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I School Ph.D. students honored with NSF graduate research fellowship

April 18 | UC Berkeley's School of Information


Liza Gak (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small for the School of Information)
Liza Gak is a second-year Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley's School of Information. (Photo/ School of Information)

Two University of California, Berkeley, School of Information Ph.D. students, Liza Gak and Seyi Olojo, have been offered the highly-prestigious and competitive National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) award. Ph.D. student Tonya Nguyen received an honorable mention. GakOlojo, and Nguyen are all second-year Ph.D. students.

The NSF GRFP recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines. NSF Fellows are anticipated to become knowledge experts who can contribute significantly to research, teaching, and innovations in STEM. Fellowships provide the student with a three-year annual stipend of $34,000 along with a $12,000 cost of education allowance for tuition and fees, as well as access to opportunities for professional development available to NSF-supported graduate students. 

For the 2020 competition, the NSF received over 13,000 applications. This year, 2,193 awards were offered with 93 winners from UC Berkeley, and 1,377 honorable mentions were made, with 53 from UC Berkeley. 

Liza Gak’s research focuses on Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and studying how people are harmed and healed online. “I am interested in research supporting vulnerable communities’ healing from online harms,” she said, “and facilitating opportunities for collective action to promote user agency.” Most recently, she has studied how targeted weight-loss advertising harms users with histories of disordered eating, and how those users resist in creative and collective ways.

“Pursuing science as a Ph.D. student is inspiring in that it relies so deeply on connections with others,” said Gak. “Whether it’s collaborating with my advisor and labmates, serving as a GSI for undergraduate students, or interviewing participants in a research study, science is a highly connective and collaborative process. I feel excited by opportunities for mentorship, which are transformative for first-generation college students like myself.” 

Seyi Olojo (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small for the School of Information)
Seyi Olojo is a second-year Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley's School of Information. (Photo/ School of Information)

In her research, Seyi Olojo explores two major themes: the role of algorithmic decision-making in identity formation and the politics of representation and visibility within sociotechnical systems. “I draw a lot from post-colonial environmental studies and critical demography to unearth new ways of talking about representational harm and potential mitigation strategies for it,” she said. “Currently, I’m investigating this through understanding how individuals negotiate with content recommendation algorithms that often mischaracterize their identity expression and their perceived interests while online.”

Olojo’s NSF-funded research currently explores how individuals grappling with infertility make sense of targeted fertility ads, and how this process is stratified across race, gender, and socioeconomic status. 

“I think what compels me to pursue science is my understanding of how impactful science is in many empirically driven policy-making spaces,” Olojo said. “I’m committed to centering the experiences of marginalized communities within research practices. I think creating an ethic of empathy and justice within this space will be crucial in our ability to make sure that we can create public policies that benefit the historically marginalized.” 

Tonya Nguyen’s research centers on HCI, social computing, and new media. Her interests broadly focus on how algorithmic systems directly impact marginalized communities at scale and on building alternative sociotechnical configurations that center the needs and values of the communities they impact.

“Technology continues to become more powerful, but not necessarily more equitable or promotive of self-efficacy,” Nguyen said. “As a researcher, I wish to help narrow this gap.” 

“Having the unique opportunity to study and design how sociotechnical systems will continue to impact our increasingly globalized world is not only an intellectual endeavor for me but a personal one,” she continued. “My background as a first-generation college student, child of Southeast Asian war refugees, and a Ph.D. student has led me to question which issues deserved closer scrutiny to better address the complex technologies that disproportionately affect marginalized communities. Informed by my background, I am in a unique position to uplift and engage the very communities I came from. I want to make lasting contributions to research on social computing systems and encourage other young people like me to seek out similar opportunities.”

Tonya Nguyen (Photo courtesy of Tonya Nguyen)
Tonya Nguyen is a second-year Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley's School of Information. (Photo/ School of Information)

“Seeing Liza, Seyi, and Tonya’s work recognized by the NSF is very exciting,” said Assistant Professor Niloufar Salehi who advises Liza Gak and Tonya Nguyen, and is co-advisor to Seyi Olojo. “I have had the pleasure of working with all three closely and have been consistently impressed with the thoughtfulness and rigor that they bring to their work.” 

“Their research in HCI and the study of sociotechnical systems is not only incredibly innovative from a research standpoint, but they also care deeply about social justice and how their work will impact the world around them,” she continued. “I am eagerly looking forward to seeing their research develop and make significant contributions to our knowledge of technology and society. The three are incredible additions to the I School community, and I’m thrilled that they have been recognized by the NSF in this way.”

Founded in 1951, the NSF GRFP is the oldest graduate fellowship of its kind. GRFP recipients often make life-long significant contributions to scientific innovation and learning. Since 1952, NSF has funded over 60,000 Graduate Research Fellowships out of more than 500,000 applicants. Currently, 42 Fellows have gone on to become Nobel laureates, and more than 450 have become members of the National Academy of Sciences.  

UC Berkeley Graduate Division offers an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship application workshop each fall where students can learn about and get help with the application process.

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