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College of Arts and Sciences

‘State of the Pod’ founder Yunyun Wang ’20 named Newman Civic Fellow

By: Alisha Gupta
A&S Communications
March 6, 2020

Yunyun Wang ’20, a double major in information science, systems and technology (ISST) and government, has been named a Newman Civic Fellow, an honor given by Campus Compact that “recognizes and supports community-committed students who are changemakers and public problem-solvers” according to information on its website.

The Newman Civic fellowship honors students who engage with others to create long-term social change, take action to address issues of inequality and demonstrate a potential for “effective long-term civic engagement.”

“At a university with a founding public-engagement mission, where thousands of students engage with diverse communities each year, Yunyun stands out as someone with the skills, motivation, and potential for effecting long-term positive change,” said President Martha Pollack in her letter nominating Wang for the fellowship.

Wang, who is also a Meinig Family Cornell National Scholar, first heard about the Newman fellowship through the Meinig program and learning about the fellowship’s history drew her to apply.

“The [fellowship’s] founder is Paul Frank Newman,” Wang explained. “The one thing that was in his bio and mission statement that really resonated with me was that, it said, ‘The mission of colleges is not to prepare students for a career, but rather to be an active citizen — a good citizen.’ … That really spoke to me."

 Podcast cover art on episode on juuling

Although Wang entered Cornell as an engineering major, she said she always wanted a liberal arts education. It was this desire that ultimately led her to pursue another degree in government.

“I came from a pretty conservative, small town in Southern Virginia,” she said. “I was looking to venture out, to challenge my perspective about a lot of things.” 

Wang is also concerned about science disinformation. To combat this spread of “fake news,” as she describes it, she began a podcast entitled “State of the Pod.” Each episode focuses on a science issue and its “underlying societal, ethical implications,” she said.

Episode topics for the podcast have included the politicization of climate change, stem cell research and campus vaping trends. 

“As a scientist, and as someone who studies government, the issue for me has always been, ‘Why aren’t these fields more connected?’ ” Wang said. “That’s what led me to start the podcast.” 

Wang’s long-term interest is in tech policy. In her application to the Newman Civic fellowship, she wrote about the bias in algorithms, specifically in facial recognition technology. 

“What we know is that, due to limited data sets and training, [facial recognition] is going to be less accurate for understanding women and people of color,” Wang said.

This lack of accuracy has huge implications, according to Wang. In a Cornell class on mass incarceration — which she described has the most instrumental class she’s ever taken — Wang learned that law enforcement is “searching against mugshot databases to compare suspects.” However, because of the limitations of facial recognition technology, innocent people are being named suspects. 

 Podcast cover art on episode on bias in algorithms

In the future, Wang hopes to go into policy-making to enhance algorithmic accountability and combat this issue. 

As a Campus Compact member institution, Cornell can nominate one student to be a Newman Civic Fellow each year. Units in the Engaged Cornell Hub organized the nomination process, and President Martha Pollack nominated Wang. In recognition of this fellowship, Cornell is providing funding for Wang, including a $1,500 award, an additional $1,500 award for a community partner and up to $2,000 for travel to three Campus Compact convenings.

Wang plans to use the financial award to buy equipment and resources for her podcast and for a high school mentorship program. The mentorship program brings students from Ithaca High School and Cornell together to trace the origins of science disinformation. Currently, Wang is working with two students to analyze the history of the anti-vaccination movement. 

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.