Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn, founding director of the Games and Virtual Environments Lab in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, is exploring how digital technology can be used to encourage better food choices, more physical activity and better STEM learning in children.
Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?
I earned two bachelor’s degrees—in communication and business administration—at Seoul National University. Then I went on to obtain a master’s degree and a doctoral degree in communication at Stanford University. I am currently an assistant professor in the department of advertising and public relations in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. I am also the founding director of the Games and Virtual Environments Lab, an affiliate faculty member of the Health and Risk Communication Center, and an active member of the Obesity Initiative.
When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?
I arrived in Athens in the summer of 2011 to start my first tenure-track job as an assistant professor. I had a 6-week-old baby at the time, so it was an interesting cross-country move from California all the way to Georgia.
What are your favorite courses and why?
I love teaching “Advertising Research Methods” and “Advertising and Society.” Like many academics, I have a nerdy streak and get excessively excited about research methods and teaching students how to really appreciate social science. I have had many students communicate that although the learning curve was steep, what they learned in this class helped them land internships and jobs. “Advertising and Society” is an ethics class that discusses controversial issues surrounding media and how they can influence society and its members. We cover a range of very interesting and potentially sensitive issues, including race/ethnicity, gender, regulations and much more. Pushing the students to think outside of their comfort zone always makes for an interesting discussion, and they learn so much from engaging in active debate with their peers on the complex relationship between media and society.
Oh, and I can’t leave out my First-Year Odyssey seminars. Grady College is a two-year program, so I rarely get to see freshmen within Grady. The freshman students’ excitement about college can be pretty contagious and I love being one of the faculty members to introduce the rich opportunities that UGA has to offer. We learn about how digital technology can be used to improve and augment various aspects of our everyday lives. I take the freshmen students on a tour of the Games and Virtual Environments Lab as a part of the course, and they love it.
What interests you about your field?
My primary area of research lies in communication and more specifically the influence of virtual environments on people’s cognitive, affective and behavioral responses. I’m fascinated by how virtual experiences are able to meaningfully change the way that we interact in the physical world. The context of my studies largely falls into three categories: health, environmental and consumer behavior. I have also been working closely with the community by conducting field studies in a number of 4-H camps in Georgia to explore how virtual experiences can promote healthy choices in children. Despite the incredible speed of technological advancement and the explosion of popular interest in virtual environments such as virtual reality (e.g., Oculus Rift), augmented reality (e.g., Microsoft HoloLens), and video games, there is so much uncovered ground in these areas and so many unanswered questions. In short, I get to play with the most cutting-edge virtual devices and call it research — how could that be uninteresting?
What are some highlights of your career at UGA?
I have experienced incredible growth both as a teacher and a researcher, and this could have not have happened without the fantastic social network of colleagues that I have been able to build at UGA. My first career highlight would be founding the Games and Virtual Environments Lab, which features a fully immersive setup for a wide range of virtual experiences. Using these state-of-the-art devices, we are able to create vivid virtual simulations that allow users to see, hear and feel as if they are going through the experience in the physical world. Some recent highlights include receiving the Mary Alice Shaver Promising Professor Award from the American Association of Advertising and receiving my first National Science Foundation grant.
How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?
I am a communication and technology scholar, so many of my classes tend to have a “hue” of emerging media and technology. I often discuss digital media literacy and ethical issues, as well as some of the most recent technological developments in digital media with my students. And vice versa, my teaching often gives me some great research insights and ideas that are very current and relevant to the real world. My interactions with the students help keep my perspectives grounded when thinking about research.
What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?
I hope I’m able to nurture the ability to critically process the information that they receive from a wide range of media sources and become informed consumers of media content. I also hope they learn how to become effective written and oral communicators.
Describe your ideal student.
My ideal student would be eager to learn, unafraid to think outside their comfort zones, be ready to engage and to persevere, but more importantly, be inquisitive: to experience things outside of the textbook, and to learn about the world outside the college walls.
Beyond the UGA campus, I like to…
I’m a big traveler. As a child, I was raised in five different countries, including Kuwait, South Korea, Spain, Thailand and the U.S. To this day, I still love to visit foreign countries and mingle with the locals in my down time. When I was in college, I backpacked through Europe and went trekking on Nepal’s Annapurna mountain. I spent weeks in Turkey and the Greek Isles. I would love to visit some countries in South America next. Playing classical piano is another one of my favorite pastimes. I’ve played the piano for over 25 years now and once dreamed of becoming a classical pianist. Whenever I’m stressed, playing music really helps me unwind and relax. Thankfully, my toddler has inherited my love for the piano and is very interested in playing instruments. I hope to be able to play a duet with him one of these days!
Community/civic involvement includes….
Now that I have a toddler of my own, my research interests have expanded to include children as an important population. My most recent set of research studies has explored how digital technology may be used to promote desirable behaviors in children, such as better food choices, more physical activity and better STEM learning. Another research project looks at intervention programs to deter cyberbullying. My research teams have worked closely with a wide range of community groups to conduct field studies, including UGA Extension, the YMCA of Metropolitan Atlanta and the Children’s Museum of Atlanta. Together, we hope to develop systems that help tightly link children and the community together to provide strong social support for their well-being.
Favorite book/movie (and why)?
I love science fiction movies and Marvel Comics films. I’m a big Christian Bale fan so I loved his “Batman” trilogy. Some of my research ideas are inspired by scenes in the movies that I’ve watched—in virtual reality, imagination is my only limit and SF movies always push the boundary of my imagination. Besides, they’re just fun to watch!
(Originally published Nov. 1, 2015)