By Zoe Quinton
Monica Estrada Arias is a senior undergraduate in the Legal Studies department at UC Santa Cruz and member of the Human Rights Investigations Lab for the Americas. Her research project, “Defining the Digital Persona,” was awarded a 2020 THI Undergraduate Research Fellowship. Monica’s research is at the intersection of the Humanities and STEM and her ongoing scholarship contextualizes the nature of the surveillance industrial complex.
For THI, Zoe Quinton spoke with Monica this month about her research, her time in Washington DC with the University of California in DC program, and her love of dancing.
Monica and other THI Undergraduate Fellows will be recognized at the Humanities Spring Awards on June 5, 4:00pm, on Zoom. RSVP to join us virtually for the celebration.
Can you tell us more about your research project, Defining the Digital Persona, that this award supports? When did you start it? What drew you to it?
“My project was essentially born of me wanting to show how STEM and humanities topics are closely intertwined and should not be studied independently from each other.”
It started when I took a Spanish literature class last year. I recall how novels and poetry spoke to me in a way that was different from scholarly articles and other academic books—especially because this was my first time taking a course in my native language. I was inspired by my professor’s deep insights and passion for the subjects he taught us in the Spanish literature class. I had inklings here and there of what I was really passionate about.
In those moments, it was really about cultivating my interests and passions. I started to tap into the things that sparked my curiosity and allowed myself to use tools and resources to help me dig deeper. Since I was interested in technology and literature, the friction between STEM and humanities majors was something I liked to debate with my friends. My project was essentially born of me wanting to show how STEM and humanities topics are closely intertwined and should not be studied independently from each other nor should they be in some weird competition with each other.
After reading Race After Technology by Ruha Benjamin, I learned more about cyberspace and its infrastructure, and really began asking questions about how big data and everything that’s born of it affects people differently—and often, disproportionately. From my personal experience, it seemed like technology was always advancing, while some people were always left behind. My family in Southern California installed WiFi for the first time right before I moved to UCSC four years ago, so I still had to do my university applications at my local coffee shops.
Basically, the STEM vs. humanities dispute, my personal experience with technology, and an inspiring professor (and also by relation Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s poem Primero Sueño) lead me to research on big data.
What do you plan to do next with your research?
For my ongoing research project I’m working on contextualizing the nature of the surveillance industrial complex by centering the digital persona in cyberspace and by mapping out the individual data flows that are monitored and harvested [in cyberspace]. It is an experimental research project in which I am using narrative storytelling practices by highlighting lived experiences from the most documented groups of people and by creating a digital map to trace the data that comes in and out of the technological and corporate black box.
You are a senior-year undergraduate—what have been the highlights of your time at UC Santa Cruz?
My time at UCDC (University of California in Washington, DC) was one of the most memorable experiences of my time at UC Santa Cruz. I got the opportunity to work at the research think tank New America from 9am to 5pm–a taste of a real job.
I also remember riding jump scooters at midnight in D.C., when the streets were the opposite of their normal daytime crowding. My friend and I rode all the way to the Supreme Court the night before the DACA Supreme Court case (the Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California) to support the people camping overnight to get a seat at the hearing.
I also remember going to New York for the first time during UCDC, where I went to the MET and saw the Nutcracker. I definitely want to move to the East Coast someday!
Can you tell us about your life outside of class? Any activities, hobbies, sports, or creative pursuits that help you to feel whole?
I really like to dance! I grew up in a family where you were expected to dance at every party–cumbias, banda, bachata… you name it! I had a lot of fun taking bachata dance classes during winter quarter. The classes made me feel more at home and confident in my skills. It was also a great place to meet people.
“From my personal experience, it seemed like technology was always advancing, while some people were always left behind.”
How are you coping with this current pandemic, both in terms of your academic life and daily life?
I am coping with everything going on by playing “Animal Crossing” on the Nintendo Switch–a video game where you get to build your own island. I am also finding that cooking is grounding. I even bought a basil plant and now I can make fresh pesto!
The advice that I can give to undergraduates is to make lasting connections at UC Santa Cruz. I have had great mentors, professors, supervisors, and student colleagues while being a student here. I have grown so much as a person thanks to my communities. Now that the pandemic is going on, I feel supported because I was able to build networks of people that I adore and am inspired by.
Monica Estrada Alias will be celebrated along with other THI Undergraduate Fellows at the Humanities Spring Awards on June 5, 4:00pm, on Zoom. RSVP to join us virtually for the celebration.