Faces of UMSI: Xuan Zhao

UMSI PhD candidate Xuan Zhao is intrigued by the way people use digital data to build relationships not only with one another but also with their past, present and future selves.

Past projects have seen her studying how close friends use social media to reminisce together and how romantic partners navigate Facebook vis-à-vis their relationship. More recently, she has looked at how people use social media as a personal archive. With her advisor, UMSI assistant professor Cliff Lampe, she looks at how people manage different social media in a personal ecology and whether reflecting on their own content across multiple online platforms raises their level of self-consciousness about their goals, communication patterns and relationships. She also keeps a website describing her research and activities.

Xuan came to UMSI after earning a BA in journalism from Shandong University in China and master’s degrees in communication from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Cornell University. Having an MA in organizational communication as well as an MS in communication focused on human-computer interaction gives her a dual perspective on research questions, she says.

Xuan has completed several internships at well-known technology companies, including Microsoft, IBM and Facebook. In her Microsoft and IBM internships, the pace of research was more like that of academia: She went to the company for three months, spending the first month creating a research plan, then carrying out the plan in the remaining two months. This type of internship is very rewarding in terms of learning from the best scholars in the field of HCI, getting publications out, and networking for future career opportunities, she says.

At Facebook, her experience was very different. “It’s a really fast-paced environment,” she explains. ”You have many more stakeholders for your project, and you make impact in a different way. It’s really exciting to work with other engineers and designers to turn insights into actions and change how people interact with each other on a daily basis.”

In spite of the very different paces, Xuan enjoys both types of industry research. She will graduate in 2016 and hopes to join an industry research lab or a product team to continue her research.