Hanna Haponenko is the January 2021 Changemaker in the McMaster Women in Tech series. Developed by the Office of the AVP & CTO, ‘McMaster Women in Tech’ is a project that highlights and recognizes women tech changemakers within the McMaster community. Check out how our latest Changemaker is leveraging facial gesture recognition to develop assistive automobile technology, mentorship and ‘delightful technology.’
Name: Hanna Haponenko
Role/Current areas of work (both volunteer & career):
Product and Operational Lead at Axcessiom Technologies Inc.; PhD level III student and Teaching Assistant in the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour
Area of Expertise:
Human vision and attention; statistics; computer vision; user experience design; web development; project/team management
Really depends, but overall would probably be Pride by Kendrick Lamar or Summer by Antonio Vivaldi.
Recommended read/ podcast:
Read: The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman
Listen: This Past Weekend by Theo Von
Tell us about Axcessiom Technologies, how it came to be and your role in its development?
Axcessiom Technologies is a software and electronics manufacturing start-up company that enhances the accessibility and freedom of human lives. We build intuitive and accessible products, while keeping safety, reliability and affordability in mind. Currently, we are designing a Driver Assistance System that leverages facial gesture recognition technology, allowing drivers with disabilities to use facial gestures to activate secondary vehicle functions (e.g. blinking with the left eye to turn on a left indicator light, smiling to turn on the windshield wipers, etc.). Drivers with physical disabilities use hand controls to operate their vehicle with both hands. One hand controls the gas and brake and the other hand controls steering. When driving, both hands are always in use. Because of this design, it is difficult and sometimes impossible, and not to mention unsafe, to try and control secondary vehicle functions. Thus, our facial gesture recognition technology allows drivers to have a safe, easy and effective way of controlling secondary vehicle functions.
I met the principal founder and now managing partner, Shanjay Kailayanathan, in May of 2019 at Collision Conference in Toronto. Since then, I’ve been honing my research of human vision and attention to the development of the facial gesture recognition software at Axcessiom Technologies. At Axcessiom, I apply principles of human and computer vision to enhance the integration of vehicle safety and human performance of drivers with disabilities or advanced age. In my first year at Axcessiom, I worked as a technical lead, and in my second year moved to managing product and operations.
Can you tell us a bit about your research in facial recognition, cognition and their role in the automotive sector?
For my PhD, I study the theoretical nature of how a person switches attention among different locations and objects in simulated 3D space. Early on in my graduate studies, I became quite obsessed with researching and analyzing about the user experience of individuals operating semi-autonomous vehicles. It was around this time when I also began toying with computer vision algorithms on single-board computers. I created algorithms that told my camera and processor to localize and identify objects and faces in my environment. When it was time to decide on a thesis topic for my PhD, I ended up choosing to study how and to what extent humans were able to detect spatial and object locations in simulated 3D space. But, I never lost interest in human-machine interaction within an automotive context, so naturally ended up combining my skills at Axcessiom. I don’t directly apply my PhD research at Axcessiom, but I do transfer skills of statistics, user experience, project design and execution, writing, managing people and research analysis to my work at my start-up.
You have been heavily involved with mentoring others through Let’s Talk Science and receiving mentorship from business accelerators. How might the mentorship you receive influence how you mentor others?
I learn something different from each of my mentors and try not to copy anyone else’s leadership or mentoring style. Instead, I subjectively combine the best qualities from individuals that have had an impact on my growth and learning. My leadership soup, crafted with the help of my formal and informal mentors, has a diverse flavour profile. You’ll find hints of collaborative and agile development, an unwavering and stoic desire to seek the truth, constant compassion and evidence-based decision-making. These are the qualities that dictate how I mentor others. Oh yes, and that dash of communication. I’m always asking questions and reaffirming progress to ensure mentees stay on track.
Within the context of the technology landscape, how can women help other women?
For me, I find the best way to support women is encouraging them that they really can do anything. Acknowledging barriers, rather than marinating in them, helps women prevent this mindset of learned helplessness, of which I’ve also been guilty. It’s never good to quit before you start. That’s a fear I try to share with every woman I meet, particularly in the male-dominated tech sphere. When something becomes difficult, I remain consistent and determined. I learned to embrace the pain of failure. Everyone, regardless of gender, should do the same. You can’t experience happiness and success without experiencing pain and failure.
What is one key thing that men can do to be allies of women?
As someone who is unapologetically curious, I’ve also asked men, fellow friends and colleagues, their thoughts on what they can do to be allies of women, and I get a consistent response—knowledge and experience matter above all else. However, I think it’s also important to understand the role that unconscious bias can play in something like the hiring process. If you get two identical resumes—one with a woman’s name on it and one with a man’s name on it, who do you hire and why? Answering questions like that are important.
What are some misconceptions that women might have about working within a technology-focused field?
I think that biggest misconception is that women aren’t as interested in math, science or tech as men. Not true. If anything, it’s the way that women are socialized, from the toys they’re given to play with when they’re children to the careers they are encouraged (or discouraged) to pursue when they are adolescents, that dictate perspectives on what’s possible. Another misconception is that you have to be a math whiz. Not true. Truly, the most important attributes for excelling in tech, or anywhere else for that matter, is working hard, remaining consistent and using logic to make critical decisions.
As part of McMaster’s IT Strategy, stakeholders across the university shared ‘Digital Moments’ vignettes that capture what technology could look like for Marauders of the future. What does the future of technology at McMaster look like to you?
With the onset of incubators and innovation hubs like The Forge and Innovation Factory, I see more integration between the University and tech companies in the future. At the horizon, I see a bustling and thriving city with young individuals working at local tech companies. We have outstandingly intelligent students at McMaster, many of whom fall in love with Hamilton by the time they’re finished their degree. Unfortunately, many recent graduates end up moving outside of Hamilton to pursue their tech dreams (think Toronto or Waterloo). With a greater investment focus placed on research and development in tech, I see McMaster University reaching international status as an innovation hub for science and technology.