Graduating student seeks collaboration in a polarized world

Family and human development, psychology dual major interested in bridging interpersonal conflict

April 24, 2023

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2023 graduates.

Graduating undergraduate student Sydney Tran has always wondered what makes people unique. As a child, she was curious about people and what made them relate. This desire to understand others increased as she entered high school and began noticing how factors such as race, culture and religion influenced identity, behavior and choices.  Smiling young woman in graduation regalia on ASU Tempe campus After graduating with two bachelor's degrees from ASU, Sydney Tran will pursue a PhD in social psychology at UCLA. Her research interest is examining interactions between social identities such as race/ethnicity and religious affiliation in applied settings like politics. Photo courtesy of Sydney Tran

Once Tran came to Arizona State University  from her hometown in Tucson, Arizona, she found a place to pursue these interests. Through her classes, she realized she could actually make a career out of doing what she loved – asking questions and conducting research. Indeed, she participated in several research opportunities as a psychology and family and human development student, including CARMA, Children in the Law Lab and multiple research assistant positions. 

Through these research experiences, Tran refined her academic interests and began focusing on interpersonal conflict and disagreement in society, especially surrounding such hot topics as politics and religion. Now an aspiring professor, her goal is to find out how people with different identities and beliefs can learn to collaborate.

We caught up with Tran to hear more about her time at ASU and her plans. 

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: Ever since I was young, I was always curious about what factors made me similar and differentiated me from others. In high school, I became especially interested in how cultural identities such as family, race/ethnicity, religion and political affiliation shaped behavioral outcomes. This curiosity manifested in tons of interesting conversations with friends discussing topics such as the meaning of life, the dissection of friendship compatibility, and the boundary between uniqueness and conformity. While these have shaped my perspective, it wasn’t until I entered ASU that I realized that I could have a career dedicated to getting closer to answering life’s questions via research.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I will be attending the University of California, Los Angeles pursuing a PhD in social psychology. My research interests are in examining the interactions between social identities like race/ethnicity and religious affiliation in applied settings like politics. I am super excited to delve into research and spend the rest of my life learning.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: I was incredibly fortunate to have met so many supportive professors and graduate students who have always believed in me and my capabilities as a scholar. When I was exploring different career pathways during my first semester of college, I met Dr. Stacie Foster during her office hours and we simply talked about life — possibilities after college, how to stay happy, work-life balance, etc. I can’t boil down our conversations into a single lesson, but I really admired her overall character. I first started wanting to become a professor because of my interactions with her. I really believe that it takes a village to succeed, and because she was so kind, I learned that there’s always support available if you reach out.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?      

A: Before I entered university, I have always heard stories of uninvolved college professors and how students were simply a nameless face in the mass of students. However, all the professors and academic staff that I have met were sweet and encouraging. For instance, I can remember some professors making an active effort to memorize every student’s name in a class (of 40!). In one of my classes, my professor, Dr. Connor Sheehan, actually reached out to me after my class project and invited me to continue the research with him and work on making it into a publication. Because of the competitiveness of academia, I sometimes struggle with imposter syndrome, but the community around me encourages me to try my best and take pride in my accomplishments.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Try and schedule at least one fun event or activity each week. Life gets a little dreary when there’s nothing to look forward to in the short run. Short-term reinforcements are crucial to achieving goals (special thanks to my learning and memory class).

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: While there are many issues that I am passionate about such as sustainability, promoting equity and encouraging educational pursuits, one problem I would like to address is bridging interpersonal conflict in an increasingly polarized society. I think that it is incredibly important to find ways to start dialogue among individuals of different viewpoints and work together to find solutions.

Jennifer Moore

Communications Specialist Associate, T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics

ASU graduate aims to demystify AI through children's book

April 24, 2023

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2023 graduates.

How do we understand the story of artificial intelligence? Student Kacy Hatfield Kacy Hatfield Download Full Image

Kacy Hatfield is a student in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts who aims to make the story of AI accessible to all – and is doing so by writing a children’s book. Kacy is graduating this May with a degree in digital culture, and is an undergraduate researcher for the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics.

After graduation, she will pursue a master's degree and has been invited to participate in the Machine Intelligence Group at Draper Labs

She shared more about her college journey below. 

Question: Tell us a bit about your experience at ASU and how you came to study digital culture.

Answer: I actually came to ASU as a biochemistry major; I love chemistry and math, but the career path wasn't exactly what I wanted. I then explored career and creative job opportunities where I found digital culture and in just three days I was hooked and made the switch. And there is still so much of what I love in studying AI, and I get to integrate my love for chemistry and math into that. 

I actually hadn't even heard of machine learning until spring 2021, and after my professor introduced it to us, I asked her for book recommendations. From then on, I was obsessed with AI.

Q: What inspired you to pursue undergraduate research? 

A: Well, I actually did my honors thesis shortly after I learned about AI and machine learning. I decided that I wanted to pursue it, even though I really didn’t know much about the subject, and I pitched it to several professors I wanted to work with, who all were very supportive. I defended my thesis almost exactly a year after I had first learned about machine learning, and I just had such an amazing time working on my thesis that I wanted to continue doing research. 

I then found the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics, which had an undergraduate research opportunity on responsible AI. I met with Research Program Manager Erica O’Neil over Zoom, and I thought it would be the perfect continuation of my work. It’s amazing to keep doing research on this, not just to learn but to ultimately come away with more questions. 

Q: You're working on a really fascinating project, in which you’re developing a children’s book on AI. Can you share more on this project? 

A: The premise is an illustrated children’s book that tells the story of an algorithm named Pip — like the command in Python Programming Language — and Pip has to classify seashells on the beach. How Pip classifies them starts out in very simple terms, and as waves wash up on the shore, more advanced terminology is revealed. There’s also a character named Epoch — another term in Python — as well as a character that represents the human in the loop. All of them are placed very strategically to represent what would take place if a machine learning algorithm were to be integrated in this area. 

Image of a book cover for Your Pal, PipThe goal is to help people feel less scared about machine learning. I often see AI described as a black box; something that that people can't see into, and can't understand. But I think the test of a good machine learning algorithm – and a good programmer — is to translate that black box into something that is easily understood.

Part of the reason I love machine learning is because even if I dedicate my entire life to studying AI, I will never have a fully comprehensive grasp of it, because it's just always expanding and advancing so fast. I think that's key in why people feel uncertainty about machine learning, especially when the Hollywood narrative of AI is the humanoid robot that is going to take over. The thing is, these technologies are amoral, not immoral. 

My goal as a researcher is to start mitigating skepticism around the subject of machine learning through this book. And this starts with younger people, but the book is also meant to be used by people of all ages. 

Q: How has your time in the responsible AI research group related back to your work? 

A: I love being in this research group. It's actually my second semester; last semester I did a project on the risks and mitigations of AI-powered autonomous spacecraft, which is another one of my interests. It’s so awesome to be part of a group of people that have such different backgrounds and different approaches to AI. There are so many interdisciplinary perspectives and topics brought up in discussion. 

I think that in terms of responsible AI – and a lot of people may disagree with me on this – it is integral for a programmer to also be able to see the ethical implications of whatever they're employing into the world. There’s often the argument that we should wait five years before evaluating those possible impacts; when I am working on programming, I'm immediately thinking about how it may affect the real world and be used. 

Machine learning is like a mirror - it's going to reflect whatever we give it, and humans are not perfect. This is why I think the conversations on ethics have to go hand in hand with the research itself, and it's really interesting to see how it comes about on all different fronts.

Q: What comes next for you in your career and future?

A: That’s the age-old question, isn’t it? I always have a list of problems that I can research! This may be a nerdy confession, but I love doing research even in my free time. I hope to direct that energy into the pursuit of a master's degree and possibly even a PhD. I have also been invited to join the Machine Intelligence Group at Draper Labs in summer 2023 as an undergraduate engineer, which is a very exciting opportunity. 

The amazing thing about this field is it's always changing, and in some regard, I will always feel like a student. And because the study of AI is so new, I feel like taking the ethical and programming approach at the same time would be a lot easier to integrate than something that's already established. I hope to keep these skills as best practices in the future. 

There is a lot of skepticism around AI and machine learning, and often I hear people say that it’s too complicated or complex. Everybody has the capability to understand AI, and it's not as scary as it seems. Even though it's been tremendously skewed for entertainment, which makes it easier to vilify, there are so many benefits to using machine learning, and we can employ it in the right ways to augment our human experience and not hinder it.

Karina Fitzgerald

Communications program coordinator , Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics