Understanding How Technology and Humanities Come Together to Create a Community



By Tom Linder
Leila Mirghaderi

Learning how to create places has always been central to Leila Mirghaderi (Ph.D. THUM ’23) and her academic career, having earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture.

Her desire to understand how people create a sense of space and community and utilize satire for practices of citizenship and democracy, however, is what ultimately led her to Illinois Institute of Technology.

“When I was studying for my master of architecture degree at the State University of New York at Buffalo, I became interested in the intersection of design and humanities,” says Mirghaderi. “At the time, my research was focused on increasing interactions in public spaces using methods such as interviews, surveys, and focus groups. This was my introduction to the field of humanities.”

Mirghaderi’s research at Illinois Tech focuses on the role that social media has taken in creating a sense of space and place. One of the projects that she’s most proud of was a result of her time as a Socially Responsible Modeling, Computation, and Design (SoReMo) inaugural fellow, which culminated in her 2021 publication titled “Social Media Users’ Free Labor in Iran: Influencers, Ethical Conduct, and Labor Exploitation.” 

Mirghaderi attended Azad University in Tehran, Iran, for her bachelor’s degree and the University of Tehran to earn her M.B.A., so the research topic hit close to home for Mirghaderi.

Through analysis of more than 2,000 stories created by 71 Iranian Instagram influencers, the project identified six main strategies that the influencers used to exploit their audiences. In response, Mirghaderi made recommendations for the ethical conduct that could be implemented via the platforms, national policy, and educational systems. 

Other research subjects that Mirghaderi has undertaken at Illinois Tech include the National Science Foundation-supported project “Games for Girls: Informing the Future” and an investigation into perceptions of virtual assistants. The former assessed the movement that reached prominence in the mid-1990s and hoped to inspire more diversity in STEM fields, while the latter explored the emotional attachments people have made to virtual assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri. 

Mirghaderi has not only studied how these digital communities are created, she has immersed herself within the Illinois Tech community, organizing conference panels and presentations and coordinating symposia in addition to pursuing her Ph.D.

“I enjoyed my activities at Illinois Tech, and I am fortunate that such opportunities were provided to me,” says Mirghaderi. “There are several reasons why I became involved in the campus community. First, it is a way of giving back and returning the favor to the community that was kind to me. It was also a way to contribute to the advancement of knowledge. Finally, I have gained priceless lessons in developing organizational, communication, event planning, and leadership skills.”

Remaining plugged into the Illinois Tech community, Mirghaderi played a major role in organizing the Machine Learning Fairness webinar held in March 2023 by the university’s Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions. The event spotlighted trends in artificial intelligence fairness, how research can entrench—as opposed to remedy—issues of bias and discrimination, and how explanations can be used to ensure fairness and accountability. 

“Compared with the previous webinars, I was the most involved in the coordination and planning of this one, from idea to execution,” says Mirghaderi. 

Looking ahead, Mirghaderi is looking forward to putting the skills that she’s acquired to use as her career continues to move onward and upward.

“It goes without saying that part of me is sad that this is coming to an end,” says Mirghaderi. “My aim is to continue developing my career and start in a position that can fully utilize the experience and knowledge I have gained in this chapter of my life.”