Yuanyang Teng

Computer Science, MS’22

Yuanyang Teng GSAPP’21/MS’22 didn’t take the most well-traveled route into computer science. Instead, Teng said it was a process of academic discovery that helped her truly understand her goal to positively impact people’s lives.

Growing up with an artist’s mind and an architect mother, Teng became engrossed in inspiring public spaces and the beauty of fine architecture. She imagined creating inventive, but inhabitable structures that also help people expand their way of living. 

However, after graduating from Pratt Institute with a Bachelor of Architecture in 2013, and going on to become a licensed architect, she felt something was lacking in her work. Despite her love for the design process, she felt much of her industry was not working hard enough to help people live in a changing world. 

“Architecture takes time to build, and is increasingly expensive, so many of the mechanisms for addressing larger civic issues in our daily lives have shifted away from the architecture industry and over to technology,” she said. “You can iterate quicker and cheaper than you can with structures, so innovation has shifted from an individual city scale to a global, technological scale.”

Such soul searching brought her to Columbia in 2019, where she’s since committed to understanding how technology can improve our day-to-day existence. She’s joined Assistant Professor Brian Smith’s Computer-Enabled Abilities Lab (CEAL), where her architectural knowledge helps the team in their quest to make indoor spaces more easily navigated and experienced by low-vision users. 

We reached out to Teng to learn more about her career evolution, her experiences at Columbia in and out of the lab, and what’s next for her.

How did you make the shift from architecture into computer science?

I was working in New York City in one of the top architecture firms. It was really great, and I was learning a lot about design. But then I started to realize that the industry for the most part has not been moving forward, despite the fast-changing world. So I wasn't really excited about where I felt I was headed careerwise, and I was feeling lost. 

I quit my job and then took some classes in architecture at Columbia. That’s when I started to encounter some of the engineering school’s human-centered design courses, like user interface design.

I took some introductory programming courses and realized I was pretty good at it. I think I was still holding onto this idea that programming is super hard or that it's only for the really smart or mathematically-minded people. That actually wasn't a case as long as your mind is open to new things. I realized this is where I wanted to go, where we’re solving problems that help people navigate their daily lives.

How has your expertise helped in the CEAL lab?

I first met professor Smith in his User Interface design class when I was exploring options as a non-degree student. He’s very knowledgeable, very kind, and a very human-centered thinker as well. After his class, I saw his lab was recruiting for graduate assistants for their next project helping visually impaired people navigate spaces. They were originally looking for people with experience in computer vision, because they were using cameras to track a person’s movement in a space, but I was sure I could help because of my background. 

So I got in as part of the user research team, basically bridging the design of technology with user insights. I got to talk to several people with low vision and what their perspectives and challenges are. That really has been an amazing and enlightening experience. I discovered challenges that our design could mitigate, including helping low-vision users gain a greater sense of orientation as they turn around in space. A lot of people take that for granted, but it’s really important for navigating yourself through a building.
That’s the great thing about human-centered design, that we reach out to the people involved to get their perspective. Visually impaired people learn how to walk in spaces with the use of a white cane that they move back and forth so they can detect obstacles, but it’s much harder to explore unknown spaces. 

What have you learned from low vision users?

Talking with people with visual impairments has been a very humbling experience. They are strong and independent individuals who believe in themselves and their ability to accomplish anything in life. Being able to develop technology that can help them has been really meaningful for me. 

Most current technology is not giving them much more information in terms of exploring unfamiliar environments. Most apps or devices are focused on giving turn-by-turn instructions, almost like Google Maps. In addition to getting from point A to point B, we discover that a more important problem is how to gain a good understanding of the environment and eventually form mental maps. There are still gaps in that area of research.

From my experience in architecture and from listening to their experiences, I've come to see there’s a joy in discovering an environment. If you’re in a city for the first time, there is a joy in witnessing all that’s new. If you’re in a mall, you want to be able to learn about not just the location for, but the layout of all the different shops. So the question becomes: how do we help visually impaired gather information on their environment? That was my real big contribution to the team, and we’re working on different ways to help people do that.

How has your Columbia experience been, and what’s next for you in computer science?

I love meeting people here in Columbia Engineering, both professors and students, at office hours, at research fairs, at the social academic events and gatherings, as well as through some of my project collaborations. We discuss human-centered problems we care about, projects we are working on and long-term aspirations and progress. 

People bring together diverse perspectives. While many people are achieving wonderful successes in their journey, they’ve still been approachable, open and humble. 

I like to learn about different perspectives, so I really enjoy just going out for coffee with people and discussing ideas. We have weekly lab meetings where we get to discuss our work and our lives. I realized that I bring some strengths and some perspectives that are different from other people. I just like to see how our strengths could come together and in the future potentially find ways to solve problems together.

I’m not the only one looking to rediscover themselves. When I was starting in the master’s program, I met a few wonderful friends who put their past privilege on pause and came here to pursue a new dream. For example, before coming to Columbia, my classmate Arnavi was a successful software engineer at Microsoft. She wanted to create more human impact, gain research experience, and explore new things. She eventually joined CEAL as well, and we collaborate all the time. We get together and talk about ideas and help each other out, and just knowing there are many people out there like us who are expanding their minds makes me glad to be here.

After my master’s, I’m considering doing a PhD and doing more research, mostly because I’m just a curious person. I’m open to any path that allows me to apply design and thought into developing technology that will help people.

Student Spotlight

Architecture takes time to build, and is increasingly expensive, so many of the mechanisms for addressing larger civic issues in our daily lives have shifted away from the architecture industry and over to technology.

Yuanyang Teng
Computer Science, MS’22