IST faculty profile: Lynette Kvasny

December 19, 2011

When discussing the impact of technology on society, many people focus on how technological advances have made people’s lives easier and/or more enjoyable. Lynette Kvasny, an associate professor in Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology, takes a somewhat different approach. Rather than emphasizing personal gratification, she focuses her research on the ways in which technology can improve society and the lives of underprivileged groups.

Kvasny, who has a doctorate in computer information systems from Georgia State University, joined the IST faculty in 2001. Her research focuses on how and why historically underserved groups appropriate information and communication technologies (ICT). She has designed, implemented and assessed community computing projects in economically challenged neighborhoods in Atlanta, West Philadelphia and Harrisburg. Her current research examines the performance of racial and ethnic identities in virtual communities, ICT education and workforce participation in the African Diaspora, and the influence of racial, class and gender identities on health information seeking and content creation.

While growing up in Westchester County, N.Y., Kvasny said, she owned both “erector sets and Barbies.” Her interest in technology developed while she was in high school, she said, and by the time she graduated, she was able to write software programs in multiple languages. After graduating from Mercy College, she moved to Atlanta, where she worked at AT&T, which eventually spun off its equipment manufacturing business to Lucent Technologies, which merged with Alcatel in 2006 to become Alcatel-Lucent USA.  Kvasny also worked for Avaya Communications, the communications and call center which was spun off from Lucent Technologies in 2000.

I like the chaos and excitement that comes from working in newly formed organizations,” she said.

It has often been noted that women generally shy away from pursuing careers in technology, but according to Kvasny, those discussions tend to focus on white females. Women of color who grow up in different cultural environments, she said, may have different attitudes about technology. As a black woman working in the technology field, she said, she has never cared about “fitting in or even trying to fit in.”

“I don't see my race or gender as a limiting factor,” she said. “It just makes me unique.”

The concept of personal identity in the digital age is one of Kvasny’s primary areas of research. She examines how individuals use the Internet to mold their identities and how their “real bodies” inform their interests.

“Bodies matter in cyber space just like they do in real space,” she said.

In addition, Kvasny studies how mobile technologies can be used to spread “culturally compelling” HIV/AIDS prevention messages to African-American communities.  The technologies can be applied to virtual communities or organizations with physical locations such as churches.

“Disproportionately affected communities need targeted messages,” she said.

At the College of IST, Kvasny teaches three undergraduate courses, “Technology and Pop Culture,”  “The Information Environment” and “Information, Technology and People;” and a graduate course, “Foundations of IST Research.” In her classes, she said, she focuses on issues of power, equity, justice and ethics. Rather than emphasizing activities such as spying and hacking, the students explore how technology can be used to build communities in which members can share interests and preserve traditions. IST students should weigh both the pros and cons of technology, Kvasny said, and “not blindly accept that technology is good for society.”

As for her own views on technology, Kvasny said that she enjoys reading blogs, particularly those by African-American writers. Unlike other forms of social media, she said, the blog format provides space for serious writing that engages readers.

“It fosters community,” she said.

In her free time, Kvasny said, she enjoys biking and traveling to cities to visit museums and take part in cultural activities.

Kvasny’s favorite students to teach are freshmen, she said, since she finds them to be trusting, intellectually curious, and open to new ideas. In her classes, she tries to find topics that resonate with the students and promote interaction among the classmates.

“They’re thinking about things,” Kvasny said. “That, to me, is the greatest pleasure.” 

Last Updated December 19, 2011