Take the Leap: Art, Tech, and Post-Grad Plans

Before starting my studies, I knew I loved the potential of software technology, and I knew I loved the arts and humanities; but I thought that my interests were fated – like parallel lines – to never intersect. As a computer science student in SASAH, my coursework has exposed me to fascinating questions at the intersection of these disciplines.

In first year, I took Digital Humanities, a required second year SASAH course that is often a mystery to students in terms of curriculum. As someone very new to coding myself, it was fascinating to see the language of different communities explore the very foundations of computer science. In my Java course, a function helped my Pacman eat cherries and avoid ghosts. In discrete math, a function was a discrete ‘mapping’ from one set of values to another – a set of anything: numbers, words, apples. But in the humanities, what is a function, but a mechanical black box, even an oracle? During this course and on my own time, I quickly discovered that the arts/humanities and technology intersect in many ways, some of which I’ll list briefly here with links, from the most obvious to the least:

  1. Digital arts/digital humanities (for which Western offers a very interesting minor
  2. Human-computer interaction design/User Experience Design/User Research/Design consulting
  3. Digital activism/surveillance/control
  4. Philosophy of Technology/Ethics of Technology
  5. Technology Policy

In May, I was selected as a Killam Fellow by Fulbright Canada, and I’m happy to speak to anybody about the application process; they’re looking for ‘exceptional undergraduates’ who are interested in pursuing a graduate degree in the future; beyond the monetary support, the prestigious Fulbright name is a major boon for future graduate study applications, and I’d love to see more SASAH students apply (the deadline is the last week of January – check with Western’s International staff).

A typical graduate study application is comprised of statements of interest, references, a transcript, and sometimes an academic CV. Research is thus incredibly important; it is the best introduction to what a research-based masters/PhD could look like, provides ample material for statements, references, and CVs , and helps you meet interesting people doing work you are (hopefully!) interested in. My studies in SASAH led to me doing research on digital activism under a Visual Arts professor at Western whose focus is on textile activism; I knew I wanted to complement this grassroots research with something more top-down, and the University of Washington has one of the top technology policy think tanks in North America, aptly named the Tech Policy Lab.

The process for applying for research jobs is quite ad-hoc since there are rarely official postings seeking undergraduate brainpower. Knowing I wanted to work at the lab while there, I read a few of their papers across different domains, and based on which papers intrigued me, began to email professors, postdocs, and PhDs. I emailed one person per subject area, and usually tailored the email to their more recent publications and brief context on my background and why I was interested in their work. In the end, I only got one response, but it was from the head of the Lab, Ryan Calo! After some email tag, I was directed to a researcher and a project manager, with whom I chatted about my interests. At this point in your academic career, you’re not expected to generate original ideas; rather, the decision-makers are looking for potential, that mysterious mixture of intellectual curiosity and work ethic, as well as general affability. You can ‘signal’ potential in a variety of ways; I sent in a writing sample (specifically, a literature review), as well as the academic CV. Different disciplines look for different ‘signals’; for example, their request for a writing sample would be typical of any labs based out of the Faculty of Law, Social Science, and Arts and Humanities. If you don’t have a literature review, any academic writing sample suffices, but the more related the coursework/subject matter, the better.

I’ll be working on short-term policy/regulation of artificial intelligence while at the lab. People in this field have backgrounds ranging from philosophy to economics to computer science to law. As an undergraduate, my work will be mostly comprised of literature review, which is the synopsizing of current and historical arguments and perspectives in a specified academic space to preface original work and thought on a subject. Besides realizing my lifelong dream of getting paid to read, I’m incredibly excited to explore what a career in academia could look like. I’m interested in ethics/safety of artificial intelligence, a very broad and interdisciplinary field; I hope that this experience will help me increase my repository of domain-specific knowledge, inform further undergraduate research direction (including the honours thesis), as well as introduce me to completely new mental models and ideas. I encourage you all to test out what you’re interested in by seeking out opportunities – reach out to people you admire, apply to things that you don’t think you’re qualified for, and challenge yourself to the point that you’re afraid.

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