Computer Science promotion news

19 Oct 2020
19 Oct 2020

Melissa Densmore

Photo Credit: Alex Densmore

The Department of Computer Science is delighted to announce the promotion of Melissa Densmore to associate professor.

Computer science runs in Melissa Densmore’s family. Her father was a computer scientist in the 1970s, and taught her programming in C and Basic as a child. 

Graduating with a degree in computer science, she joined a start-up founded by her classmates at Cornell University and moved to California during the heady days of the Internet boom in 1998. But just a few years later, in the wake of 9-11, she realized that she wanted to better understand perspectives from outside the United States. She completed a masters at the University College of London that focused on ways to make internet services accessible to remote, rural communities that lacked wired connections. This interest in development was to stick.

Africa started to call Densmore but despite receiving some job offers on the continent and considering volunteer work, she realized she wanted to pursue her studies further in order to obtain the research skills and theoretical background to better understand the context of international development that would later inform her approach to ICT4D research. While working towards her doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley, she became involved in the neonate ICT4D community, where she encountered UCT’s late Prof Gary Marsden, who became an influential mentor and encouraged her application to UCT.

“I got to be a part of the birth of a community where computer scientists were actively trying to work with social scientists to develop and understand what ICT4D means.”

After a period of postdoctoral research with Microsoft Research in India, where she lived for two years, she did at last join UCT, although deeply saddened by Marsden’s passing in 2013.

“I was devastated to learn that Gary had passed away just a couple of months after I had accepted my offer. But without Gary, his students would need me more. Despite all my fears and the lost opportunity to be mentored, my personal vision hadn’t changed and I still wanted to be at UCT.”

Melissa with colleagues and students

David Johnson, Maggie Lamola, Hafeni Mthoko, and Wanjiru Mburu use strategically placed balloons to celebrate Melissa’s pregnancy in the ICT4D lab in 2018.

She found new mentors in the form of professors Hussein Suleman, head of the Dept of Computer Science, and Ulrike Rivett, Director of the School of IT, who both have supported and encouraged immensely her in her career.

“I’m an American trying to do research in Africa and with Africans without being a colonial influence. That means in my efforts to support African research I have to make sure I am not bulldozing anyone with my experience which is rooted in American training. I work hard to better recognize African thought and support African leaders and their voices in the international research community. I always have to be aware of my own privilege and to contextualise my experience. I love being in the middle of it here because it’s such an opportunity to learn – learning to reshape my own preconceptions and shape how I approach the world in a way that allows people to better work together. Sometimes it feels hard and so I remind myself that if I want to see more equality and participation in the world then I need to be in a place where I’m a little bit uncomfortable. I feel happy and privileged to be teaching here in Cape Town. In the end, it’s the accomplishments of my students that help me know I’m in the right place,” says Densmore.

”Dr Densmore is an enabler; she takes on the responsibility to expose her students to the global research community and to create opportunities for her students locally and abroad. I gained significant life-long lessons outside the walls of the research lab - while travelling at research conferences with Dr. Densmore and through various collaboration opportunities that she created between us at UCT and various other researchers globally, says 'Maletšabisa Molapo, a Phd graduate.

“Melissa was a brilliant supervisor. She challenged me to always consider both the human and technical side of everything I did during my Masters. Working with her was the highlight of my University career, and I hope when it comes to PhD, we will still be able to collaborate in some way,” says Chelsea-Joy Wardle, a master’s graduate.

Her focus now is on student development and her research on co-design community-based digital interventions to support maternal and child health. Densmore directs the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at UCT, is the coordinator of the Hasso-Plattner Institute Research School at UCT in ICT4D, and helps to lead the UCT Centre in ICT4D. She is the co-founder of the ACM SIGCHI Protea Chapter, and a member of the ACM SIGCHI Research Ethics Committee.

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