Alumni Snapshot: Priya Kumar
Assistant Professor at Penn State University College of Information Sciences and Technology
I came to UMSI to study data storytelling, with plans of becoming a data journalist. However, I quickly realized that while the idea of data storytelling fascinated me, my heart wasn’t totally in it as a career. I started gravitating towards research-related careers, and after I graduated I got a job at a think tank in Washington DC to research the intersection of digital technology and human rights. We were a small team that was developing a methodology to evaluate the world’s largest technology companies on the extent to which they were respecting people’s human rights online.
At the same time, I kept working with UMSI faculty and student colleagues to publish my master’s thesis at academic conferences. My thesis research—which focused on the privacy implications of parents’ social media use—continued to intrigue me, and when I attended the conferences, I realized I wasn’t the only one interested in it. Other scholars encouraged me to continue the work, and that propelled my decision to enter a PhD program at the University of Maryland.
I graduated in May 2021 and since August, I have been at Penn State University as an assistant professor in the social and organizational informatics research group. I’m really excited to be actively contributing to and building up the world of information schools through my time in three different I-Schools.
UMSI Skills in Work
I had looked through Michigan’s curriculum and found that a lot of the courses fit the idea of using data and information to explain things in the world around us. There were data analysis classes where I could learn to make sense of data quantitatively, HCI classes where I could learn to craft interactive experiences that are engaging for people, and policy classes that would help me understand how changes in technology affect society.
Some of my favorite classes were the ones I took with Professor John King. He intentionally designed his classes to cover a lot of ground and to help us see how history and social context shape a lot of what we now take for granted when it comes to the role of information in organizations. I sometimes struggled to understand some of the connections he made. He understood that some of the concepts we discussed in class wouldn’t make sense now but encouraged us to be patient because at some point, things would click. And sure enough, some of those lessons finally started to fall into place. His seminars exposed me to new ways of thinking that fundamentally shaped how I now approach the world.
Motivation for Pursuing Information
When I was in college, I always knew I wanted to go to graduate school. Many people advised me to work before going to graduate school, and I now offer the same advice to others. That work experience can give you a clearer sense of what to study and how to use graduate school to shape your career.
After college I worked as an internship coordinator and a research assistant, and I realized that I wanted a career that involved writing, analyzing information and presenting my findings to others. I was struggling to find a graduate program that matched my interests when a mentor suggested I look into information schools. I hadn’t heard of them, and when I found the iSchools.org web page describing iSchools as studying the relationship between people, information and technology, I felt an instant connection. Other graduate programs made me feel like a square peg trying to fit a round hole, but in iSchools I found a square hole home.
Michigan really stood out to me from the beginning. I applied to four schools and got into all of them but the visits really sealed the deal for me. I visited campus twice; once for a fall open house event and second for an admitted students event in the spring. Both times, I felt that instant sense of connection and I wanted to tap into the energy and enthusiasm that I absorbed from the students and faculty. People here had all kinds of innovative ideas and UMSI seemed to want to foster those ideas. I got the sense that a lot of students were able to use the resources and environment at UMSI to carve out a path for themselves.
Favorite Memory at UMSI
I took so many amazing, thought-provoking classes at UMSI. I took a course on e-communities with Cliff Lampe. He’s such an entertaining, engaging person to work with. A fun memory I have of that class is that he got the email telling him he received tenure while we were in class. It was a really great moment to share with him and the rest of the class.
I really enjoyed the python class with Charles Severance and the web design class with Colleen van Lent. They made programming and web design so accessible for those of us who do not have programming backgrounds. That was something I appreciated about UMSI in general—that we all had to take the same core classes to build a shared foundation. For example, if you understand the basics of how code is written, it better equips you to work with technologists because you understand what goes into building technology. The way that faculty structured the classes and assignments created a sense of satisfaction of learning something I never thought I would learn about.
Advice for Students
I have a fortune from a fortune cookie on my desk at work that says “People make plans; fate makes the plan successful.” I’ve always been a planner but very quickly after undergrad I realized that while plans are good, there is no guarantee that things are going to go according to that plan. In fact, most likely things will not go according to plan because that’s life. So, my advice is to go into school with a general plan, a sense of what you want to accomplish, but always remember that a plan is just an idea. Don’t feel like you have to rigidly follow the plan; rather, let the plan be a guide. Be open to the opportunities that come your way. We change, our identities as people change and that’s the point of school: to expose you to all these paths and new ideas. Use your time to explore those interests.
I really underscore the importance of listening to your gut, intuition, your internal compass, that voice in your head, whatever you want to call it. I believe we all have something in there that tells us that something is fascinating but you can’t explain why. I want to encourage people to pay attention to that because it shows you have a deep connection to that topic and that’s what will keep you going when you are in the thick of getting through your program or writing your thesis or dissertation and thinking “I just want this to be done” and you’re ready to give up.
Current Research Topic: Family, Social Media, Privacy
Speaking of plans, another thing I knew I wanted to do in graduate school was write a thesis. I assumed I’d write my master’s thesis at UMSI on data storytelling, but my passion for the topic started to wane. While chatting with a mentor, I mentioned that I’d started seeing a lot of sonograms and baby pictures on my Facebook news feed, and it hit me that this next generation of children is going to have a digital footprint before they’re even born. In contrast, I was part of the first class of students to enter college with a Facebook profile, so I’ve spent my entire adult life being told to “watch what I post” lest it reflect badly on me. But today’s generation won’t have that option, since parents and others post about children from the time they’re born.
My mentor saw how animated I became while sharing this. “You could write your thesis on that,” he said. “You’d have to figure out how to turn it into a research question, but you seem really excited about this.” When he said that, I felt a lightbulb go off in my head. That conversation happened ten years ago, and I’m still studying this topic. At UMSI, I worked with Professor Sarita Schoenebeck to design a master’s thesis study on how new mothers use Facebook to share baby pictures. I expanded that study into a dissertation that examined how society judges parents who use social media, and I’m now using this work to develop new theories about the way privacy operates when everyday life is entangled with networked digital technologies.
As I said, be open and engaged with the world around you because you never know when the spark of a good idea might strike!