College of Computing & Informatics (CCI) PhD in information science graduate Nazanin Andalibi made the most of Drexel’s opportunities in experiential learning. After graduating in spring 2018, Andalibi joined the University of Michigan’s School of Information as a postdoctoral research fellow and research investigator, where she is affiliated with the Center for Social Media Responsibility and Social Media Research Lab. She is also affiliated faculty with the Digital Studies Institute at the University of Michigan. As a full-time doctoral student, Andalibi garnered international recognition for her research on social media use and online identity, including awards based on her dissertation work, such as the Best Poster Award at 2016 ACM GROUP conference. Her recent research on “Sensitive Self-disclosures, Responses, and Social Support on Instagram: The Case of #Depression” earned a Best Paper Honorable Mention at the 20th ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (CSCW 2017). She also received a nomination for a paper she co-authored titled "Privacy, Anonymity, and Perceived Risk in Open Collaboration: A Study of Tor Users and Wikipedians” at CSCW 2017. She had three full papers and one case study accepted to CHI 2017; two of which resulted from her internship at Yahoo. She served on organizing committee for CHI 2017 and serves as co-chair of CHI Stories.
She is advised by Associate Professor Andrea Forte, PhD, who is an expert in areas such as computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW), human-computer interaction (HCI) and social computing.
Before graduating, Andalibi shared with CCI her experience and research interests as a doctoral student, her recent internship experience at Yahoo, and what keeps her motivated to make the most of her time at Drexel.
CCI: Tell us a little about yourself – what sparked your interest to pursue a PhD in information science at Drexel?
NA: To begin, I did my undergrad in theoretical computer science, and as much as I liked topics like graph theory, automata theory, computational complexity and things like that, and as much as I found them neat, I didn't deeply "care" about them. I wanted to go to graduate school for something that I cared about. I was drawn to messy complex problems that involve human psyche and their social contexts - "neat" didn't excite me. I wanted to make an impact.
I did not know about the social computing field at the time, and the closest option to my interests was a master’s program called socio-technical systems engineering; so I did my master’s thesis on seaports as large scale socio-technical systems - systems that consist of humans and technologies. It was great, but I wasn't as excited and passionate as I could be yet.
I was fully funded as a research assistant and could just focus on research and course work and that was great. I got my hands dirty with research, gained more research experience, and learned more about what I was interested in. After I finished my master's, I took a year to do some volunteer work at an NGO. I was fascinated by the internet, social media and online communities, and by how people behave online. It was only then that I learned that there is a field in which people actually study these things, and that HCI was not just robotics. I learned about "iSchools" and "human-centered computing". I applied for a few PhD programs in New Jersey and Pennsylvania in which I was interested. Ultimately, I decided on Drexel's information science program at CCI because it was one of the oldest and best iSchools in the country with a very interdisciplinary touch where people came from different backgrounds (e.g., computer science, informatics, sociology, anthropology, etc.). Some of the most brilliant social computing and HCI researchers work here, and when I had visited for my interview and follow-up visits, I had enjoyed my conversations and time with them as I was making my decision. Everyone was so honest and responsive in helping me figure out if this would be a good fit, and it was. Some faculty and former PhD students had key roles in my decision to come here, and I am very thankful to them. I would make the same choice all over again. And that's how it all started.
CCI: Tell us more about your research interests. How do they align with your future goals?
NA: Broadly speaking, social computing, computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW), computer-mediated communication (CMC) and human computer interaction (HCI) comprise my research interests. These days, I spend most of my time investigating self-disclosure and social support behaviors in socially stigmatized or otherwise sensitive contexts on social media. Some of these contexts include mental illness, eating disorders, abuse, and more recently, pregnancy loss and miscarriage - which is the focus of my dissertation work.
All humans experience difficult situations with emotional dimensions in their lives. Some of these situations are concealable (e.g., HIV), some visible (e.g., race, certain physical disabilities) stigmatized identities, and many are traumatic experiences (e.g., death of a loved one, abuse). People often need to socially share such events and emotions associated with them. However, many people inhibit expressing aspects of their lives and identities which might be perceived negatively socially and/or personally, and this inhibition can lead people to suffer. Other times, when people do disclose these personal aspects of their lives, they might face negative consequences such as social rejection.
There could be potential benefits in sharing personal experiences such as various forms of social support available online. We do not know much about how, why, and in what socio-technical contexts these complex social performances (i.e., stigmatized and sensitive disclosures and responses to them) are enacted in computer-mediated environments. How do we design social computing systems that allow people to seek and provide support in their online social networks, and what are the affordances that encourage or discourage these behaviors? This is the problem space I tackle in my work.
My other past and current projects span a variety of topics (e.g., open collaboration, privacy, behavioral intervention via smartphones, etc.). I see my doctoral work as just the beginning of my research career for years to come. I envision a more inclusive and supportive world, where those in distress or with socially stigmatized identities can safely engage in self-disclosure, seek support, and receive the support that they need.
CCI: Tell us more about your experience as a research intern at Yahoo. What were some of the things you learned?
NA: I think exposure to and experience with different research methods helped me gain the experience needed for the internship, along with factors like having had the opportunity to do what I was passionate about, having published my work, and having attended conferences that researchers from big tech companies attend.
At Yahoo, I defined my own internship project which was supposed to have both immediate product impact as well as academic value to lead to a publication. I was also responsible for other projects and conducted regular lab studies, prepared reports, and communicated findings to the designers and product managers. I ran user studies that led to immediate product-related insights that the designers and product managers could discuss, iterate on, and launch. I also conducted studies that led to more long-term product-related as well as scholarly insights. It was nice to see how some of the things I worked on and tested launched and received positive feedback from millions of users. In addition to my immediate team, I also voluntarily collaborated on academic papers with other researchers and interns within our bigger research team.
Working at Yahoo has made me a more skilled researcher. It has also given me insights about how things work inside big companies, how products are designed from the beginning to their launch and afterwards, how decisions are made, and how different teams work with each other. It also gave me a better sense about what my life would be like if I were to pursue a research career in the industry.
CCI: What are some of the best parts of your education at Drexel?
NA: I think working with my advisor, Dr. Forte, is seriously one of the best things that has happened to me in life in general, and at Drexel, in particular. I have also found an amazing intellectual and supportive community of other faculty members, some of which are on my dissertation committee, alongside fellow PhD students whom I value a lot. At the end of the day, it is about being surrounded by kind humans who genuinely care about you, who invest in you and believe in you, and whom you equally care about.
CCI: How do you manage your time being a full-time PhD student? Any advice for aspiring PhD students?
NA: I would say what works for me is trying to do what I care about and love, and working with people who are also interested in that work. To more junior students, and to myself, I would say that of course, you are going to doubt yourself sometimes, and you are going to face failures and successes. Pursuing a PhD can be difficult and isolating at times. Try to find people you enjoy spending time with, and do things that make you feel good. We have to actively make time for these things, because in a sense, our work never really ends and it will never be "perfect." I would also say that it is important to figure out which events and conferences interest you. Try to go to them, meet people from other schools, and collaborate with them. Try service work for these communities and be an active and engaged member. And finally, reach out to other students (myself included) or staff (such as your advisor) and faculty at CCI who may be able to help when you feel isolated - everyone feels the need to seek help at one point or another and that's okay.