Alumni Spotlight Cheryl Quin

April 27, 2021

Cheryl was part of the first cohort of SIAT students and received her MSc from SIAT in __ and her PhD from SIAT in 2009. She is now a Professor in the Ruelff School of Art and Design at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. 

Why did you choose the School of Interactive Arts & Technology?

I immigrated to Canada in 2001 and enrolled in TechBC and it merged with SIAT is 2002 so I was lucky to find SIAT. My bachelor’s degree was in architecture and combining design with computing sounded very interesting to me.

I ended up spending 8 years in SIAT, 3 doing my Master’s degree and 5 completing my PhD degree!

How did your experience as a graduate student influence your career path?

SIAT really significantly changed my life. Before SIAT, my major was architecture and after joining SIAT my interests and learning shifted from architecture to learning computing skills and from design focus to design researcher.

When I graduated in 2009 it was just after the economy had crashed so there were fewer professor opportunities on the market. I applied for twenty of them and got interviews for about half. I was offered a job at Purdue University and the reason Purdue hired me was because they wanted to develop a new graduate program of interaction design.

Before SIAT my background was predominantly architecture and the Purdue program was industrial design so I wasn’t sure that my background would match closely enough. The hiring committee told me that my design background and interactive arts and technology degrees were very unique in the market and so I felt very lucky to have chosen the perfect major.

I’ve now been at Purdue for 11 years and developed the interaction design program.

What was your research focus at SIAT?

My Master’s and PhD areas of study were different. My Master’s thesis was about design patterns inside interactive arts. At the time, there were no apps but there were still different websites and UI systems. My research compared different systems to identify the commonalities and common solutions about different system designs.

During my PhD studies my supervisor was Dr. Robert Woodbury who was able to connect me with a parametric modeling software called Generative Components made by a European company called Bentley Systems. The system basically helps architects to make 3D form surfaces with parametric modeling. In parametric modeling you can adjust the parameters to adjust the 3D surface. Architects don’t generally have any programming skills and I wondered how architects could manage the limitations of computing and created these fascinating 3D structures. My PhD thesis was about observing the needs of architects and giving them the support to be able to create these 3D surfaces on their own.

My PhD research didn’t necessarily transfer directly to my later research while becoming a full professor, but I want to say that all of my training around literature research and publication research and analyzing data have all helped my after graduation.

What are the most important skills that you acquired as a PhD student that helped shape your current success?

As a PhD student, my supervisor told me that one of the major differences between a Master’s and PhD is that in your PhD research, you need to make a new contribution to knowledge and not do something that someone else has already done before and get creative. At the time, I was trying to gather data from architect’s behaviour and trying to understand any strategies they have been using and design patterns to teach them to see if that helps.

Now I am teaching PhD students myself and I feel that I benefitted very much from my education. I have a very clear idea of what sets PhD research apart and can encourage them to publish and think independently.

What was your most valuable grad student experience while at SIAT?

I benefitted greatly from the variety of professors at SIAT. It was a new program when I started and being able to collect such a diverse group of professors who are all very unique. At other schools a lot of what makes up SIAT is scattered throughout different schools or in different programs. I’m very fortunate that I was able to learn at SIAT, a friendly environment that combines different knowledge. The uniqueness of SIAT is hard to replace.

Do you have any advice that you would like to give to current grad students and / or recent graduates?

My advice for Master’s students looking for industry jobs and PhD students looking for academic jobs would be a little different.

For Master’s students, my advice is to build up your portfolio to highlight your strengths and expertise. User experience and user interaction jobs might sound similar but they’re still different and you need to prepare differently with different portfolios showing your strengths.

For PhD students, my advice is first, have the courage to put yourself out there and feel confident, and second, build up your publication list before you enter the job market. When we look at applications, we look at other sections of a candidate’s resume beyond the education including publication list and having that list is very valuable and can make you stand out.