By Allison Campbell-Jensen
U of M students working as Research Assistants for the Digital Arts, Sciences & Humanities (DASH) program are critical in helping faculty and students use digital methods and technology in their research, engagement, and teaching.
“Working as a Graphic Design Research Assistant is really fulfilling because of the collaboration and work that goes into each project,” says Alyssa Miller, a current RA in DASH, an alliance of nine U of M units, which include the Libraries.
Undergraduate expertise, expanded
DASH Director Benjamin Wiggins says these undergraduate RAs with specialized skills help advance prototypes of projects. The projects also offer RAs room to expand their skills.
Former RA Nancy Ching was studying graphic design but wanted something more technical. “DASH gave me the opportunity to dabble in web design and development, UX [user experience], web app development, and so much more,” she says.
Miller brought basic website design skills to her position. “In my time working for DASH,” she says, “I’ve developed my client communication skills, branding and illustration work, and basic coding.” At the RAs weekly check-ins, she has found everyone very supportive and understanding.
The cross-disciplinary nature of the work also opened up new ways of thinking for former RA Claire Yang. She took courses in urban design and linguistics before deciding on a computer science and psychology major. She’s also learned the importance of audience.
While it’s great, she says, “having the opportunity to do web design and user experience and data visualization, yet it makes a difference when it’s for an audience. In your work, you have to be cognizant of other people and empathetic.”
For Chae Hong, her current DASH RA position, even before the pandemic, helped her prepare to work remotely — and reinforced how important organization and communication are. She adds that she has learned “to collaborate effectively with my co-workers, as we are often assigned to work together. . . . Being a DASH RA has taught me to how to split up the work, which made collaborative projects a lot easier to tackle than before.”
During their time at DASH, the RAs work on many projects and some become favorites. For Yang, it was working with a couple of post-doc biology researchers, one based in California and the other in the United Kingdom, on an interactive web interface for searching through pre-prints.
Initially, she didn’t know what pre-prints were. She learned, she says, and “I was able to help them find the tools and design the website and walk through the process so they could do it by themselves.” She was pleased to find out that she was mentioned in a paper by the researchers.
Miller enjoyed working on the Tower Magazine, which curates the work of artists in various media and gives them exposure. Another project allowed her to stretch.
“For the Forests and People website, I was given the opportunity to build a new site, as well as help with branding,” she says. “I hadn’t had the chance to do a lot of logo or branding work yet, so I was super excited about that opportunity.”
Ching is grateful that she worked on a flap anatomies project for the Wangensteen Historical Library. This project aimed to “make an application for displaying flap anatomy diagrams. These were very intricate illustrations of the human body with all these small movable flaps and so forth — very delicate. So we wanted to digitize them and help visitors experience them without worrying about them being damaged.”
The project was long and involved several RAs and people from other departments. “When I left DASH,” she says, “we had wrapped up the project up to a point where one diagram was functional and could possibly be presented as a proof of concept for further work.”
For Hong, what stands out is the “website design and development project for Professor Richa Nagar’s portfolio website to showcase her literary and artistic work. I was responsible for creating a personal branding system for her and also to help optimize website organization for all of her work.”
Nagar and colleague Sara Musaifer quickly pulled together content for the project, which was helpful. Hong also appreciated the creative freedom she was allowed: “I was able to create a website design that I was proud of and also was reflective of Professor Nagar’s work.”
The DASH RA experience, Yang says, also opened up other internship opportunities — “and you also gain a cool network of people.” Making connections and learning new skills were important, Ching says. “I could interact with very knowledgeable people in these fields I was interested in and try out things without committing to a whole degree program.
“Best of all,” she says, “I could learn on the job and get paid at the same time.” The RA salaries have, from the beginning, been paid by Libraries’ donors Darby and Geri Nelson.