When Charan Ramachandran acted on his genuine curiosity of exploring a subject outside of his normal coursework, it paid big dividends—not just for him, but also for the professor.
Ramachandran, a graduating fourth-year student who majored in Entertainment and Media Studies and computer science, reached out to Bart Wojdynski, director of the Digital Media Attention and Cognition Lab, his freshman year asking if he could be involved with projects the lab was researching. Ramachandran participated in the experimental Research Living Learning Community his freshman year and one of the topics was encouraging students to reach out to professors whose work is of interest. Ramachandran learned of Wojdynski’s research with eye-tracking and wanted to understand more so he reached out.
“I remember he said ‘I don’t know what I’m interested in, but for now I want to see what you are doing and how I can help,’” remembered Wojdynski, a Jim Kennedy New Media Professor and associate professor of journalism. “As time went by, he became an indispensable team player and helped with things we couldn’t do otherwise.”
Four years after volunteering as a research associate with the DMAC Lab, Ramachandran has some research credits on his resume and several new skills to take into the work force.
“The DMAC Lab has taught me a lot,” Ramachandran said. “My work there taught me how to produce an application on time and test it before delivery. For instance, I hadn’t developed mobile applications before, but this pushed me to learn how to do that and figure it out.
I have Dr. Wojdynski to thank for all that.”
Research in the DMAC Lab uses eye-tracking technology to study how consumers view and evaluate media message on a variety of platforms, including websites and mobile devices. Despite a pause in activities due to COVID, Ramachandran participated in numerous research projects including a Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities presentation analyzing social media by health orgs related to opioid epidemic and designing a web-based Twitter feed.
The largest project he was involved with was designing a custom Instagram app that was used in one of the first eye-tracking studies involving Instagram on a mobile device. Wojdynski explained that during COVID, it became clear that there were a lot of researchers interested in effects of viewing social media content in a realistic setting. In Jan 2021, the DMAC Lab purchased a new eye tracker and mobile phone stand with a high-definition video connection to the phone, allowing researchers to record everything on screen as the viewers scrolled their device.
As the lab group was designing a study to test effects of social media content, Ramachandran suggested the team build its own customizable Instagram app to present the content just like users typically view it.
“He learned code in Swift, but had to figure out a lot along the way to make it as realistic as possible,” Wojdynski continued. “Designing a submission form for creating custom posts, with time stamps , the number of likes, how to have hashtags to show up blue, a carousel effect—Charan figured out how to create all of that and presented four or five versions. It was amazing.”
The research will be presented at the International Communication Association conference in Paris in late May.
In addition to practical skills and research experience, Ramachandran found a network of friends.
“When we are in the lab, it doesn’t feel like a hierarchy at all,” Ramachandran concluded. “Dr. Wojdynski—he’s one of us and I’m one of them. Even though I’m an undergraduate, I feel like part of a team and put in a lot of effort to be an active member. I’ve made a lot of great friendships there.”
Ramachandran graduates in May and will move to California this summer to start work as a software engineer with YouTube.