Interviewee: Kamala Payyapilly Thiruvenkatanathan, PhD candidate, Pennsylvania State University. Authors/Editors: Romina Garcia de leon, Shayda Swann (Blog Co-coordinator).
Published: October 21tst 2022.
Could you briefly explain your research?
My research is situated at the intersection of women’s health and technology with a specific focus on pregnancy after loss. There has been a rising emphasis on designing technology for women’s health and this has led to the growth of the FemTech industry. FemTech is an abbreviation for “Female Technology” and is inclusive of a plethora of women’s health systems ranging from menstrual and fertility trackers to smart wearables that track women’s intimate health data to artificial intelligence based diagnostic devices. Among women’s health issues addressed, there has been an increasing focus on the pregnant body as a site of research and intervention. And yet, the pregnant and the maternal body are used interchangeably, neglecting a common but an unpleasant outcome of pregnancy loss and the associated felt experiences of women navigating pregnancy after loss. Pregnancy loss which encompasses miscarriage and stillbirth is incredibly common and approximately 80% of women get pregnant again after loss. However, their pregnancy journey is never the same given the physical and the emotional trauma they experienced during pregnancy loss. Attending to the rising interest in designing interventions for pregnancy and maternal health, alongside the ongoing call to question the stigmatization of women’s bodies, my research centers a common but tabooed experience of pregnancy after loss.
What got you interested in this research?
As a human, I seek fulfillment in making a positive impact in the lives of the underserved, those who are truly in need. At a young age, I was not aware of a career that allowed me to embrace my personal value of wanting to serve the underserved. Parking it aside, I decided to step into a typical, professional career journey that would eventually fetch me a job. Before setting foot into my doctoral path, I was a trained computer science engineer, with my understanding of technology limited to its functionality. I considered my ability to comprehend technology’s inner workings as my strength. A few years later, during my attempt to make a career detour in search of fulfillment, I was introduced to the domain of Human Computer Interaction (HCI). I always had a passion for design and HCI revealed ways through which I could combine my technological strength with that of design. More importantly, HCI rekindled my yearning to help those in need, by exposing me to the world of humanistic research. Reflecting on my personal values and my positionality as a woman led to the pursuit of research on women’s health, acknowledging women’s lived bodily experiences. My stumbling upon the world of FemTech by chance also enabled ways to reinforce my ability to comprehend (and perhaps design) technology. My observations along with a critical reflection of my personal values, of wanting to design for the margins, motivated me to design for the neglected felt experiences of women navigating pregnancy after loss, with and through technology.
What impact do you hope to see with this work years from now?
The ultimate goal of my research is to bring to the forefront the lived bodily experiences of women navigating pregnancy after loss. Discussing pregnancy loss and pregnancy after loss continues to be a taboo. I hope for my research to contribute to the emancipatory research agenda within women’s health in HCI, bringing to the fore a stigmatized and yet common experience of pregnancy loss. Additionally, as a part of my research process, I aim to design with women that could lead to concrete design implications on tangible FemTech systems that employ emerging technologies to support the unique needs of women experiencing pregnancy after loss. Ultimately, I hope for my work to contribute to the de-stigmatization of pregnancy loss and reimagining the pregnant body, considering unique unheard experiences of women navigating pregnancy after loss.
Can you tell us about any barriers you’ve faced advocating for women’s health in the human-computer interaction field?
Despite a growing trend in HCI towards experience, embodied interactions, and leisure technologies, some topics related to the body, such as women’s health and human sexuality, remain to be a taboo. Given the taboos associated with designing for women’s bodies, it takes extra efforts and often an activist stance, to invoke discussions related to the need to design considering women’s embodied, lived experiences. Additionally, with the emergence of women’s health technologies, there is a need to understand how technology conditions women’s bodies and generate implications towards designing better women’s health technologies. However, as a woman, my own subjectivity and positionality often meddles with my interpretation and critique of women’s health technologies and it often gets challenging to convey the same in an acceptable form, to the research community.
What is the best way for people to learn more about your work?
You can find more about my work on my website.