Celebrating International Day of Women and Girls in Science: Vanessa Utz

February 11, 2024

PhD student Vanessa Utz had a strong interest in the sciences from a young age.

She began her undergraduate studies at SFU in 2012 and, not yet having a clear idea of what she wanted to do academically, Vanessa enrolled in several science courses that sounded interesting.

“I fell in love with cognitive science so I stuck with it,” she shared.

Vanessa graduated with a degree in cognitive science from SFU in 2017 and went on to complete a Master of Science in Brain and Cognitive Sciences from the University of Amsterdam. She graduated cum laude in 2019 and is now pursuing her PhD at the School of Interactive Arts & Technology.

With her background in cognitive science, Vanessa began her PhD with the idea of researching cognitive models of aesthetic perception with the goal of integrating them into existing creative algorithms. However, with the recent explosion of generative AI models and their rapid adoption by consumers, Vanessa felt inspired to shift her research focus.

Her research at SIAT evolved to focus on AI ethics and on AI and society.

“I strive to ensure that we—scientists, developers, and engineers—are on the right path and that we collectively consider the real-world implications of our work,” says Vanessa.

Vanessa running preliminary tests for an art installation by artists & scientists Diemut Strebe and Steve DiPaola. The installation was created using some of the iViz lab's AI-based conversational agents and creativity tools.

Vanessa’s current research explores how recent advances in generative AI are impacting our lives in different ways and investigates how we choose to interact with these systems.

“At the moment I’m studying how creative professionals are integrating new generative AI models into their creative practice, given that these systems now enable them to produce far larger sets of artifacts within much shorter timespans.”

Vanessa’s research aims to answer the question of how creatives navigate the creative process with these new systems and examines the factors that play into the decision-making processes that lead creatives to choose one iteration over another.

Her research also explores what happens to the digital files of the ‘abandoned’ output along the way, leading to a larger investigation looking into the energy consumption and emissions associated with the widespread application of AI models.

To women and girls interested in pursuing a career in the sciences, Vanessa says “just go for it!”

Vanessa, who also teaches as a sessional instructor in SIAT, recommends that undergraduate students get involved in research labs to gain hands-on experience.

“Don’t be afraid to reach out to women who have already been down this path and ask them for help,” she says. “It brings me a lot of joy to see the next generation of scientists grow up, but it is especially exciting and rewarding to mentor younger women and help them find their place amongst other scientists.”