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Featured Alumni: Olivia Siu

Female presenting person inside a plane cabin wearing a headset

This article is part of a series featuring recent alumni and their exit essay interviews upon program completion. Olivia Siu earned the Master of Cinematic Arts with an emphasis in Media Arts, Games & Health and her portfolio is here.

Describe your background and how you shaped your MA studies to integrate within the program.

I am trained mainly as a clinical researcher in extreme environments. Specifically, I studied human performance and cell biology in aviation and deep space environments. I liked best operating in dynamic team environments, with some of my favorite past roles being an on-campus certified responder, aviation hypoxia normobaric chamber instructor, and wilderness safety guide.

This training translated to project-based work because I could learn a concept or process with the proficiency of teaching it and creatively problem-solve on the spot. I naturally took on producer responsibilities on MA projects in the Directed Research courses, such as The Lavender Effect Oral Histories and the Fall 2023 CDC seminar about the science of The Last of Us. This meant researching the history and timeliness of the topic and biographies of guests, when applicable, as well as determining priorities and deadlines of tasks.

In courses such as CTIN 503 and 510, the former point of researching the landscape of humanities topics and their technologies was especially of interest and provided opportunities to exercise different skills. My background in research writing and procedural thinking applied here but was expanded upon when taking on subject matters like game development and perspective papers rather than study reports. To overcome the challenge of entering games as a profession, I pursued high-involvement positions in the Advanced Game Project course, designed to imitate a game studio experience closely. My roles were as an Advanced Game Project (AGP) Usability Student assistant and usability lead on Neon City, an AGP VR thesis game. I was able to learn through routine the game design and development process firsthand and gain crucial insight into the VR industry from an indie perspective.

Because much of CMBHC’s game portfolio consists of VR content, the AGP roles as a starter in the MA program were doubly applicable to my interest and grounds to accept oncoming positions on existing projects.

What core resources did you use at USC, CMBHC, and Cinematic Arts to achieve your goals?

AGP’s professional expectations, such as hustle, unique to the games industry, inspired me to exercise skills in initiating, delivering, and cross-discipline communication that I did not previously have. As a result, I have in-the-room confidence to discuss complex issues as they arise, make decisions, and give actionable directions to teams of mixed disciplines or nature.

Through an existing relationship with CMBHC, I joined the SMART-VR community, which directly connected SCA game designers to Keck researchers interested in VR research for medical applications. My initial role was supporting outreach events encouraging VR comfortability and clinical research significance. Eventually, I was invited as a technical producer on a VR driving sim project focused on evaluating driving safety for patients with visual loss conditions. I am glad to reflect on many successful collaborations between SCA and HSC campuses that will hopefully result in continued relationships and a welcoming ground for future opportunities for others after graduation.

On a macro scale, I pursued the position of an Annenberg Media Arts, Culture, and Entertainment writer to gain access and insight into LA culture and happenings afforded to USC student journalism. A few examples of events I covered were Gen Z rock music, natural disasters, community response in Japanese films, and Cotopaxi’s first 24-hour community service, “race for good” Questival at USC. I am grateful for this opportunity and joint student ambition to open a world of current events, art, and involvement to me.

What were your major accomplishments during your degree?

Attending and presence for as many Garden (CMBHC) discussions as I could! Balancing technology, humanities, philosophy, and marginalized community topics, not many spaces with USC Games afford these conversations. Unlike published products or showcased projects, the insight and perspective special to the Garden can’t be found online or is otherwise asynchronously accessible. However, in that same vein, the effect of these discussions outside of the Garden’s room exists only within the participants. So the responsibility lives within them to exemplify the ideals that were discussed.

Advocating for usability initiatives within IMGD. Within a year, I upheld vital initiatives for usability practices among AGP. I ensured the entire operations of the Game Usability lab under the expert direction of Dennis Wixon as the AGP Usability professor. He retired at the end of that year, but I confidently took care of the continuity of usability initiatives within IMGD, which I carried out in my 2nd year.

Connectedness and voicefulness at Annenberg Media. For the same reasons mentioned in other answers here, I don’t think my degree experience would have had that “USC” or “LA” twist if not for being involved with AM. As of writing this, AM is hyper-busy covering the Pro-Palestinian protests–to which commencement scheduling hangs in the balance. Because of this connectedness, I feel ahead of the curve about ultra-current and ultra-local events.

Which classes were most helpful to your growth and education?

CTIN 575 and 503: We dove into Rita Charon’s work (Narrative Medicine) and the philosopher Epicurus. It was heavy material (in only that it was dense), but with the tumultuous current times of the protests now, I feel prepared to engage with the involved arguments because I could think about perspective and meaning-making on an individual and movement level.

AGP: For the mentioned reasons, AGP was a great crash course into the game industry in a designed-for-education delivery. I was impressed with and thrived on the student accountability to run, lead, and execute within projects–whereas, in STEM, the chain of command can interfere with complete student agency.

CTPR 404: Podcast Practicum: I love audio as a medium, and this class opened me up to creative, analytical, and investigative reporting applications. But overall, I learned that audio storytelling production presents a sizable enough challenge to create a handful of high-quality products if beginning from a thoughtful plan.

How did you use your directed research time?

Much of my takeaways from CTIN 590 were getting comfortable with sensitive subject matters and being directed to engage with materials and the communities directly. This meant preparing, conducting, and editing interviews for various projects. Also, taking stock of community priorities and voices instead of common misconceptions. I remember taking strides in personal growth with these courses as milestones, specifically in emotional intelligence and necessary historical contexts.

Summarize your integrative project.

A portfolio of creative projects supporting outgroup communities that describe a journey of commitment, involvement, and compassion.

Where do you wish to be in 1, 3, 5, and 10 years?

1: A rookie, but with talent, a blank slate, and willingness to “work in the dirt” and be diligent using cutting-edge skills, in-tune insights, and established protocols.

3: A leader, with an innovative yet accountable mindset to face new and critical challenges arising in current climate and events.

5: A career expert with clear and responsive communication and the capability to take on various tasks, teams, decisions, or questions.

10: A community cornerstone who can be counted on for important milestones and support for everyday things in life, in and out of the workplace, with compassion for the nuances.

What do you think is the biggest challenge in interdisciplinary work?

Maintaining curiosity. Especially if the “fantasy” of novelty fades. Most creative or research-led projects begin with a “it would be cool if…” and this enthusiasm can lead to widespread and expansive recruitment. However, if the momentum of interdisciplinary work depends on pursuing novelty, morale could dwindle. However, I believe that if the team agreed that they would be working out of their comfort zone from the start, it could help with these growing pains.

What recommendations do you have for other students in your program for them to be successful?

Bring seemingly unrelated projects and interests home to The Garden as you’re comfortable! The skills MA students find important in their experience will likely be translatable across projects, teams, and departments. There’s always a way to engage with interests seriously, even in not “professional” or “career-building” ways.