Computing Graduate Students Flex Academic and Powerlifting Muscles

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Georgia Tech Ph.D. students Tesca Fitzgerald and Stevie Chancellor each had a problem.

Fitzgerald, a robotics student pursuing her Ph.D. in Computer Science, faced physical hindrances brought on by heart defects, asthma, and low blood pressure. Chancellor, a Ph.D. student in Human-Centered Computing, had the less permanent but no less challenging struggle of recovering from a serious ankle injury.

Both born problem-solvers, they set out to do the only thing they knew how: Find a solution. And while their respective struggles were different in many ways, the conclusion for both was the same:

Powerlifting.

No, these were not halfhearted New Years’ resolutions to join the Campus Recreation Center and put in a set of squats or curls every now and again. We’re talking shaking legs, clinched teeth, and flushed red faces with muscles pushed to the limit.

“It’s an exciting sport,” Chancellor said. “It’s something everyone can celebrate. Every person, even if they aren’t going to win. They’re excited about someone setting a personal record. The room lights up, and you can hear it.”

Powerlifting is a strength sport that consists of lifting max weight on three lift types: squat, bench press, and deadlift. In a powerlifting event, it involves lifting the weight in three attempts.

Chancellor began her involvement in the sport just two years ago, but has already taken part in a handful of competitions. Competing wasn’t her original intention, though. She got involved simply to solve a problem.

She suffered a significant ankle injury at the end of her time as an undergraduate. Admitting she wasn’t in the best physical health before that time, she said she approached the issue like she approaches her studies: She did research.

She looked into the best ways to rehabilitate her ankle after going through reconstructive surgery. The overwhelming tip was lifting weights.

“It was a solution to help stabilize, add physical fitness, and decrease the risks of further injury,” she said.

She began doing simple workouts at the gym, noting that she had very little grasp of what she was doing by herself. Once she came to Georgia Tech to begin her Ph.D. three years ago, however, she discovered the Barbell Club.

“That’s when I actually got serious about the weight lifting and started powerlifting,” she said. “I was barely squatting 135 when I joined. But there is a mentorship at the Barbell Club. I was paired with the mentor, who helped grow my lifting abilities. It was a ton of fun to have a group of people I could talk to. No one is judgmental. They’re all super supportive of you. When I post videos, everyone helps me with my form. I got hooked.”

Fitzgerald is having a similar experience. While she hasn’t joined the Barbell Club yet, Chancellor has tried to recruit her to join.

“I only found out she was lifting about a month ago,” Chancellor said. “I saw her on Instagram, and I was like ‘What?!’”

Fitzgerald, who has yet to compete, said she plans to join the club and hopes to do her first competition sometime in early 2017.

She’s been lifting for about a year after her physician advised her to take part in more physical activities because of some of her medical difficulties.

“I have to stay in good cardiovascular shape, otherwise I start to have issues with low blood pressure and poor circulation,” Fitzgerald explained. “I was advised by my doctor to use exercise as the most effective treatment.”

She also sees powerlifting as a mental break and a constant challenge that puts her other work in perspective. While her research is an intellectual challenge, in lifting or cycling, another sport she enjoys, she said that you are pushing yourself to do something you weren’t sure you could physically do.

“That’s something I appreciate both in the research lab and out,” she said. “It’s competitive on an individual level. It’s more important to compare yourself to what you used to be. Just the progress and how you’ve improved. It’s comforting to know everyone started somewhere. The same person who is lifting 500 pounds, they started somewhere very similar to me.”

The involvement in powerlifting takes an interesting juxtaposition to Fitzgerald’s research, which is in cognitive systems and human-robot interaction. Her research centers around analogical reasoning as it pertains to robots, answering the central question: How can we make artificial intelligence handle new situations that arise, which they are unprepared for, using past similar experiences? By Fitzgerald’s own description, it’s a means to help robots be more flexible in how they solve problems.

As Fitzgerald explains, it’s an approach very similar to how humans work. We see a problem, we consider past experiences, and we find a solution.

Similarly, Chancellor’s research has an interesting tie to her involvement in powerlifting. One of her research areas pertains to deviant behavior in online mental wellness communities. For example, there are certain communities that not only accept destructive behaviors like eating disorders, but promote them. Her aim is to help these communities find and understand the spread of this content on social networking sites, as well as to help moderators who are challenged by this content.

While Chancellor said that she aims to keep her own personal health and wellbeing separate from her research, it’s impossible not to be informed by both.

“Still, the gym is my space,” she said. “It’s a chance to get away from something that can be an emotionally heavy subject.”

The sport has become more popular, especially among women, in recent years, and Chancellor said that it’s a great movement that she’d like to see continue.

“It’s cool for women to be strong and to be active,” she said. “We’re so much further along than we used to be.”