By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications
UCLA International Institute, June 9, 2020 — Growing up in Singapore, senior Natasha Ann Lum (UCLA B.A. 2020) never thought she would study abroad. After she completed junior college, however, she joined the Singapore air force and set her sights set on a military scholarship. In a pattern that would repeat itself at UCLA, she easily met her goal.
“I wanted a college environment that was welcoming to first-generation college students and international students and was intellectually diverse so I could explore as many fields as I wanted,” she says. “UCLA fit the bill perfectly, and when I discovered how pleasant the weather there was (coming from tropical Singapore, I was not ready for adverse weather), I jumped on the opportunity!
“I knew I wanted the most interdisciplinary major – and global studies stood out as the best major I could pursue to do just that.”
In addition to exploring multiple disciplines through her major, Lum joined a student-run coding club (LikeLion), volunteered for the International Institute’s 6th Going Global Conference and UCLA’s 2019 undergraduate research week and spent an academic quarter in Washington, D.C. All in all, a quintessential university experience.
Geography class sparks an interest in technology mapping
It was during an upper-division Global Studies class, “Economic Geography” taught by Professor David Rigby, that Lum discovered a passion for understanding innovation. The class, she says, taught her “how technology and innovation affected economic growth and hence explained uneven economic development patterns across the world.”
Innovation soon became the focus of her studies. “The constant emphasis on the symbiotic relationship between technology and globalization in all my global studies classes pushed me to unwrap this enigma further,” she explains. “I love that the flexibility to choose from a variety of courses as a global studies major let me carve out this niche for myself.”
The niche required considerable administrative effort on her part — Lum had to obtain approval of several courses for credit toward her major — but her choice paid off in spades. Over the next year and a half, the undergraduate would write three major research papers on the topic.
During her fall 2019 residency in the UCLA Center for American Politics and Public Policy Program in Washington, DC, Lum interned for the Chamber of Digital Commerce, the international blockchain industry trade association,* and wrote a paper on the global landscape of central bank digital currencies.
“While seemingly disconnected to global studies, it was at that internship that I saw many global studies concepts materialize,” she relates. “One of the highlights was undoubtedly being able to attend the congressional hearing with Mark Zuckerberg on the global cryptocurrency, Libra.”
The concerns that members of Congress expressed to Zuckerberg — “the dissolving of national borders, the loss of American jobs, the problems of an international financial alliance – were all directly related to global studies concepts that I learned in the classroom!” she observes.
Her research on digital currencies revealed that the central banks of the Four Asian Tiger economies (Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea) had high levels of innovation in the field. “While a lot of research has been done on the Four Asian Tigers’ economic growth,” she notes, “there’s a lack of research that actually quantitatively correlates that growth with innovation patterns and proves that innovation does indeed spur economic growth.”
With the encouragement of Professor Rigby, the latter topic became the focus of her thesis for the Global Studies Program. Building on his research, says Lum, “I use patent data to map the technology landscape of each of these economies and try to identify a correlation between patent applications and the extraordinarily high economic growth of these economies after the 1960s,” she explains.
At the same time, Lum has also been conducting research on technology diffusion trajectories under the mentorship of UCLA Distinguished Professor of Computer Science Leonard Kleinrock, one of the architects of the internet. Her research and mentorship were made possible by a competitive $7,500 grant from the prestigious Internet Research Initiative (IRI) at UCLA, which includes dedicated lab space at the UCLA Connection Lab, the intellectual community of 11 other awardees in diverse disciplines and a final presentation on her research (see preliminary website).
Lum’s research applies Professor Rigby’s mapping methodology to predict the future direction of new technologies with the goal of improving policymakers’ ability to regulate such technologies in real time.
While working at the blockchain trade association in Washington, DC, recounts the UCLA senior, “I realized how uninformed governments were with regard to technology and innovation. It seemed that they were always playing catch-up with technology: coming up with policies to regulate technology only years after the technology has been widely adopted.
“That’s how I came to think of using the technology space as a prediction methodology,” explains Lum.
“Perhaps this way, governments might be able to prepare potential regulatory policies for each trajectory predicted, and if and when that trajectory is indeed realized, they can pull out those policies from the drawer and immediately execute them, rather than being thrown into a state of panic.”
Gratitude for faculty support of undergraduate research
“Faculty members are so incredibly supportive of student research, despite being experienced and acclaimed researchers,” says Lum. “It’s so intellectually invigorating to be in UCLA as an undergraduate student. I have loved every minute of my time here.”
Lum is deeply grateful to Professor Rigby, who is currently advising her on her global studies thesis. “He’s an absolute joy to work with — he never once underestimated my ideas as an undergraduate researcher and would eagerly listen to them and expand them further with his ideas,” she shares.
“I wouldn’t have even conceived of any of my research ideas if it wasn’t for him and his incredible work in the technology space, so I’m incredibly thankful to have met Professor Rigby and to have worked with him,” she adds, noting that he has given her advice on all her major research projects at UCLA.
“Natasha is one of those students that makes UCLA such a great place to study and work,” says Rigby. “In class she asked lots of questions… I mean, lots of questions! The class as a whole benefited from the resulting interaction, reinforcing ideas and making connections between different concepts. This is what we are all missing so much at the moment.
“I was excited when Natasha decided to work on collaboration and spatial patterns of innovation for her Global Studies thesis,” he adds. “Her technical skills with data and coding, combined with a broad background across the social sciences, will open many possibilities for her in the future. She is a great international ambassador for UCLA.”
Describing her work with Professor Kleinrock on her IRI project, Lum says, “I am incredibly humbled by his continuing passion to learn and engage with disciplines other than his own.
“Working with him has also highlighted for me the different research paradigms of computer scientists and humanists. I find that my experience taking global studies and humanities classes trained me well to think about big-picture ideas and complex relations across issues.”
Professor Kleinrock and Natasha Ann Lum on one of their weekly Zoom calls. (Image courtesty of Ms. Lum.)
“My research started out all over the place,” she recounts. “Professor Kleinrock’s experience as a computer scientist definitely reigned me in to be more focused and to work on my research in a logical flow.
“He is incredibly astute and can point out errors in methodologies and findings very quickly, and asks why exactly I do certain things, so that I am clear with my own objectives,” she explains. And although she is finishing her final quarter at UCLA remotely from Singapore, Lum says weekly Zoom calls with the celebrated computer scientist have kept her in check and on schedule.
Kleinrock comments, “Natasha Ann Lum represents a sparkling example of the personal qualities of talented undergraduate students from across campus who are carefully selected as prize winners to achieve the goals of the Internet Research Initiative (IRI) that we have established at UCLA. In a phrase, the IRI mission is to ‘understand the intersections between technology and society, so that we might envision a more ethical and equitable relationship to Internet technologies as they progress into future.’
“I have served as Natasha’s mentor this year and have found her to be an amazing young researcher who seeks to use the U.S. Patent database to predict the pace and pattern of technology adoption as it applies to the rollout and spread of internet technology,” continues Kleinrock. “She is a self-starter, a fast learner and a delight to work with; I predict she will thrive in her future endeavors beautifully.
Lum will soon acquire deeper disciplinary skills in computer science itself. She is due to start a master’s degree program in the field at Boston University this fall. As she notes, “the coding skills I learned in the LikeLion club were fundamental to my research projects, which were all data-centric in nature and required extensive data analysis.”
Similar to her decision to come to the United States to get exposure to the U.S. educational system, Lum’s choice to pursue graduate studies on the East Coast reflects a wish to balance the education she received on the West Coast.
But the best part? “I will have studied in the birthplaces of two innovations that changed the world (and expedited globalization): UCLA, the birthplace of the internet, and Boston University, the birthplace of the telephone!” she says.
*The CoinMetro blog offers this definition of blockchain in plain English: “A blockchain consists of a number of blocks, hence the term. Each block is a record of transactions of specific data, which can contain anything from Cryptos [digital currencies] to voting records to medical data. When one block is completed and can no longer be updated with new data, it is added to the chain and another, new block, is formed. All the information on the blockchain is publicly available, as it’s a decentralized system… [meaning] that the information is stored on many computers distributed around the globe, and there’s no specific party or authority to control it.”