Dana Boyd, PGSS 1995

Originally published as an “Alumni Spotlight” in the PGSS Alumni Newsletter, Fall 2014

As a self-described “troublemaker and “geek, freak, and queer” growing up in Lancaster, dana boyd learned about PGSS from a classmate in eighth grade. The classmate bragged how cool the program was and how cool his brother was for attending it. When boyd said she wanted to go, the classmate retorted that “girls can’t do science, so I punched him – and got detention. From that point on, I was determined to go to PGSS.”

Go, she did, boyd was struck by the structure of PGSS as well as the fact that most of her peers seemed more sophisticated and urbane than she. Nonetheless, she quickly formed a study group that appointed its members to specialize each in a different class in order to finish problem sets ahead of time so that they could help the rest of the group along. “At the time,” boyd recalls, “we felt like we had gamed the system, but it was worth it. We collectively supported each other through the summer, strengthening both what we learned and the fun and free time that we had.”

boyd also learned that she enjoyed learning in groups and that she could navigate different social worlds. In fact, a fellow PGSS attendee listened to her interests and suggested boyd consider Brown University, a place about which boyd knew nothing before. boyd applied early, was accepted, and set off to study math. A professor set her on the path to computer science, and boyd’s various summer jobs set her onto the path of research. Her senior thesis investigated “how depth cue prioritization is dependent on levels of sex hormones and how this, in turn, affects 3D virtual reality. It was a crazy cross-disciplinary project.”

boyd continues to do projects that mix computer science, education, law, anthropology, and more. Indeed, her recent book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens draws on ten-years of ethnographic research. Her new “think/do tank” in New York City, the Data & Society Research Institute, “focuses on the social, cultural, ethical, and legal issues introduced by data-driven technologies and the ‘big data’ phenomenon.” To that end, the institute supports artists, journalists, entrepreneurs, researchers, and others who will investigate anything from “how technology is disrupting labor to the ways in which civil rights concerns are being reconfigured as a result of data mining.” Previously, boyd helped the author of The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler, to bring together feminists from around the world online.

Perhaps less of a troublemaker now, boyd nonetheless continues to be a disruptor and an activist, and that punch from many years ago seems worth it. As boyd concludes, “I feel lucky that I’ve been able to channel my troublemaking to make positive change, but I don’t think that this would’ve been true if I wasn’t given opportunities to expand my wings. PGSS was one of the most central opportunities in my teenage years.”