognizes individuals who have made a significant contribution to the community. The awards are given annually to recipients selected by a vote of the Awards committee. This year’s committee was chaired by Henry Fuchs, Federico Gil Distinguished Professor of Computer Science at UNC, who abstained from voting due to professional connections with multiple nominees.

The 2021 IEEE Virtual Reality Conference will take place from March 27 to April 3. For more information about the recipients and awards, please see the announcement from IEEE VGTC.

Finding their place in tech [profile of Pearl Hacks]

March 4, 2021

In the annual Pearl Hack Event, which was created by Tar Heels in 2014 to close the gender gap in college hackathons, women and non-binary students from across the country competed in a demo fair for prizes, attended tech workshops and met other students through social events.

By Yenah Joe, University Communications, Thursday, March 4th, 2021

In late February, students from around the world participated in the annual Pearl Hacks, a beginner-friendly hackathon for women and non-binary students interested in technology.

The Carolina student-run hackathon, which is supported by the College of Arts & Sciences’ computer science department and part of Major League Hacking, provides college students across the U.S. with a weekend-long opportunity to compete in a demo fair for prizes, learn and network through tech workshops and meet other students through social events.

“It’s a really fun way to explore tech in different ways,” said Bea Manaligod, Pearl Hack’s marketing chair and a senior studying computer science and communications. “People can meet each other and feel safe in a field that’s completely dominated by men.”

Pearl Hacks started in 2014 when Carolina alumna Maegan Clawges saw the gender gap in college hackathons and wanted to start an event that gave women and non-binary students a space to participate. It was one of the first beginner-friendly hackathons targeted toward women at the time.

A collage of nine photos of students running pearl hacks.

The directors of Pearl Hacks.

Manaligod said Pearl Hacks helped her feel more comfortable as a computer science major her first year at Carolina. Large computer science lectures felt intimidating, but Pearl Hacks was an opportunity for women and non-binary students to find their place in tech.

“It’s such a unique atmosphere and a welcoming environment,” said Tylar Watson, Pearl Hack’s executive chair and a senior studying computer science and women and gender studies.

“Our event provides a steppingstone into the major and career opportunities, and it enhances those skills so they’ll feel more comfortable in the content and other people around them,” Manaligod said.

But students do not have to be a computer science major or have any experience in coding to participate. “I attended Pearl Hacks as a participant my first year,” said Watson. “One of my friends who I went with wasn’t a computer science major, but she felt inspired, really loved her experience and ended up declaring her major a week after the event.”

This year, the event was hosted virtually due to COVID-19 restrictions, but that only broadened the possibilities. In previous years, the event was limited to students who could travel to Chapel Hill. The new online format offered students from all over the world, including India and the United Kingdom, a chance to participate, increasing project submissions by 25%.

“For a virtual event, I was very impressed and excited with the amount of people who enjoyed it,” said Manaligod. “We had over 500 attendees, 31 countries represented and 69 projects submitted. Though there were tons of hoops to jump through when navigating this new and unfamiliar format, I felt that we were able to recreate the feeling of growth and community as we did when we were in person. We all hope everyone got to grow with Pearl Hacks, and we can’t wait for Pearl Hacks 2022.”

Not only could participants network with more than 20 sponsors like Amazon and Bandwidth, but they got to meet with students from all over the world and form new tech communities.

“The networking was invaluable, the workshops were super informative and well-organized, and of course, the project experience itself opened my eyes to new skills that I hadn’t previously had the opportunity to explore,” said Melody Griesen, a junior studying computer science at North Carolina State University who was part of February’s event. “I absolutely loved my experience at Pearl Hacks — my only frustration is that I have to wait a full year to participate again.”

See this year’s Pearl Hacks projects