Reflections on Computer Science & the LGBTQIA+ Community with Dr. Arun Kumar
Dr. Arun Kumar is an Assistant Professor in UC San Diego’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering and the Halıcıoğlu Data Science Institute. Dr. Kumar’s research on data management and systems for machine learning-based analytics has been seeing rapid uptake in the tech industry. He has received an NSF CAREER Award, a Hellman Fellowship, and several research awards for his work.
In addition to his commitment to research, Dr. Kumar has a steadfast dedication to outreach. A strong supporter of oSTEM at UCSD, he has accompanied students at the oSTEM national conference, provided mentorship for oSTEM at UCSD events, and received the oSTEM at UCSD Faculty of the Year Award in 2018. I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Kumar in Fall Quarter 2020. In the transcript below, we discuss his heartwarming blog articles, passion for diversity in research, and uplifting outlook on the future of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Could you introduce yourself and your pronouns?
My name is Arun Kumar and I use he/him/his pronouns. I identify as a cisgender gay man. I’m an Assistant Professor in computer science and data science here at UCSD. I joined in 2016, so I’ve been here for a bit over four years. I graduated from the University of Wisconsin Madison with a PhD in computer science in 2016, then came straight to a faculty position.
What are your current research interests and projects?
My research is largely in the area of data management and systems, focused on machine learning based analytics. Machine learning and artificial intelligence applications are becoming very common in web companies, the enterprise world, healthcare, social sciences, natural sciences, humanities — everywhere. I look at that from the standpoint of data intensive computations: When you have to deal with large-scale heterogeneous or complex data sets, what are the issues for resource efficiency in terms of the amount of time, cost, and energy that goes into the processes? What are the issues in terms of human efficiency or productivity of users? I draw on ideas and techniques from a half a century of research in the database field and synthesize new principles, abstractions, and software systems to make machine learning easier, more scalable and cheaper to use in practice.
What is the future of your work?
On the research side, I’m super excited about what I’m doing. There’s a lot of work to be done in democratizing access to machine learning for a lot of communities. I like working on new problems rather than rehashing established problems. That said, there are also interesting challenges emerging from the system standpoint. Cloud computing is becoming a big deal. In data science, more broadly, people are starting to look at more data management issues, human interactions, issues of privacy and ethics, and so on.
I don’t view what I’m working on as a one topic within an existing area — I view it as something that’s actually birthing a new area. So I will keep exploring different topics, and that might lead to a lot more interesting work. In terms of applications I’d like to explore, I’m already working on healthcare, public health, exercise monitoring, and disease progression of different health outcomes. The Internet of Things is another thing that is interesting to me — devices that are ubiquitous and that send something about the real world that have widespread applications. Machine learning is applied in image and video analytics. The last one is social media. I am already collaborating with folks in political science, trying to understand how communities and conversations on social media get shaped. Polarization, for example on issues such as gun rights and gun control. The social science landscape is driven by large-scale multimodal data analytics — it’s no longer just doing surveys and interviews of people. They are doing graph and multimodal analytics on terabytes of data. That’s the data management systems challenge, which is something that I’d like to explore more.
That’s my future on the research side. On the teaching side, I’ll continue teaching databases and machine learning systems. I’ve been creating a lot of new courses for UCSD. I created the Database System Implementation course for CSE undergraduates. I created the Systems for Scalable Analytics course in the Data Science major, the first of its kind in the world, where undergraduates learn things like cloud computing, Spark, and so on. I created seminars and a CSE graduate course on Data Systems for Machine Learning. I would probably also explore courses on some of these new topics that I talked about.
On the outreach side, I’ll be continuing to engage and contribute to diversity. I don’t want that to fall by the wayside because that’s super important and meaningful to me. I will continue to work with undergraduate internship programs. STARS is one program that I’ve been working with a lot — over the last couple years, I’ve hosted three undergraduate interns from Hispanic Serving Institutions. That’s something that I like to contribute to — again, as part of enhancing diversity in computing. It’s awesome that one of the students who did really well in this internship is applying for a PhD in computing. I’m very happy — that’s how we change things. That’s how we increase diversity in all levels of computing, and we should do more of that.
I don’t like administration stuff, so don’t expect to see me become department chair. I like to stay technical. I like to stay close to the students. I like to stay close to the work.
How does it feel to meet students from the LGBTQIA+ community?
One of the reasons I became a faculty member was because I love working with students. To see them transform and become productive and come up with new stuff — that’s what excited me. I have some terrific students who’ve done spectacular work. Every one of my papers has students on it.
And working with oSTEM has been quite rewarding. I went to the oSTEM national conference twice, in 2017 and again in 2018, to make sure that UCSD is well represented — that it’s not students or staff alone, but also faculty that are present there. Tee, a student from the CS department, did some spectacular stuff. He was the secretary of oSTEM and had won the CNS Alan Turing Memorial Scholarship. I nominated Tee for the undergraduate Contributions to Diversity Award that CSE gives out every year, and he won. And I do that with all my students on all fronts: research, teaching assistants, and contributions to diversity. I like to promote the students who are doing the work, putting in the effort, and are forthright and diligent about achieving things that would not be possible if they weren’t.
When I meet students who are LGBTQIA+, I make sure that students are in an environment where they feel welcome, safe, and included. I want to reassure them that I’m also a person in the LGBT community, so if there is something in the department that is negatively affecting people from this community, I have got your back.
Issues that students might face because of their identity impede the progress in the field. Like not having a community, for example. There are not that many academics in computer science who are LGBTQIA+. I didn’t get to see any other faculty in computer science who were gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, or anything else like that at the oSTEM conference. I hope we can increase diversity in computing and data science too.
How does your identity inform your research?
In computer science, often, people tend to skip over a lot of these inclusion issues. Database textbooks, for example, talk about integrity constraints and they say every person has a mother and a father. Even for people who are straight but from a single parent household, they will look at that differently. People who are gay and lesbian, they will look at that differently. And that ties into systemic issues with regard to erasure and lack of awareness. I don’t think that’s malicious. I don’t think it was intended to be hurtful. It’s just not being cognizant of how things can be received by different groups, especially groups that are historically marginalized, legally discriminated against, and so on.
In many data sets and machine learning papers, genders are represented as zero or one. There isn’t gender inclusivity, even though we know that there are so many genders and gender identities — and it’s not just in English. In many world languages, there are multiple genders. In Sanskrit, there are three genders. So it’s already exclusionary culturally, and now there’s more awareness about discrimination towards gender identity.
I give these examples, and you cannot deny that it will affect people negatively. That was eye-opening for many faculty members, and many of them encouraged me to blog about it. It’s a way to amplify my impact on both the research community and on something that’s meaningful to me, which is diversity and inclusion in this field.
Why do you enjoy writing?
The reason I write is that I have something that I think is meaningful and want to share with the world — that I think can help someone change their mind about something that is important, or help someone get exposed to something they missed, or that they did not think about, or just communicate something about my own life experience that could potentially be interesting for someone else.
Writing helps you clarify your thinking. It helps you lay down things that you want to say in a coherent and organized manner. The way I feel about it is like take, for example, the coming out blog posts — why did I write that down? I thought it was important because there was a dearth of voices like mine. When I was coming out in 2014, I was trying to find out what the experience is like for Indian men, South Asian men, or Asian men. Very little has been written about that. I was just surprised.
And that’s sort of what got me thinking — maybe I should write about it, maybe it’ll help people who are from Asia, who are from South Asia, in particular from India, who are also struggling with coming out or trying to explain it to their family. Or families who are struggling to cope with their kids coming out to them. To share my story about what my journey was like, what I did, what tools and what mechanisms I used.
The response was much stronger than I thought. I posted it on Facebook as well. One of my friends from India during middle school, he reached out to me. And then he said my article was eye-opening and it made him cry, and it changed his mind on LGBT issues. That was really touching, and many others also wrote to me, expressing gratitude for me sharing my story and saying that it was meaningful for them to read about.
I think it helps people kind of understand what LGBT people go through — people who may not have a close friend or family member, they can still understand and they can get a better perspective. The slide deck that I released was also helpful for some people.
What do you see in the future of the LGBTQIA+ community?
I think the future is bright for LGBTQ+ community in STEM, and it’s been on an upward trajectory for the last decade or so. Like if you go to Pride — I went to the one in San Francisco in 2016. Google, Salesforce, and Facebook each had a huge contingent. At least in computing, the tech industry is very supportive of the LGBTQIA+ community. I mean, the head of Apple is a openly gay man. Tim Cook — he’s talked about why he wants to be open about it, and why he thinks that will help people, especially because he’s from the southern part of the U.S., and that’s not a part of the U.S. known for gay rights. Computer Science, the field itself. If you look at it, the so called “Father of Computer Science,” Alan Turing himself, is a gay man. And of course, he was persecuted for his sexuality and forced to take his own life. That’s something almost everyone in computer science knows about. So there’s a lot more awareness about the LGBTQIA+ rights issue.
I think we shouldn’t lose sight of the larger landscape of human rights issues — LGBTQIA+ rights as part of human rights. We should partner with allies and other communities that are struggling for their rights, and make sure that we don’t lose sight of that. We want to make sure that we support key organizations, that all countries lift constitutional values up, and that everyone gets equal rights — that includes trans people — and make sure that law enforcement and all of these institutional bodies take hate crimes against LGBTQIA+ people seriously. Trans people are especially vulnerable to hate crimes. All of these issues are interrelated. Ultimately, it’s a matter of human rights, and we don’t want to lose sight of that. So whoever has made more advances should help uplift the others who are still struggling to make those sorts of advances institutionally and systemically.
But the trajectory has been moving forward. That’s good. In the summer of 2020, the Supreme Court extended the federal Civil Rights protection for anti-discrimination in employment on the basis of sex to include sexual orientation and gender identity. Colorado has its first openly gay governor. That’s awesome. Political parties, they’re starting to put up more diverse candidates, and we did have an openly gay presidential candidate this year. That’s also big progress.
If you look at other countries, Ireland had their first openly gay Prime Minister in the last several years. India — the Supreme Court gave a verdict a couple years ago that gay rights are protected under the Constitution. So they decriminalized homosexuality. Six years ago in 2014 when I was coming out, they gave equal rights for transgender people. Things are improving in many of these parts of the world, and that’s encouraging to me. And that’s a positive sign that we are moving in the right direction.
But we shouldn’t let our guard down, because anything that is progress can be reversed. We should be vigilant, and we should partner with allies and other communities that are fighting for their rights, and make sure that we all lift each other up. And that includes Black Lives Matter — we need to speak out in support of people losing their legal due process rights and being discriminated against systemically. We should support people of color, we should support women’s rights, all of these matters. All of these are ultimately human rights.
Is there anything else that you wanted to mention?
We have a spectacular community on campus for LGBTQIA+ people. The LGBT Resource Center is one of the largest of many schools that I’ve seen — not just in the country, but in the world. They’re doing terrific work to be connected with the community. They have a lot of social events and a lot of panel events. oSTEM is doing terrific stuff too. They’re doing it at a national level. The students — you all are organizing all these events — the writing, the talks, the panels, all of that is helpful for students to feel part of a strong community on campus.
And I hope more students are aware of this. They should be assured that this campus and this community is something that they will cherish and they will remember. That this community will help uplift them in their life, rather than something that they feel isolated about and feel like they don’t have someone to talk to about. And so, faculty, staff, students — everybody is in this together.
Dr. Kumar’s kindness, positivity, and understanding struck me from the moment I read his Coming Out blog post. He continues to inspire me today. I learned so much as a writer, engineer, and human being from his thoughtful advice and reflections. To Dr. Kumar, thank you once again for your support!
If you want to get to know Dr. Kumar and other LGBTQIA+ professors at UCSD, please consider these resources:
For more information on diversity in Computer Science & Data Science, please consult the links below: