Student Spotlight: DESIGN SCIENCE, PhD Student

Investigating the Broader Context of Engineering in ISD

Grace Burleson sensed an opportunity.

She decided to continue her education by pursuing a PhD after earning a dual MS in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Anthropology from Oregon State University. She chose to enroll in U-M’s ISD to continue her advanced studies in an interdisciplinary program that emphasizes the broader context of engineering design.

“The work I am doing sits on the boundaries of a few traditional academic disciplines: mechanical engineering, anthropology, international policy, information science, and education,” Burleson said. “The Design Science program in ISD provides me with the resources to work at this complex intersection.”


Love of ‘investigating questions and problems’
Burleson enjoys the challenge of being a PhD student in Design Science. 

“I love being able to investigate questions and problems that deeply interest me,” Burleson said. “I truly believe there is a gap in engineering education and practice. Too many systems and products are designed without fully considering their impact on society and many technologies amplify injustices. I enjoy pursuing one small piece of that large puzzle.”

While working on her studies during a global pandemic has been challenging, Burleson is proud of what she has been able to accomplish in her advanced graduate research work. That includes studying ways design methodologies can better incorporate the complex social, political, and economic systems in which engineered solutions are situated. 

“Specifically, I study and work in engineering practice within the global development sphere with a critical lens,” Burleson said. “Historically, engineering has been problematic in many ways, sometimes protecting and perpetuating neocolonialism and dependency between states, unsuitably allocating resources and funds, falsely assuming general objectivity, and neglecting historical injustices, complex socio-cultural, political systems, and ethics.”

Studying contextual factors
To accomplish her research goals, Burleson is investigating the role contextual factors have in design processes. Contextual factors are elements of a technology’s broad context-of-use that could affect how that technology would be implemented and used in practice, what social, cultural, political, and economic factors would influence its use, what local resources and skills might be available to maintain it, and how it is affected by infrastructure, institutions, and policy. 

“I hope my research can result in a framework or list of strategies for incorporating contextual factors into design processes, particularly in global health settings, as a way to support engineers’ sustainable product development and implementation,” Burleson said.

Find supportive advisers
What advice does she have for someone looking to enter her degree program?

“Having supportive advisors whose expertise and research agenda align with your interests is probably the most important consideration when selecting a PhD degree program,” Burleson said. “This is especially true with Design Science, since the program is inherently less structured and less established than traditional academic disciplines. My advisors, Professor Kathleen Sienko and Professor Kentaro Toyama, are incredible sources of support for me and key to my success in this program.”