Alumni Feature: Alan Munoz, Honors Fellow ’20 (Political Economy)

“You are surrounded by so many talented people, and they are usually passionate about something and even though it might not directly align to your interests, there is plenty of overlap for you to listen and learn from.”

Alan Munoz is a recent UC Berkeley graduate with a BA in Political Economy. As an alumni of the Fung Fellowship, having been a part of the program for two years, he shares what he’s been doing after graduation and how the fellowship shaped his professional interests in public health and design.

Tell us about yourself!

Hello, my name is Alan Munoz, and I am a recent graduate of the Political Economy program at UC Berkeley. I was raised in one of the oldest communities in Los Angeles, Boyle Heights—historically known as Paredon Blanco, a working-class neighborhood. Outside of school, I enjoy staying active through playing soccer with friends and the occasional night runs around Los Angeles.

At UC Berkeley, I had the opportunity to study in the Political Economy program which is inherently interdisciplinary; the core of the program focuses on the evolution of economics, technology, and society, meaning that students had to have a firm understanding of classical and contemporary ideas that have shaped the world we live in. This, with the flexibility of choosing your own concentration (my concentration was on technology & the Economy), was what really hooked me into the major.

I didn’t really give much thought into what exact career I wanted to pursue post-college; I simply took a ton of classes that I was interested in but never really took the time to home in on a specific job or career. It wasn’t until I began taking more upper division level courses that I began to think that I wanted to work in a career where I can do research. Danny Yagan’s “Public Economics” and Marco Gonzalez-Navarro’s “Economic Development” courses exposed me to many of the issues that are incurred by people and countries derived from the current inequality phenomenon we are experiencing.

Coming from an economics background, what brought you to the Fung Fellowship?

I was exposed to the Fung Fellowship while I was volunteering as a mentor at a research program for undergraduates at Loyola Marymount University. One of my peers that was also attending UC Berkeley in the fall sent me a link to the fellowship application because, to them, this seemed like something that aligned with my interest.

And it was.

I was drawn to the program after taking a quick scan of the application and the program’s site. The unique learning environment where I would be able to learn about human-centered design for the purpose of solving some of the most complex problems that our society faces was what inspired me to apply.

Can you tell us about your favorite memory from the fellowship?

A favorite social memory would be when we had our honors retreat. There were two housing facilities where my cohort was given the opportunity to choose how we wanted to go about arranging our sleeping logistics. Without much thought, the whole group then decided that we would all stay in one of the facilities, all together. There was enough room to have clusters of fellows in different housing facilities, but everyone stuck together. I think this speaks numbers to how united the fellows felt and the type of students that the fellowship recruits.

The Honors Fellows, Adrienne, Caroline, and Jaspal pose together during their retreat.
The Honors Fellows, Adrienne, Caroline, and Jaspal pose together during their retreat.
Honors Fellows, Adrienne, Caroline, and Jaspal posing together during their retreat.

What were some of your biggest takeaways from the fellowship?

The Fung Fellowship was the catalyst for my decision to pursue a career in research as a user experience researcher. Like I mentioned before, prior to my senior year at UC Berkeley, I didn’t have a specific career in mind. But I was inspired by the learning environment that I found and experienced throughout my two years at the fellowship.

Things started to click; I was starting to connect what I was learning in both my major coursework and the design-thinking methods from the fellowship. The fellowship and my Political Economy program were perfect complements.

There were instances where I felt a bit frustrated because there was a lot of interesting and important material that I was learning in my classes, but I didn’t really know how to apply it. This is why I say that the fellowship was crucial to my decision of pursuing a user experience research career. Through the lectures, labs, and projects, I was able to learn how to directly be involved in the process of mitigating a lot of the issues that derive from the income inequality phenomenon (i.e., health disparities in historically marginalized communities, low-technological literacy rates, and relative deprivation in general). The ideas and values of the fellowship that consist of designing meaningful solutions through technology and empathy have dictated my goals and projects that I want to work on.

Things started to click; I was starting to connect what I was learning in both my major coursework and the design-thinking methods from the fellowship.

Now that you’ve graduated from UC Berkeley, what have you been working on?

Before I graduated, I was able to take Dr. Courtney Lyles’ graduate-level “Digital Health Design and Evaluations for Diverse Populations” course, recommended and shared by our then faculty lead Jaspal Sandhu. Through Dr. Lyles’ course, I was continuously exposed to many of the health disparities and challenges in the public health field. I was assigned a research project that was started by Dr. Caroline Figueroa (D-Lab, dHEAL, Berkeley Social Welfare) and David Chan (BAIR, Ph.D. EECS) that addresses our current digital health equity problem and how we might go about solving it through the implementation of automated chatbots or “conversational agents”. Most of the work that I did during my time in the course overlapped with the projects that I conducted in the fellowship.

After completing the course, Caroline and David were kind enough to offer me the opportunity to continue to work on the project as a paid research assistant post-graduation; I continued to conduct semi-structured interviews and user testing of chatbot prototypes. It was through the experiences I had with our users that I really got to learn about the lack of research and design for historically underrepresented communities; in this case, Spanish-speaking individuals (predominantly Hispanic) with relatively low-tech and low-literacy rates.

I was excited to witness how accepting and engaged our users became as they learned more about our project. The insights that we gathered through our testing and even through our co-design workshop were critical to our design and iterations of conversational flows. And although most participants found the technology behind the chatbot prototypes to be extremely novel, their experiences with their phones and text-based messaging applications made the user testing experience a pleasant one for both the researcher team and our participants.

A board of user input for the chatbot | Provided by Alan Munoz

Throughout the study, I was surprised to see how many recommendations our users shared. I learned that the pandemic exacerbated many of the health disparities in these communities; from a decrease in physical activity during the stay-at-home orders to a rise in anxiety that impacted our participants’ mental health. But our user quickly connected the possibilities of the chatbot to alleviate many of their pain points.

Another incident that I came across during my research was during a parent conference, where some members of the Oakley Elementary School District were caught mocking parents for their feedback and inquiries on going back to in-person learning; the shift to online learning was not the smoothest transition, especially for parents with low-technological literacy rates. Many of the parents I had the opportunity to interview shared these paint points and difficulties that were brought along from the transition to online learning. Some of the parents were upset that these educators would dismiss the issues that many of them were facing — either the board was completely unaware and ignorant about these issues, or they simply didn’t care about what was going on. The lack of empathy that these educators have shown is only one example of the design failures I hope to be able to solve.

This research experience was a reassurance that I want to help inform researchers and designers about how to conduct research in a more inclusive manner. Seeing how our team implemented a relatively unconventional approach to traditional research methods really motivated me to pursue additional opportunities in the field.

Ideally, my goal would be to be able to find an opportunity where I could work on similar projects with a team that strives to design digital and non-digital interventions that help mitigate some of the more complex public health issues. I am a firm believer that technology can help create non-rival and non-excludable goods that even our most vulnerable populations can benefit from. We as designers just need to listen and help advocate for our users because like I have learned, more often than not, most of the solutions stem from said users, not from what we believe should be done.

As a final word to current and prospective fellows, do you have any advice to share?

Take advantage of all the resources that are available in this unique learning environment. I don’t necessarily just mean the professional workshops and labs; I also include the fellowship staff and fellows.

From my experience, I felt like I learned just as much from my peers, so try to make as many connections as possible — one of my academic advisors once told me that if you feel like you are not bugging your professors, then you might not be utilizing your network all that well. You are surrounded by so many talented people, and they are usually passionate about something and even though it might not directly align to your interests, there is plenty of overlap for you to listen and learn from.

Connect with Alan.

Read about his team’s user design study.

Compiled and edited by Alison Huh.

The Fung Fellowship at UC Berkeley is shaping the next generation of health, conservation, and technology leaders for a better world. 🌱