Alumni Spotlight: Leysia Palen’s Commitment to Inquiry About the Role of Computing Fosters Interdisciplinary Collaboration

March 25, 2021

When Leysia Palen first came to UC San Diego in the 1980s to study engineering, the first-generation college student knew nothing of interdisciplinary research. That changed when she switched majors to join the newly formed and pioneering Department of Cognitive Science, where she started productively questioning the relationship between social and computer sciences. After earning her B.S., she continued her inquiries, exploring human-computer interaction in the context of safety critical and complex systems at Boeing. After a couple of years, she returned to academia, earning her M.S. and Ph.D. from UCI’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) — though before it was even a School.

“What UCI does really well is bring together multidisciplinary research,” says Palen, “which gave me a huge advantage.” She has leveraged that advantage as a professor of computer science at the University of Colorado Boulder, focusing on crisis informatics. In 2009, she co-founded Project EPIC (Empowering the Public with Information during Crisis), collaborating with researchers from computer science, the natural sciences, the social sciences, journalism and the humanities to examine the role of information and technology during natural hazards. The project was so successful that the university heard her arguments for launching a more formalized response to the demand for research and education in the area of informatics. She launched the Department of Information Science in 2015, modeling the interdisciplinary nature of UCSD’s cognitive science program and of UCI’s School of ICS.

With the emergence of COVID-19, her crisis informatics research took on a new form. “Our study of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 quickly made us accidental disinformation researchers,” she has said. Here, she talks about her commitment to interdisciplinary inquiry, her experience as a women in STEM, and how she views technology as “just another expression of the human condition.”

How did you first become interested in computer science?
It was a little bit accidental. I was seen as a smart kid in high school, so they directed me to engineering. That was one of the classic options — if you’re smart, you should be an engineer. I couldn’t have imagined something like information science or any sort of interdisciplinary field back then, and it’s interesting in hindsight that nobody directed me toward something in the humanities or social sciences, like history or political science, which of course also requires committed scholars. That says something about how we channel young people to different disciplines, though I am happy that I am now able to help unify STEM and social science. But my high school teachers directed me to engineering, so that’s what I did.

I started out at UC San Diego as a civil engineering major, and my very first quarter, I took a Fortran for Engineers programming class. I loved it so much that I switched into computer science right away. Then, when Don Norman started the cognitive science program, it was so exciting to see people from across disciplines come together in ways that included computing, so I switched to this new program. The program was the union of those who were thinking about the brain as a computational system and those thinking about machine intelligence. While some people were trying to make computers act like people, some of us wondered, if we view the cognition as a social system of activity that uses information artifacts, what does that tell us about culture, about society, about teamwork?

After UCSD, I did research at Boeing on the design of airline cockpits, so it was basically the study and design of human-computer interaction of safety critical and complex systems. I can now retrospectively understand the thread going through all of my research and work, though at the time I felt very much that I was a riding a wave of things that seemed to have serendipitously come together!

What brought you to UCI for your Ph.D. in ICS?
I came to UCI in September 1993, which was when Mosaic, the first Internet browser, became available. That was a time of recognizing that computation was going to fit into this idea of teamwork and group interaction and collaboration in an everyday kind of way (schools, work, home), and we needed lots of ways to think about collaboration. And UCI was so relevant at the time because it had one of the first information science programs in the nation that was fully integrated with computing sensibilities as well as other disciplines. It was exciting to see how these different disciplines were interacting together in that moment, with this burst of activity around the dawn of the Web. All of a sudden, it wasn’t just the scientists who were on the Internet, and I was no longer working on specialized aviation technology at Boeing. It was now this everyday technology.

That was the dawning of what it meant to be doing social science and computer science together. This was a very exciting moment, where disciplines were talking to each other to better understand the potential of what tech was going to bring to human life. We were all guessing where the future was going, but we knew that a human-centered way of looking at computing was essential.

At UCI, the information side of ICS was more oriented toward management information systems out of the business school and that was exciting to bring together with the cognitive anthropology perspective. My ICS adviser was Jonathan Grudin, who had been a student of Don Norman’s, and so that created a lot of synergy for analyzing technological impact.

Leysia Palen (bottom right) at UCI with fellow Ph.D. students (from left) Wayne Lutters, Suzanne Schaefer, Nenad Medvidovic, Peyman Oreizy and Jason Robbins.

While at CU Boulder, what motivated you to create the Department of Information Science?
We were looking at safety-critical systems in a fairly traditional computer science department and engineering college, so not like ICS, and I had to make the case that social science and computer science belong together in the form of information science. Eventually the campus agreed, seeing that what we were doing with crisis informatics was powerful intellectually. It was also an inclusive form of scholarship that attended to social justice issues. The university could see that undergraduates and graduate students needed more of a focus on information science, and that was the argument for the rise of that department — very much like what Don Norman was arguing back in the ’80s around cognitive science when I was an undergraduate.

It’s very exciting to be a part of the academy, with its production of students and knowledge. I think this must be true for anybody who has made this their life, but it was certainly an unexpected path for me. I’m a first-generation college student, so I’m very grateful to my early mentors at UCSD and UCI and at Boeing, for moving me through that academic intellectual pipeline in a supportive way. Fast forward to 2015 and the founding of the Department of Information Science, and I credit that long stream of research stemming from that stream of support.

The whole invention of the department was about bringing together multidisciplinary research so students didn’t have to do all the work themselves to figure out how social science and computer science fit together. That’s what ICS already does really well. When a way of thinking gets structured into degree programs and a department, the university gives that effort new power to do wonderful things that help students. It takes the burden off of students to figure out how those things come together, and it sets the stage for industry to eventually follow. The creation of a department like this demystifies interdisciplinary approaches for students. That’s what cognitive science did for me at UCSD and that’s what ICS did for me at UCI, and that’s what we’ve tried to do here at Colorado.

How did your work in crisis informatics make you an “accidental disinformation researcher”?
For a long time, much of the crisis informatics work looked mostly at natural hazards — weather and geologic hazards, earthquakes, tornadoes, landslides — all those terrible things. Then the pandemic hit. The coronavirus is a natural hazard but it’s a biohazard, and it’s embodied in people, so it acts a little bit more like a criminal hazard, because those are also anthropogenic. So it’s really different for the information space. You don’t have to trust or not trust a hurricane, but the virus involves the body, so all the human relationships come into play, and issues of trust, equity and access. The information space gets really confusing as well because it’s ripe for disinformation and misinformation, and it almost becomes a national or even international vulnerability. Those who want to act in nefarious ways can.

Right now, we’re doing research on anti-vaccine logics that are emerging online and targeting minority groups that reference the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. That was the study of Black men with syphilis between 1932 and 1972; we had the cure for syphilis in 1945, and it was just a huge tragedy that the U.S. government inflicted on these men for whom the cure was withheld without informed consent. What’s happening now on social media is that white speakers are referencing Tuskegee to specifically discourage Black people from getting a COVID vaccine, so it’s taking a truth about health inequity but adding information to it to create a new message that’s specifically targeted at people who are already disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. Disinformation is a complex space where partial truths are linked with untruths. We have to ask what’s the point of this persuasion? Is it really to make sure we keep the government in check, or is it to discourage certain people from getting protection? That’s why the disaster work has led to disinformation research. We can’t separate the two in this particular, extended crisis.

Can you also talk about your experience as a woman in STEM?
I didn’t realize until later how much I had overcome because I was a woman in STEM. I’m not sure I was aware of it at the time, and I think some of that was a lot of naivete. I didn’t have many local women mentors in the ’80s and ’90s. That was the time of the Space Shuttle program, so the archetypes of women in science really came from astronauts like Sally Ride, who eventually became a professor at UCSD. I wasn’t mentored by her, but that pie-in-the-sky idea that female astronauts represented was very sustaining. Having women in these high-profile scientific positions really does help a lot of us aspirationally.

When I moved into academia, ICS Professor Judy Olson really became a model for me. But when I didn’t have mentorship specifically from women, what I’ve learned to do, regardless of someone’s gender, is to try to model the strengths I see in other people. So what’s great about that is that it doesn’t have to be people who are senior to me. There are people I admire very much who are younger than I am or who have less experience in some areas. Teaching is one area where I’ve looked to junior peers who have been really innovative — I think of them as my role models.

Also, when I think about our discipline in the context of Women’s History Month as well as Black History Month, there must be an equitable experience in terms of who creates technology, because only then can we understand the impact of our creations on the world. We need diversity because we have to ask what are we missing out on when we build tech by not thinking about who is empowered and who is not? Diversity is about the dismantling of monopolies of power and of who gets to think up ideas.

Back in the 1970s, Ted Nelson talked about the need to abolish the priesthood of computing. Even then, he was calling for a more egalitarian approach, and I don’t know if he was talking about race and gender, but he was talking about how technology belongs to everyone. Computing belongs to everyone.

Do you have any words of advice for students considering a career in academia?
When people think of information and computer science, they tend to think of careers at tech companies or about the private sector. The thing that has sustained me in my life is this commitment to inquiry, which I know doesn’t sound very sexy on the surface, but it is deeply empowering. It is a commitment to thinking from multiple viewpoints and pondering what it means for us to create artifacts. Why do we create the technology we create, how do we create it, and for what purpose?

We need to also understand the consequences of our creations. Often, we create the mishmash that is Frankenstein’s monster. Technology isn’t a black or white thing. We tend to idealize it, but we shouldn’t. So even though I am very much trained in computer science, I cannot separate social science and the humanities and the arts from anything that we study. I would love for students to really think of these things from top to bottom, as an interdisciplinary kind of experience, and to be responsible consumers and developers of technology in the world. And it’s not just the student’s responsibility — our own departments need to lead in these fields. This is the moment for information and computer science departments to provide leadership.

Shani Murray