Geek of the Week: Julie Kientz, UW researcher and one of the world’s top innovators under 35

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Julie Kientz was named one of the world’s top 35 innovators under 35.

There are talented, hard-working, young people doing good work all over the planet.

And then there are the MIT Technology Review’s 35 innovators under the age of 35 that are simply on another level.

Julie Kientz is one of those visionaries. The University of Washington professor in the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering was just named to the elite 2013 list honoring those who are paving the way for technological advancements.

“I’m incredibly honored and flattered to be included amongst so many inspirational people,” the UW professor told us.

She’s doing some pretty special work at the UW. As a human-computer interaction expert, Kientz works with her colleagues and students on how technology can help improve lives. For example, she’s using technology to assist parents of young children in tracking developmental progress, and to help people in understanding how much sleep personally impacts their everyday lives.

Meet our new Geek of the Week, Julie Kientz, and learn more about her work, her marriage to Shwetak Patel (a former top 35 innovator and GeekWire Newsmaker) and where she’d like to see her field in 10 years.

GeekWire: How does it feel to be named one of the world’s top innovators under 35? That’s pretty cool.

Julie Kientz: It feels pretty great! It was also really unexpected how widespread it all is. I’ve heard from so many different people who have read the article and have had positive things to say about it. It’s also a really great group of people who have been honored in the past, as well as this year. I’m incredibly honored and flattered to be included amongst so many inspirational people.

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Kientz helped build a program called Baby Steps to help parents and doctors record developmental milestones.

GW: Tell us what you do at your day job — what do you work on, who do you work with, etc.

Kientz: I’m a professor, so my job is a mix of research and teaching. I spend a lot of time working together with my really talented Ph.D. students who contribute many ideas and carry out a lot of research efforts. I also teach classes in user-centered design, user experience design, design methods, and assistive technology. In any given day, I might brainstorm with my Ph.D. Students and research collaborators, give a lecture, attend a meeting discussing curriculum for a new Masters’ program, write papers or grants, write some code, sketch some design ideas, and interact with research study participants. It’s a big mix of things!

GW: What projects are you working on right now?

Kientz and her husband, Shwetak Patel, had their first baby nine months ago.

Kientz and her husband, Shwetak Patel, had their first baby nine months ago.

Kientz: I have a lot of things going on! My students are all diverse and have a lot of different interests, so we work on a ton of different projects. Baby Steps is definitely still ongoing, and we’re looking at expanding it to more ways of tracking information across multiple sources and will be doing a big study of it within the next year.

One newer thread of research I’m really excited about right now is combining my interests in both health and assistive technology for people with disabilities. My Ph.D. student Kyle Rector is leading this effort and is working in the space of designing technologies to help make physical fitness activities more accessible for the visually impaired.

We’re also continuing a lot of work in the sleep space. One thing we’re looking at is using technology to help people understand how much sleep personally impacts their everyday lives, such as their mood, reaction time, productivity, etc. I’d love to combine both the Lullaby and Baby Steps efforts to work on technologies to help with sleep and young children. Having a 9 month old daughter has made me realize how important sleep is for everyone! Finally, I have two newer Ph.D. students who are continuing the work of engaging with therapy for children with autism.

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GW: What’s the coolest part about your job?

Kientz: I think both the variety of things that I do and the fact that I have a lot of autonomy in the types of things I work on is really great. There aren’t a lot of jobs out there that pay you to work on problems that fascinate you and are personally motivating. The variety keeps things interesting, too. It’s a ton of work, but it’s worth it!

GW: Did you see yourself doing what you’re doing now 10 years ago?

Kientz: I did, actually! I started graduate school almost exactly 10 years ago, and I had some really great role models who were professors that did research in human-computer interaction. I had wanted to be like them, and now here I am. I’m really happy to be doing what I’m doing while working at great place like the University of Washington. It’s my dream job.

GW: You were a therapist at one point in your career — what were one or two of the biggest and most influential things you learned?

Kientz: I think one thing I learned was that the gap between theory and practice is so difficult to bridge when it comes to autism therapy. During my training, I learned a lot about how therapy is “supposed” to be conducted, the theory behind why it works, and the importance of being really consistent in conducting the therapy. In practice, however, it’s really difficult to remember to do all of the things you need to be doing all at once while working with kids who can be really unpredictable. It really helped me think about how we could help bridge that gap, which is where the inspiration for the software for supporting the therapy came about. If we could help therapists be self-reflective and reduce some of the overhead related to therapy, it could help to get their actual practice closer to how the books say it’s supposed to be done while hopefully making their jobs easier.

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Kientz married Patel two years ago. Both have been named to MIT Technology Review’s top 35 innovators under 35 list.

GW: You’re married to Shwetak Patel, a former Innovator under 35. How did you guys meet, and what is the relationship like? Lots of geeky talks?

Kientz: Shwetak and I met when we were both Ph.D. students working for the same advisor at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. We were friends for awhile, but then started dating after we spent a ton of time together studying for our qualifying exam. Our relationship is definitely interesting! We both work in a similar research space of sensing and interactive technologies for health and behavior change, but come at it from different angles – our skills are actually pretty complimentary.

It’s nice to be married to someone who understands me so well, and it’s great to bounce ideas off of each other. However, given that we’re both so busy, we try to not let work and technology completely take over our lives and like to take breaks by spending time with our daughter, skiing, hiking, traveling, and more.

GW: Tell me a little bit more about yourself — where did you grow up, and how did you arrive in Seattle?

Kientz: I grew up in a small town in Ohio and lived there most of my life, though my parents took my brother and I on trips all over the country when we were younger. We usually traveled by train on Amtrak, and it was an amazing way to see the diverse landscape of the country.

When I was an undergraduate in college, I used my university’s co-op program as an opportunity to work in internships all over the country, including Boston, Chicago, Phoenix, and Berkeley. I applied to graduate schools all over the country and ended up at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. I had always loved Seattle based on visits as a kid and trips for conferences while I was in grad school, so when it came time to apply for faculty jobs, the University of Washington was tops on my list. My husband and I both got jobs here five years ago, and we are so grateful! We love being in a tech-focused city that is close to water and mountains and has a world-class research university.


Geek of the Week is a regular feature profiling the characters of the Pacific Northwest technology community. See the Geek of the Week archive for more.

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GW: When you look back in 10 years, what do you want your field to look like? What types of things do you want to have accomplished?

Kientz: I really hope we can achieve a closer connection between the fields of health and computing. Right now, they’re very different. I go to health-related conferences and everyone is wearing suits and things start at 7 A.M., and I go to computing or design-related conferences and everyone is wearing jeans and things finally get rolling at 10 A.M. with social events going late into the night. It’s just two completely different worlds, and I really want to try and bridge that gap.

The other thing is that the types of research that happens in the health field, like randomized controlled trials, don’t really fit in well with the rapidly changing pace of technology. It can take 5-plus years to write a grant, develop the technology, recruit large number numbers of participants, and then maybe have the people use the technology for two years to see if there is any long-term change. To not expect technology to change in a 5-year period is crazy!

I would love to work with health researchers to identify new ways of studying these types of technologies in a way that can get the really useful stuff validated and in the hands of people much sooner. I hope that more funding for science and technology research and education will help us to innovate and keep up with how fast technology changes and gets adopted.

  • Jenni Hogan

    Excited for everything she’s doing. Thanks Taylor for sharing this awesome person with us!

  • 2Morrow, Inc

    Congrats Julie! Hope we can work together on more projects in the future.

  • Barb

    Julie,

    Congratulations! I am so proud of you. From the time you were knee high to a grasshopper I knew you would make significant progress in whatever field you were in. Keep up the great work…we need more people like you.

    Give my love to your family!

    Barb