Sam McDonald

Ph.D. Informatics

Why did you choose UC Irvine for your graduate studies?

I originally came here to research sustainable human-computer interaction (HCI) with Bill Tomlinson in the Green IT Lab. This was the only lab I could find that was really focused on looking at HCI from a sustainability standpoint, whether that be looking at agriculture and agroecology or sustainable polycultures and things like that. But when I got here, I started focusing more on policy communication, which got me thinking about how HCI and policy making could improve sustainability.

What has been your favorite class so far?

My favorite Informatics class was IN4MTX 265, Theories of the Information Society, with Paul Dourish. The class really helped me think about the broader societal implications of technology, and it provided a historical perspective that made me realize how many of today’s questions about technology have been asked for decades, even centuries. Also, because much of what I’m looking at through policy is how constituents communicate with their policy makers, last spring I took a class in the sociology
department on social movement theory, with David Snow and David Meyers. I didn’t know anything about social movement theory, and I really enjoyed studying everything from protests in Mexico and Vietnam to the Sunflower Movement and the Umbrella Movement. The class helped me translate these actions into policy considerations.

Have you had an internship or full-time job?

This past summer I worked at the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit in Washington DC that works directly with Congress. I was doing data analyses for different congressional offices on constituent satisfaction, delivering books to different congresspeople’s offices, and stuff like that. Two summers before that, I was at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, looking at game development for training intelligence analysts to use video games to mitigate cognitive biases.

What research have you been involved in?

I’ve done accessible HCI research, looking at how 3D printer technologies can be used to help people with disabilities — in particular, research into 3D printing of tactile tools for the blind. I’ve also researched ways to teach physical therapists how to use 3D printers to augment assisted technologies — for example, making customized grips on a pair of crutches or making augmented prosthetics.

What has been the best part of your experience so far?

Everything has been a great experience, but especially having people question what I know for the past year and a half. I remember the first class I took with Melissa Mazmanian, who asked us “Why are you really here? What do you want to really do?” It blew my mind. I’m so happy to be here. I get paid to ask big questions; it’s pretty great.

What has been the most unexpected part of your experience?

I definitely didn’t think I’d be doing research on policy in Congress. I came here to study sustainability in HCI, but something really pulled me toward asking questions about why social movements were trying to use certain policy communications for pushing sustainability in general. And in looking at these social movements and how they weren’t working, I realized that there might be something bigger I could do in terms of helping sustainability if I looked at it from a policy standpoint.

What are your aspirations for the future?

Over the next four years of working on my dissertation, I hope to have an impact on how Congress uses technology. I’m working directly with people who are designing technology in Congress, so in the short term, helping them would be wonderful. Beyond that, I’m not sure. I haven’t had a chance to TA other than for an online class, so I don’t yet know if I want to teach or go into industry.

Any advice to prospective graduate students interested in the program?

Do background research on the professors that you want to work with — not just one but multiple professors — and focus on the culture of the department. I love the feel of this department and how diverse everyone’s research is but also how inclusive it is in terms of the support that you get. I think that made the biggest difference for me. It’s important to look for an inclusive environment with a lot of different options, because most students switch advisers in their first few years. I came to UCI for one professor but ended up changing advisors, so make sure the department is a great fit for you.

“I love the feel of this department and how diverse everyone’s research is but also how inclusive it is in terms of the support that you get.”