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Student Interview: Donna Kim

Donna Kim is a PhD student at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She majored in two non-computer science majors: Media and Communication and English Language and Literature. She is leading a collaborative project that studies behaviors of solitary players in a popular online game and hopes to inspire new social designs that best accommodate contemporary users.

  1. What are your undergraduate and graduate majors?

I am currently in Annenberg’s Communication Ph.D. program.  I have a BA in Media and Communication (first major) and a BA in English Language and Literature (second major).


  1. What was your turning point (event, person, or work) that motivated you to study data science?

It had been a gradual path for me. I got interested in studying digital cultures while working as an intern in an advertising agency. I had long dreamed of working as an “out-in-the-field” advertising practitioner, but the experience helped me realize 1. how digital technologies were intertwined with our everyday lives was yet still a giant black box even to one of the trendiest, fastest industries and 2. that I wanted to go beyond acting upon hunches and understand. This realization inspired me to pursue graduate school where I had my first encounter with data science. I believed (and still do) that the backdrop of digital in contemporary cultures encourages if not requires a complementary understanding of data scientific approaches. Firstly, more and diverse people are connected, which calls for not only depth but breadth. Secondly, digital spaces are built and managed with data scientific understanding of data and/or tools. It has been inspiring to learn how data science can complement my humanistic, social scientific inquiries.


  1. Have you worked in the field of data science (either a work or a research experience)? Please pick one work experience that you enjoyed the most and explain it in detail.

I am currently leading a collaborative project that looks into solitary players in a globally popular online game, using both surveys and game data. These people play alone and yet they are connected to others through the game. We are exploring who these people are, why they play solo, and what they pursue within the game. Social scientists have been interested in what it means to be alone and networked in a technologically hyper-connected society; we are excited to see what stories our data will tell. The project aims to be practical, too. Our findings may inspire new social designs that best accommodate contemporary users.


  1. Looking back to the beginning of your journey, do you have any advice for students or beginners who want to learn more about data science?

As a beginner myself, I would like to share what I tell myself: 1. What questions can you ask better with data science? 2. If I don’t know how to do something, it’s okay to do research on the web or ask my colleagues.


  1. How will you apply your skills to solve real-world problems? Why do you care about solving this problem?

My answer will not be straightforward, because the problems social scientists deal with can be “real-world” in both a direct and an indirect sense. I, as a social scientist, ask questions about people and cultures that connect the people. We help identify what problems are, how and why they are happening, and what we should do. Data scientific skills can greatly contribute to untangling such puzzles. To use my solo player project as an example, is it a problem that there are players playing alone? Let’s say some people play alone because they want to, and they love it this way while others don’t. If this is true, playing alone is not in itself a problem in the current game design, but whether the users are able to pursue social opportunities if they wish and which users are more susceptible to isolation may be. This can lead to very practical problem identification and solution. If the same pattern is found to be applicable to other social settings, it may help inspire breakthroughs in areas that may have more profound consequences than a game, such as education, equality, and so forth.


  1. Why do more people need to study data science?

What do you do when you watch a foreign film? You can surely get the gist of the story by simply watching the moving pictures. You may be able to grasp what’s going on, but not how, why, and what will happen. In order to follow this, you may rely on dubbed sound or subtitles. However, some context will still be lost in translation. You may even lose key clues or subtle but important context due to the language barrier. This is how I feel about the fields I have yet to explore. If you believe what you are interested in involves data science, being able to catch that one additional clue may be crucial to deepening your insights. Even if you do not aspire to be directly working in related occupations, perhaps it is what we should all be interested in, considering that our everyday lives are increasingly interacting with data science, from social media uses to credit scores. What does your Amazon purchase of a scented candle mean? What is said, and how does Amazon say it? Of course, the same goes for those who primarily engage with data science. What are people thinking and doing about my design? What is society saying, and how? Perhaps an easier way for us all would be for us to learn each other’s language and practice together.

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