Jenny Wu: VR researcher. Psychology grad. Social media dissenter.

At just 23, Jenny Wu is working on cutting-edge research at the intersection of psychology and technology. She spoke with TechRepublic about higher ed, VR, and why she doesn't use social media.

Jenny Wu
Jenny Wu

Jenny Wu went from working with pigeons to studying virtual reality in a matter of years. As an undergrad at the University of Kentucky, Jenny Wu worked in an animal cognition lab, putting pigeons in Skinner boxes. Then she met Dr. Philipp Kraemer. The two of them began chatting about Second Life, a virtual world video game, and a collaboration was born.

They decided to work together to replicate a classic social phenomenon about conformity. The 1951 study by Asch showed that in groups of three or more people who express a specific idea, subjects were likely to conform, even if they knew the idea was wrong. Wu and Kraemer used avatars in a virtual environment to show the same thing. "Even without other people physically present," Wu said, there was still pressure to go with the group. "It was a cross between social psychology and the tech stuff," Wu said, "but it was basically a social psych experiment." It hooked her.

"It was a lot more interesting to me than pigeons," Wu said. "I stopped working the pigeon lab."

Wanting to broaden her understanding of psychological phenomena with some tech skills, Wu, a native Kentuckian, decided to study computer science as well. A postdoc friend of hers once said, offhandedly, "If I could go back, I would learn programming, because it's such a relevant skill." Something clicked.

"When you're young and you see people you really admire talking about something they regret," Wu said, "you're like, 'Oh. She sounds really serious when she says that. I don't want to feel that way about something.' So it was really on a whim that I took my first CS class, intro to programming."

Since then, Wu has published academic papers about the intersection of psychology and technology, worked with the Kentucky Science and Technology Corporation, and spoken on a panel at IdeaFestival. But it was this early mentorship with Dr. Kraemer and their work on Second Life that got her excited about virtual reality.

After graduating, Wu decided to continue her work in psychology and enrolled in a PhD program in clinical psychology at Notre Dame, with the goal of becoming a clinician.

"I had these grandiose ideas that I was going to help people and mend their souls and all that stuff," Wu said, "but I came to find out that it's really hard, and I'm not that great at it. I am really trying to be a nice person, but I'm bad at helping people."

That sparked an exploration of what else Wu could do in the world of psychology. She opted to leave and do research instead. "I'm hoping to go back, hoping to find a good program," Wu said, "but I'm a grad school dropout at the end of the day. It was working really hard in the cognitive psych program and I was getting a good education, but it wasn't getting me plugged, professionally, into the spaces I wanted to be in."

Her background in cognitive psychology, computer science chops, and initiative to do research have come together in her study of virtual worlds. Wu has explored avatars, identities, and language in the context of virtual reality. She cares deeply about how technology is developed, and "how we can use it mindfully," she said. "How can we make this a good, healthy, and better space for everyone we invite into it?"

Today, Wu is most interested in examining the effect of spatial cues on verbal behavior. Her team discovered that "having more visual stimuli in virtual environments leads to different conversations compared to a more static, bland environment." This can include more inclusive pronouns like "we," or "us," and words related to agreement or cooperation "yes" vs. "no." The journal Computers in Human Behavior published her paper. Wu and her team is now studying creative thinking patterns—what is the difference between creative thought in virtual environments versus the physical world?

In her own words...

If you could study anything right now, what would it be?

"At the moment, I am really interested in cyberlearning. How does technology interact with what our education space looks like? There's computer-assisted learning, and there's distance learning online. I'm interested in exploring how we can start using virtual technologies to create a learning experience similar to our human experience. We can bring aspects of technology together to help students who have social anxiety, help students who are physically disabled, help students access the kinds of spaces with objects, with visual stimulus, with other people that they might not be able to get together with otherwise."

Why aren't you on Facebook or Twitter?

"This is something I am really adamant about. I really, genuinely believe that being more and more addicted to having technology as our medium for connections with each other is bad. I say this [while doing an interview] on a Google Hangout. But, pay attention to how much eye contact the people that you talk to make with you. We're having greater discomfort in looking someone in the eye and talking to them and articulating what we think or how we feel or what ideas that we have. We're starting to hide behind technology."

Do you see yourself teaching in the future?

"I don't see myself, anymore, as one day becoming a traditional tenure-track professor. Not that there's anything wrong with it, but I see myself doing science, and also being married to some kind of innovative, applied technology thing. When I realized that those two tracks weren't really conducive, I was like, 'Okay, I need to get out of this PhD program and start doing something else.'"

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