Short third-person version (this is what I copy-paste into boxes asking for a “speaker bio”):
Mel Chua is a contagiously enthusiastic hacker, writer, and educator with over a decade of teaching and curriculum development experience and a track record of leadership in Free, Libre, and Open Source Software (FLOSS) communities, most recently as Red Hat Inc’s. educational liason. Now part of Purdue University’s School of Engineering Education, Mel’s work bridges academic research on successful learning and making communities with deep personal experience in building them.
Longer and hopefully more fun version:
My name is Mel. I’ve been called a hacker by other hackers. Pressed for a short job description, I would say I’m a midwife of makers. I’ve also been called an engineer (of the electrical, computer, and software varieties), community manager, writer, teacher (primarily at the undergraduate, graduate, and faculty-development levels), and a human catalyst.
My quest is to make a world where makers make themselves, and I’m particularly intrigued with the space between how hackers learn and how engineers are taught (in undergrad and beyond), which is the focus of my Engineering Education research at Purdue. I love to teach, write, and make things, and my career has always focused on helping others do the same. You may know me from the Ada Initiative, Red Hat’s Community Leadership Team, Fedora, Sugar Labs, One Laptop Per Child, the MIT Media Lab, Design Continuum, Appropedia, or The Open Planning Project, among other places.
I love hardware because I used to be afraid that it was hard. As part of Olin College’s second graduating class, I learned to BS about Electrical and Computer Engineering, and chose this discipline by tossing a dart the night before declarations of major were due. In terms of prior knowledge and visible affinity, ECE was the worst possible course of study for my 18-year-old self (I thought a breadboard was a baking implement), and I spent the next three years failing repeatedly and almost dropping out of college. It was the best academic decision I’ve ever made; I learned what it felt like to really struggle and feel “behind” in studies, how to value learning (by my own internal compass) over “doing well in school,” and (most importantly) that I could learn things that initially seemed unfamiliar and terrifying. I’m intrigued by the design of platforms to design with — demo boards, dev toolkits, APIs. Once in a while, I peek in on hearing technologies from the perspective of a deaf engineer.
I love software, especially if it’s free (both libre and gratis). My introduction to open source, Linux, and programming involves some high school friends, a stack of Debian install floppies, and several painful weeks that have left me perpetually thankful for the advances in installers since that fateful day. I live in .txt, .c, .cpp, and .py files, plus my .zshrc in Fedora. As a former QA engineer, I learn things by filing bugs and eavesdropping on IRC channels and code reviews. Though I can and have developed code, I’m more interested in supporting developers with tools and infrastructure. I’d rather read about metrics and methodologies than algorithms (though those are cool too), and hang out in business and law schools on occasion to learn about marketing and licensing models.
I love learning things by documenting and teaching them. I’m one of those people who can’t not teach, no matter what they’re doing. One phenomenon I’m intrigued by is that of improbable mastery; what makes people persevere at something they’re initially terrible at, and how do they transform from “utterly confused” to “one of the best in this domain”? It’s this kind of transformation I try to go for when I teach, which is why I especially like teaching college-level classes to newbies or cross-disciplinary populations with lots of students from outside “my field.”
I love research on learning, whether I’m whirling about Making Things Happen in open communities or writing about “action research on cognitive apprenticeships within distributed communities of practice” for academic audiences. My research looks at practitioners of teaching and learning in both open communities and academic disciplines, and asks them to experiment with what they could learn from one another. I’m interested in hacking the universe by making subsets of it more hackable; transforming academic culture is a challenge I’ve chosen to tackle because of its great power to influence growth and access for changemakers of all sorts.
I hold many nonstandard modifiers. My life is a testimony of seeming contradictions: deaf musician/dancer, female engineer, qualitative researcher in a STEM department, hacker who avoids writing code, poststructuralist Catholic, enthusiastic introvert. I was the first member of my Chinese-Filipino immigrant family to be born in America, develop hardware and software, and participate in internet communities. I grew up as a “disabled” kid with a full-time sign language interpreter, special ed classes, and a host of assistive devices (which I occasionally got in trouble for taking apart). As I wrote once: I was made for bridging; it’s my gift. I need to reach across worlds to be all me, be all there.
I see the world as full of wonder. I’m a geek at heart, no matter what I do: reproducing ethnic street food in my kitchen, playing music (anything from jazz cello quartets to madrigal recorder troupes to fingerstyle guitar to classical piano), pursuing my lifelong quest to be a polyglot (German, Mandarin, and ASL), collecting quirky technical textbooks, choreographing dances set in libraries and based on Calvin & Hobbes, drawing comic books about my research. When I wander through strange cities in the middle of the night or watch in awe as my flight lifts quietly into the clouds at the beginning of yet another adventure, I pray for the blessings I’ve already received so much of: an ever-widening sense of wonder, an increasingly boundless universe, and good companions to explore and transform it with.