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Faces of UMSI: Joe Soonthornsawad

Joe Soonthornsawad started the Masters of Science in Information (MSI) program with two goals: gaining a new disciplinary perspective and research tools that would allow him to better study how people interact with technology. In his final year at U-M’s School of Information (UMSI), he’s proud to have accomplished both.

Joe Soonthornsawad's headshot
Joe Soonthornsawad

Bringing his fascination for social research to his work on projects spanning locations from Southeast Asia to the Midwest, Joe has always focused on the intersection of anthropology and technology.

Now, the 27-year-old is utilizing his time at UMSI to study how people understand tracking and data mining on social platforms, and designing tools that encourage people to take action to protect their privacy.

Joe was drawn to this area of information unexpectedly. He credits his interest to his undergraduate thesis project as a student at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. 

For his thesis, he traveled to Thailand thanks to a research fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The project looked at how Bangkok’s youth consumers were interpreting and expressing their affinity for different global product brands on social media.

Joe said, “the anthropological methods and theoretical frameworks I learned didn't give me completely satisfying ways to study how people interact with technology.” He noted that they were “Definitely related, but something was missing.”

After returning from Thailand, he graduated with a Bachelors of Arts in sociology, anthropology and music. Joe, who grew up in a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio, moved from the Midwest to Brooklyn, New York. He began working as a Marketing Associate and eventually as a Digital Marketing Manager for Ditalia Fine Italian Imports, an ecommerce company. 

The positions made him curious about how people navigate websites, and how user interfaces influence browsing and buying behaviors. The work was also remote which made him “think a lot about interpersonal communication online and remote collaboration.” 

During this time, Joe enrolled in Harvard’s Design Discovery Course to better understand design thinking. When he began connecting the dots between the questions emerging in his digital marketing job and his design training, he said, “I felt so energized by the possibilities of design. I realized that it was a way to think about this question of how people move through the world on an interface.” One day, he went to the library and found Apple’s 1985 Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines. It was the first time he’d seen the term Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and the first time he’d seen a design philosophy for how people should interact with computers articulated. The encounter set his future in motion.

Joe applied to multiple graduate schools to study HCI, but chose UMSI because of the research opportunities and the funding provided for students’ work. He was excited by the flexibility of curriculum and the chance to work with faculty on projects that aligned with his interests.

Research has been at the forefront of  Joe’s U-M experience. Last summer he participated in UMSI’s Research Experience for Master’s Students (REMS) and he’s been continuing his work this fall. The project focuses on interpreting COVID-19 related posts on social media. Pulling large data sets from Twitter, he’s using language processing to sort through and classify tweets from January to July of 2020. 

The project has challenged Joe’s data skills and taught him about efficiency in programming. By using tweets as a proxy for people's self-reported behavior, Joe hopes to identify tweets that describe safer and less safe behaviors during the pandemic. He’s identifying how the frequency of these tweets changes over time, and whether they correspond with changing state policies such as shutdowns and restrictions on public gatherings.

Ultimately, he’s hoping this social media analysis could help researchers understand the trajectory of the case load in particular areas across the U.S.

Joe turned down multiple summer internship offers to do this research. The offers came after he was chosen as one of ten UMSI students to participate in the Elevate Your Passion talk at the Career Fair. In a TED-talk style address, students are given five minutes to share their stories in front of all employers at the fair. He said that it was “affirming to see people react so passionately to his story.” The opportunity has also led to lasting connections with companies.

As he wraps up his time at U-M, Joe is finishing his thesis with UMSI professor Florian Schaub. He’s designing a data visualization tool that teaches people about how Facebook uses their data, educates users about privacy settings, and introduces them to privacy protection tools.

 After graduation, he hopes to pursue a job in user experience (UX) research. He noted that he’s “looking for the next interesting question where I can dive in and get involved.”

What Joe has appreciated most about his time at UMSI is the connections he’s formed with colleagues at the school as a result of the faculties’ willingness to take on students looking to build their research experience. He said, “there's no shame in being new to something, it’s very much the mentality in the School of Information.”