Learning from Experience

By Anna Lynn Spitzer

Jordan Sinclair: "I'm not going to say it changed my life ...
but it did wonders for me."

Irvine, CA, July 26th, 2013 -- A couple of old pros returned to the SURF-IT program this week to share their school/work/life expertise with the current group of research Fellows.

Jordan Sinclair and Johnway Yih, SURF-IT Fellows in 2008 and 2010 respectively, both went on to master’s programs and are now employed in industry. Sinclair got his master’s degree in human computer interaction from Carnegie Mellon University and now works for Mirth Corp., a Costa Mesa, Calif. healthcare IT developer. Yih recently completed a master’s in engineering management at UCI and is employed at Covidien, a biomedical device manufacturer.

Both urged the current Fellows to maximize this summer’s research potential, saying SURF-IT played a important role in their post-graduate opportunities and experiences.

Yih, who applied to the SURF-IT program after one of his undergraduate engineering professors suggested it, credits his graduate school acceptance, in part, to his participation. “It turned out to be very helpful, not only as a practical experience of working in a lab more than I had before, but it really helped me get into the grad program here,” he said.

Sinclair, who had “no idea what I wanted to do … in life, or in school or in anything,” credits SURF-IT with pointing him in the direction of his future career. “I’m not going to say it changed my life,” he told the students, “but it did wonders for me. I got two research papers out of it – one was presented at the CHI conference – but what I really got out of it was [learning] what I liked and what I didn’t like.”

The hands-on research experience, he said, made him realize that he enjoyed certain aspects of research more than others. “I really like user studies – how people are using software and how we can make software better.” That realization guided him toward graduate school and ultimately, his career with Mirth Corp., where he oversees the user research team.

SURF-IT co-director Said Shokair used Sinclair’s story to drive home a message. “This program is really an investment in yourselves where you can fine-tune your interests,” he told this year’s students. “You should take every opportunity to develop your skills and be in constant tune with yourself as to ‘What am I doing? What am I enjoying? What direction do I want to go?’”

Yih, who works in process engineering, might want to transition into corporate research and development, but says he is still in discovery mode. “Freshman year, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I graduated – didn’t know what I wanted to do. I went to grad school and I still don’t know what I want to do,” he said to audience laughter. “It’s a learning process. I’m open for anything at this point.”

He urged the SURF-IT students to dig deep. “The SURF-IT experience is basically what you make of it,” he said. “You really have to engage yourself and want to learn. Utilize it well. Go in every day with a mission. You will get out of it what you put into it.”

Johnway Yih: "The SURF-IT experience is basically 
what you make of it."

Sinclair also emphasized the importance of good writing. “Writing is an invaluable asset,” he said, and urged the students to write as much as possible. “Blogging is a good way to keep those skills up … do anything you can do to just keep writing.”

He also encouraged the Fellows to stay in touch with each other and their other classmates. “All you need is a ‘like’ or a comment once a month on something they posted on Facebook,” he said. “That’s enough so that in six months or a year, you can [reach out to them for assistance].”

This year’s Fellows were encouraged to ask questions of the alumni. “How much of an advantage do SURF-IT students have because they learned how to do research?” asked one. 

Answered Sinclair: “If you put SURF-IT on your resume, it might not help. But proving you have this experience and this knowledge is different. When I was at Carnegie Mellon, I ran our research teams because I knew how to do that.”

Shokair encouraged the students to look beyond labels and focus on what they have learned. “What you put on your resume is important, and getting an interview is important but what’s more important is when you speak with confidence about what you have learned, what challenges you faced and how you faced them,” he said. “What effect did your specific individual effort have on you, and as a result, what skills and confidence do you have about who you are?”

This year’s Fellows got other advice from the alumni as well, including a reminder to stay in constant communication with their mentors. “You want a good relationship with your mentor,” said Yih. “They definitely have experience and they can help you along.”
But, he added, don’t expect an answer to every dilemma or a fix for every problem. “There is no golden answer. It’s not like a class, where you can take a test and say, ‘what’s the right answer?’ That’s something I struggled with.

“You have to be on the same page with your mentors so you can work with them and tackle each problem together.”