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Scholarship gives former UTM student the push to strive for something bigger

Patricia Lonergan

Mahika Phutane has received two gifts from the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation. Not only has the former U of T Mississauga student received a prestigious scholarship that will help her develop inclusive technology, she was also encouraged to dream bigger and become an agent for change.

The computer science and communication, culture, information and technology (CCIT) major is the first Canadian to receive the Dennis Washington Leadership Scholarship, worth up to $120,000, which is awarded to Horatio Alger Alumni Scholars who have demonstrated academic excellence, leadership abilities and strength of character in the face of adversity.

When Phutane met with the 14-person scholarship panel, she was asked where she wants to be in 40 years. She provided a modest answer, outlining that she’d like to have her own small consultancy firm that helps companies make technology accessible. A panellist latched onto the word Phutane continually used in her description: small.

It was there she was encouraged to strive for more. “They forced me to think big, which is amazing,” she says.

Perhaps even more amazing was when she received the call that she had been awarded the scholarship.

“I felt relieved,” Phutane recalls. “I felt like my hard work had paid off.”

At the same time, there was a sudden surge of responsibility, she says, because this scholarship marks just the beginning and there is a lot of work ahead.

Phutane will join Cornell in the fall as a PhD student in computer science, where she will continue on the journey that began at UTM, where she studied because “the CCIT program really spoke to me and I thought it would give me a basis for my major in computer science.”

Interested in technology development and engineering, Phutane is also a creative person at heart. “I always wanted to push myself to combine arts and humanities with my computer science background.”

She wasn’t aware she could blend those two interests best in the subfield of human computer interaction until she started talking to her professors at UTM. Through them, she was introduced to an area of computer science that explores how humans interact with technology.

She was able to delve into the field as a research assistant at Cosmin Munteanu’s Aging Gracefully Lab, a human interaction-focused lab that explores how technologies might be better adapted for seniors. Phutane says she worked there for about three years on various projects.

“That’s something I really enjoyed because it put me in this box and forced me to think from the perspective of a particular user,” she says. “That’s how I got involved. I owe it all to Professor (Munteanu).

“My (computer science) degree taught me how to build something but my CCIT degree made me question why I should even be building it in the first place and for whom I am really building it.”

Phutane’s research at Cornell will focus on how technology has the strength to impact people, especially those who are underserved.

“Accessibility is something I feel really strongly about,” she says, explaining she will explore human interaction, accessibility and artificial intelligence. Her plan is to work with intelligent artificial systems and build smarter assistive technologies to help niche populations who should have equal access to advanced technology. Her motivation is her brother, who uses a wheelchair, and others she has seen struggle with systems that were not designed with them in mind.

“Right now, as much as technology is bringing people together – we have Zoom calls, we have meetings – it’s leaving a lot of people behind and it’s not fair,” Phutane says. “I really want to bridge that divide and create technology that is just and fair and serving not only the enabled and not only the disabled, but both.”