Our Researcher Spotlight Series profiles DataLab affiliated faculty, staff, graduate students and postdoctoral scholars across disciplines to demonstrate the diversity of our community and highlight their amazing work.
Carrie Alexander is a DataLab affiliate and a postdoc in the Ethics and Socioeconomics Research Cluster at UC Davis. After receiving her PhD in History, Carrie transitioned into a more data-driven role; however, she credits her humanistic skills, especially when paired with her data science skills, for her ability to do the kinds of work with ethics, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and the food system.
In her postdoc role, Carrie conducts researcher and stakeholder interviews, conducts surveys and focus groups with farmers and farm labor contractors in California, in order to better understand food system challenges and needs. She also led the development of an ethics framework for use of AI in such scenarios. As a historian, Carrie was trained to assess orientation and audience, consider differing perspectives, and ask questions about human morality and technological evolution today that in fact find their roots even as far back as the 19th century. “If I know how something is likely to end based on other industries that existed in the past, then I should be able to use that information for the future to develop processes that take us closer to our desired state,” she argues.
I am in the middle of this exciting, interesting, urgent crossroads where all of these paths intersect, and this is an opportunity to find some ways to do things we haven’t tried in the past. We need to do that to find better solutions.
Working in such an interdisciplinary environment as someone with both humanistic and data science skills has meant that Carrie often finds herself translating work amongst a variety of fields and disciplinary languages. “The biggest roadblock is the lack of translation,” she outlines. “It takes so much work to connect the literature and conversations.” As one of the only humanities scholars in her space, Carrie notes that it’s crucial to understand the conversations and perspectives of those around her, especially before that work can be taken outside of the academy to the farmers and tech developers who rely on the research coming out of her institute. One of her biggest and most difficult tasks is to create what she terms “chains of translation,” helping to urge scholars in different fields to use their published works to have conversations not only within their fields, but across disciplinary and language boundaries.
Something that has surprised Carrie about her interdisciplinary postdoc role is that she has found herself becoming more invested in law, particularly legal issues around AI, finance, and corporate morality. “It’s like touching a live wire,” she says, especially with growing concerns around the emergence and increasing social prevalence of OpenAI and Chat GPT. “How does this work when you take yourself out of academia and into the field, the real world?” With her background in marketing and graphic design for Maryland K-12 schools and other organizations, Carrie asserts that having worked outside of the academy she has a better sense of the gray areas around ethics and morality than she might have otherwise. “Farms are businesses,” she notes. “We need to approach farmers as individual people with needs and concerns, and we want to see what works for them while also taking ethics into consideration. We need to bring to light when needs aren’t getting met and make improvements.”
Ultimately, Carrie sees herself as a bridge builder: between farmers and scholars and policymakers, and between academics of different disciplines. “I am in the middle of this exciting, interesting, urgent crossroads where all of these paths intersect,” she says, “and this is an opportunity to find some ways to do things we haven’t tried in the past. We need to do that to find better solutions.”