Would you prefer a chart or text when being presented with information? Ph.D. student Chase Stokes has dedicated his studies to answering this question.
As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, Chase majored in psychology and gender and sexuality studies. During his first quarter there, he met and befriended Ph.D. student Cindy Xiong, who introduced him to the world of data visualization. She brought him to the cognitive psychology lab where she worked and he was enraptured by the work they did. It was a done deal from there, and Chase would dedicate the rest of his undergraduate years to working at that same lab and studying visualizations.
Throughout his degree, he also worked at a clinical psychology lab, which he credits for providing him with the resources and mindset to continue conducting research. “I think that those skills still stay with me; I'm comfortable doing semi-structured interviews. It helped me think about the approach people have to a visualization, what they're carrying with them when they come to it,” Chase explained.
By the time he graduated in 2021, he was at a crossroads — either continue looking for jobs in the midst of the economic recession following COVID-19, or, apply to graduate school and pursue further data visualization research. He consulted with his friend and mentor Cindy, who advised him, “If you do [a Ph.D.], make sure that you’re sure about it. Make sure that this kind of research is something that’s really interesting to you because you’re going to be spending five to six years doing nothing but this.” But ultimately, Chase felt that if he did not pursue a Ph.D. and spend more time investigating this research he would regret it.
Looking into various programs, Chase stumbled across Professor Marti Hearst’s website, where he read her paper, “Would You Like a Chart With That?” and reached out. The two of them were similarly interested in modes of information communication (e.g. written versus visual) and Chase took the opportunity to apply to the I School.
He was accepted in the following months right before graduation and soon began researching visualization again under the mentorship of Dr. Hearst.
In October of 2022, a paper co-authored with Vidya Setlur, Bridget Cogley, Arvind Satyanarayan, and Marti Hearst, “Striking a Balance: Reader Takeaways and Preferences when Integrating Text and Charts” was accepted to the 2022 IEEE Vis Conference, where Dr. Hearst was the keynote speaker.
“Conferences are probably the most fun part of a Ph.D.,” he said, and “part of research is getting to see your friends and see what they’re working on and making new connections and sharing your own work to a community that’s all really excited to hear about charts, which you don’t often find on the day to day.” In Oklahoma City, where the conference was held, Chase had the opportunity to hold meaningful conversations with attendees and meet others similarly interested in the intersection of language and visuals.
On presenting his research at the conference, Stokes shared, “It’s a great recognition of the work that you’ve put into a paper. Research is sometimes so long and small at the same time... It takes a long time to do a very small thing, even just for instance, deciding on the wording of a question. It’s a real joy to see that come to life,” he continued. “And it’s a testament to the kind of thing that I love.”
Chase has only just begun his research journey and intends to explore how he can improve chart-making tools. He will be interning at Tableau this summer and is beyond stoked to explore the potential of industry research.