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University of Michigan School of Information


Faces of UMSI: Shelby Pitts

Shelby in black and blue light smiling at the camera and wearing a white shirt.

Shelby Pitts’ career in information began when she got her first opportunity to work in a research lab.

A University of Michigan School of Information student pursuing a Master of Science in Information with a focus in Human Computer Interaction and User Experience, Shelby is obsessed with understanding what it means to be human.

Her undergraduate degree in anthropology at Michigan State University enabled her to apply ethnography, her favorite qualitative research method, to designing technology. 

“After graduation, I’d love to work at a research lab in industry studying artificial intelligence with my social science background,” she says. “I’m fascinated by the ethical concerns in AI, such as the ways unconscious biases are built into these systems.”

While in undergrad, Shelby discovered a book that gave her an understanding of where her interests in anthropology and artificial intelligence align. 

“Studying Those Who Study Us: An Anthropologist in the World of Artificial Intelligence” by Dr. Diana Forsythe is the book Shelby credits as the final confirmation she needed to pursue a degree in information. 

Shelby has her favorite quote memorized: “The secure identity of the ethnographic observer acted as a coping mechanism, helping to create some emotional distance and intellectual order in a situation that was both seductive and confusing.” 

Shelby uses the example of Woebot to illustrate the fascinating dynamics between humans and computers and why she’s focused on HCI as her field of study. 

Woebot pairs people in need of mental health care with an artificial intelligence therapist. The app reduces therapy costs and offers 24/7 access to therapy. But to Shelby and others, the app is fraught with ethical concerns. 

“Is it ethical for someone to build an emotional relationship with something that can’t reciprocate?” she asks. “Can it replace a person who is able to empathize with the patient?” 

Growing up, Shelby loved reading and writing, but was also interested in science and math. She says the interdisciplinary nature of an information degree allows her to explore all of her interests in ways that are unique to her. 

What attracted her to UMSI is the research opportunities and the environment, she says. At UMSI, Shelby has been able to make great friends, and connect with organizations like the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). 

“I find the people in this program to be really personable nerds,” she adds, laughing. 

Outside of doing research and reading academic articles for fun, Shelby enjoys weight lifting and spending time outdoors. Making ceramics, another one of her hobbies, has also been instrumental in helping her focus and value making something with her hands.

Shelby’s advice for students in the MSI program is to take advantage of the many opportunities offered at UMSI. 

“I’m actually overwhelmed by all the events and opportunities UMSI has to offer,” she says. “There’s so much that comes through email. People are not as hip as they should be about email.” 

Read more about the MSI program here.