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Three UMSI doctoral candidates earn Rackham Predoctoral Fellowships

Rackham Graduate School. 2024 Rackham Predoctoral Fellowship. UMSI honorees. Ben Zhang, PhD candidate. Rahaf Alharbi, PhD canddiate. Shwetha Rajaram, PhD Candidate.

Thursday, 05/09/2024

University of Michigan School of Information PhD candidates Ben ZhangRahaf Alharbi and Shwetha Rajaram have earned 2024 Rackham Predoctoral Fellowships

The fellowship is highly competitive and covers tuition for one year while providing students with $38,970 in stipend funding. Students must be nominated by their school and exemplify PhD dissertations that are “unusually creative, ambitious and impactful.” 

Learn more about UMSI doctoral candidates Ben ZhangRahaf Alharbi and Shwetha Rajaram

UMSI doctoral candidate Ben Zhang researches the interplay between labor, identity, mobility and infrastructure. He is currently exploring the sociotechnical, cultural and economic dimensions of AI production and data marketplaces in the context of large-scale data infrastructures  in China and transnationally. 

His PhD advisers are Oliver Haimson and Michaelanne Thomas

"I'm so proud of Ben's accomplishments as a PhD student,” says Haimson. “He has a unique combination of great research ideas and skill in conducting in-depth ethnographic research that leads to important insights that will make social impact.” 

Thomas says she is especially proud of Zhang’s “critical and empathic approach to his work.” 

Before joining UMSI, Zhang worked as a journalist in Beijing and engaged in data-driven storytelling that inspired him to pursue a career in information. After graduating, he plans to continue research. 

“It's truly an honor to receive this award,” Zhang says. “The Rackham Predoctoral Fellowship is especially exciting during my time at UMSI because it grants me the opportunity to advance my dissertation work. This fellowship will also provide me with additional time, resources, and community support to develop into the interdisciplinary scholar I aspire to become.” 

UMSI doctoral candidate Rahaf Alharbi is a fourth year PhD candidate. Her research examines how disabled people resist and subvert privacy violations and reclaim their right to privacy while navigating technology and assistive applications. 

“I believe disabled people should benefit from assistive applications without forgoing privacy concerns,” she says. 

Alharbi is expected to graduate in 2025. Her dissertation advisors are Sarita Schoenebeck and Robin Brewer

“I'm thrilled that Rahaf has received this award,” Schoeneback says. “Rahaf is doing high impact work in the fields of human-computer interaction, AI and disability studies. Her insights on obfuscation and privacy have contributed to scholarly conversations about the role of AI technologies in disabled people's lives. Her work has also provided recommendations for companies that develop AI products to be more accessible and privacy-preserving for their users.”

Brewer says she is proud of Alharbi’s focus and engagement with “non-Western disability perspectives” through her research. 

After graduating, Alharbi hopes to continue research in the areas of accessibility, privacy and disability. 

“I am incredibly humbled to receive this award,” Alharbi says. “It is a testament to the relevance and importance of my research, and I owe immense gratitude to my advisors, who supported me every step of the way. This award reinforces my commitment to continue pursuing work at the intersection of disability studies, privacy, and accessibility.”

UMSI doctoral candidate Shwetha Rajaram studies how to enable more privacy-friendly augmented reality (AR) experiences by developing tools and frameworks that guide AR designers, developers and end-users to address potential risks. AR devices capture and process environmental and biometric data, raising novel privacy risks for both AR users and bystanders. 

“Augmented reality can enable powerful use cases that I’m optimistic and excited about, for example, in education or information work,” she says. “But creating AR applications comes with the responsibility to design safe interactions and give users granular controls to support their privacy needs.” 

Her dissertation advisor is UMSI associate professor Michael Nebeling

"This is one of those proud advisor moments,” Nebeling says. “In her work, Shwetha strikes the difficult balance of pushing forward future design for an increasingly digitally augmented physical world, and critically questioning the design of AR applications and developing new tools to make them both usable and safe. Her work will only become more important in the future."

After graduation, Rajaram hopes to continue researching related topics in academia or in industry. 

“I’m very grateful to my mentors and collaborators for their support and encouragement,” Rajaram says. “Here at UM, the extended reality community is really strong; I’ve really enjoyed learning from designers and developers in our academic courses and from the Center for Academic Innovation,” she says. “This fellowship is a great opportunity, and I’m excited to continue working to improve privacy in the XR world.”  


Learn more about PhD candidates Ben ZhangRahaf Alharbi and Shwetha Rajaram by visiting their UMSI profiles! 

Check out UMSI’s PhD in Information


— Noor Hindi, UMSI public relations specialist