Finding connection through research in both life and work with Dana Lee

Meet Dana Lee, a user experience researcher at Facebook. She shares her journey of how she got into research and how she’s applied similar approaches to her work throughout her life by exploring ways to build connections and learn deeply about everything. Dana’s also passionate about environmentalism and shares some of her thoughts and approaches to create a positive impact.

Interviewed in November 2020 | Continue the conversation by supporting west & ease on Patreon.

 

Group photo of Dana Lee and her classmates on a stage.
Dana Lee with her classmates at their sketch performance with Upright Citizens Brigade.

 

Tell us a little about yourself and your creative journey.

I’m Dana, and I’m a researcher at Facebook. Though, I’ve always tried to not define myself as what my job is. At the same time, I’ve always wanted to be a researcher. 

I remember growing up and being like, “what I really want to do in life is to make a positive impact!” (laughing) So I figured by the time I got to college, I could try International Development. I ended up taking a course called  “d-lab: design” that focused on user-centered design for International Development. With that, I realized my skill set isn’t in engineering or design, so research was the best bet for me. I really liked asking questions and trying to deeply understand the situations. That’s a valuable skillset to have to help people see the finer details and the bigger picture. Exactly, and that’s been one of the most rewarding parts of research.

 

Left image shows a person handling food. Image on right includes baskets stacked in rows with various produce.
Dana’s previous travels to Bogota, Colombia to learn more about the food culture for research. Photography by Dana Lee.

 

I’ve also always been interested in travel—to learn about other cultures and languages. As I continue my research career, I realize I’m most interested in ethnographic research. That is, as a researcher, you’re trying to be a fly on the wall. You immerse yourself in the experience to try and understand what’s going on as an observer. Then, having people help you understand the context of the activity you’re studying; is the core of genuinely understanding something. I enjoy that because there’s no better way to understand than to see it for yourself. That comes back to my interest in travel—I don’t want to just see the touristy things, but I want to get a sense of culture and the day-to-day experience. This even includes visiting drug stores or pharmacy type stores when traveling. It can tell you so much about people’s lives and what people use.

Outside of research, I enjoy picking up projects and just doing them. I’ve recently spent my time on watercolor painting, comedy writing, and screenplay writing. However, I would be nervous to call myself a comedian, writer, or painter since I haven’t released any of my work publicly yet. I am, however, interested in continuing to explore more beyond research, even for fun.

 

A recent live performance of a sketch comedy with the Last Revue titled “Busker”, written by Dana Lee.

 

What drives your desire to want to try new things? I’m continually trying to figure out what my “thing” is or what my identity is. I have a hard time sticking to one thing since I’m a bit fickle. I’ve heard that I’d need to dedicate myself to one thing to get good at something. But everything is so fun to me that I don’t want to get pigeonholed into one thing! 

Do you need to pick? Maybe not! Though, I feel like if I don’t choose, I won’t be able to take it further. I ultimately wish I had more purpose behind what I do, like a theme such as advocating for environmentalism. I also read an article about happiness recently. It said something along the lines of if you have a single goal, purpose, or theme, it’ll make life more pleasurable. For example, if your overarching theme in life is yellow. And you decide to travel, everywhere you go, you’ll want to understand what yellow means in the culture, food, and etc. A theme adds another layer that’s more interesting and has deep meaning.

 

Watercolor paintings by Dana Lee. The left shows a house with a swimming pool in front. The right shows a bubble milk tea on a pink background.
A few of Dana’s watercolor paintings. See more @paintsbydanes

 

It sounds like being intentional. Yes! Would you say your theme could be curiosity? You try many things out and go through with the act of trying. That’s interesting! That’s pretty related to research. Most researchers have this innate ability to learn and dig deep. That’s really what I love about research, after all, to be able to go wide to learn about people and cultures and then dig into the details. 

I’ve also imagined myself owning something more, where I’m so passionate that I spend all my time and energy doing it. My job can be more of my identity, but it doesn’t feel bad because I’m doing it for myself and not another company. All of it ties back to impact, like, what am I contributing to the world? 

Part of that also stems from maybe another theme, such as connecting with people. Another hobby of mine, roller skating, has been super fun to get into and talk about. Watercolor is funny where in many ways, it’s something you do on your own, but I’ve been sending them to my friends. It’s been a way for me to bond with people and shows that I care in a way that’s less about money and more about connection.  

 

 

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A post shared by Danes (@rollingwithdanes)

 

Why do you think “connection” is important to you? Recently, I’ve also been trying to learn more Chinese. I’ve wanted to do this since I never took it seriously growing up. I fear that I won’t be able to connect with my culture if my parents passed away. If I went back to Taiwan on my own, I wouldn’t really know how to do anything on my own! 

It is also about a sense of closeness and connection with my family. Being able to speak the same language can help lower the barrier and to express yourself. It’s funny because being an adult and trying to be friends with your parents can be challenging because you’d have to get over your awkward angsty times. I really want to get to know my parents and know what they were like as young people. It’s always been hard, and I remember, for example, trying to talk to my grandmother in the past, and I couldn’t even ask the right questions because of the language barrier.

 

Being able to speak the same language can help lower the barrier and to express yourself.

 

Is family a part of that connection? It’s interesting because growing up, we weren’t really close, but we didn’t mean to not be close. My parents worked in New York, and I was swimming a lot in middle and high school. My brother was also at a private school. Our schedules never aligned, and we never really sat down to eat dinner as a family. By the time my brother went to college, though, I felt like he matured, and we could finally talk. 

However, it didn’t mean that we didn’t have a relationship or connection at all. There are ways to show love, even in the simple act of like my parents cutting up fruit and bringing it to me to eat. In my own way, now as an adult, I see art as that act of showing I care to my friends and family…even if I’m not that good at it. Painting something, writing a card, and sending a note to a friend can be a nice way to easily reconnect.

 

In my own way, now as an adult, I see art as that act of showing I care to my friends and family…even if I’m not that good at it. Painting something, writing a card, and sending a note to a friend can be a nice way to easily reconnect.

 

Earlier, you also mentioned impact and environmentalism. Is that something you’re also exploring? Honestly, I don’t really know! It’s one of those things where I grew up being so used to being environmentally conscious. I remember learning about it at a young age, but also, my parents were very frugal. We’d reuse plastic bags, making sure everyone turned off the lights when we weren’t using them. To me, it’s sort of innate and a part of wanting to care about the Earth.

 

Dana Lee's watercolor paintings. On the left shows four tomatoes and the right is a painting inspired by a Julias Shulman photo.
Additional watercolor paintings by Dana Lee. The piece on the right is inspired by this Julias Shulman photo.

 

Switching gears, would you say there are any misconceptions about you or the industry you’re in? Perhaps it has to do with being an Asian woman, but I have always felt like people assume I’m just a happy, bubbly person all the time. I’m not sure how to describe it, but I want to portray myself as someone more serious.  

Part of that is, I think to others, I come off as really young. I don’t worry about that as much as I believe it doesn’t matter as much anymore. But I always think about, “how should I dress, talk or look?” To me, it matters because it comes down to respect. And that respect from others leads to how much impact you can contribute or be allowed to contribute to. 

I also feel that if you want to change, such as through activism, part of it feels like you have to be angry and fired up to make something happen. Part of me wants to be more forceful and refined. Perhaps that’s influenced by what I see on social media and a misconception I fall into. Knowing you and your passion for sustainability and environmentalism, I’ve always been more inspired by how approachable and encouraging you’ve been to help others make changes.

 

Two images of Dana's personal ways to travel more environmentally friendly. The right photo shows a metal bowl with the sticker "Yo heart frijoles".
An example of how Dana travels by making a few personal changes with items she brings with her abroad. Plus, Dana’s infamous metal bowl she used to use at work instead of disposable plates to personally take steps to be environmentally conscious.

 

That’s true! Personally, I know that impact can be large and small. For example, I try to take little steps myself to change things such as purchasing behaviors. 

Do you think we can make an impact as an individual, or do we need full systemic change, whether from government or businesses? Lasting impact definitely requires a systemic change from the government. But, I think it can come earlier from individuals. Recently, I was doing research on Gen Z. Apparently, Gen Z really invests in brands by doing a ton of their own research to make sure businesses and brands are actually meeting fair standards. And that generational perspective has, in turn, affected larger trends that are controlled by Gen Z’s purchasing power. Whereas Millennials or Gen X even recognize that there may be issues but either choose not to challenge it or assume it’s all marketing and some shady company is behind it. There’s a big generational divide on how we’ve approached holding businesses and brands accountable. 

That’s fascinating! It’s funny because I feel like I always miss the generation that does excellent stuff! Perhaps it’s our Millennial generation’s skepticism that has enabled Gen Z to challenge businesses and brands to do better. Change takes time. Definitely, change in general is very overwhelming. I feel that our generation definitely questions, “what do I do to make a change?” Whereas Gen Z can translate that to something more. 

 

Dana Lee with a helmet on and riding a bicycle.
Another fun, sustainable activity Dana enjoys—biking!

 

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Is there any advice you would give to yourself who just started doing what you do?  Through our conversation, maybe I’d tell myself to experiment a bit more and bring my interests together to find a theme for myself. I feel like that combination could be really interesting. 

I’d also like to apply the principles of permaculture. One way permaculture has worked is where people plan ahead on how they want to grow their garden. They’ll plant various types of plants next to each other instead of planting a full field of one type of plant. This leads to diversity growing at the edges. Basically, I’d like to combine a bit more of my interests and see what develops from there!

I could see this applied to research practices as well. Yea! Because for research, it’s about coming up with the right method to answer the questions you have. If you’re able to combine the best parts of whatever methods fit your situation, I think that’s something that makes you really good and different as a researcher. So maybe I could apply that to my interests in general.

 

Give us a list of the top 3 things you’d recommend.

  1. You’re Wrong About: the podcast
  2. 200 YTT training with Susanna Barkataki. I just started this training and it roots social justice into yoga. I’m so excited and jazzed about it! She also has this great book called “Embrace Yoga’s Roots”. 
  3. Find ways to repurpose and give new life to well-loved things. Recently, I’ve been learning how to mend my clothing and fixing things I accidentally broke. There are so many resources out there to find information on how to give something we love a new life.

 

Fave song of the moment or what do you have on repeat right now?

“I’m Still Standing” by Elton John

I’ve been listening to Elton John and just watched Rocketman, the biographical movie about him.

 

Continue the conversation with Dana. You can find her on Instagram @dananbananayo or Linkedin.

Dana is also passionate about the Billion Oyster Project. The Billion Oyster Project focused on restoring the oysters in the Hudson River. Oysters act as filters to help replenish and clean the water. The organization collects oysters from restaurant partners around the city to use in creating homes for new oysters. She recently served on their youth leadership council last year and current volunteers with them.  

 As part of this Conversation, a donation was made to the Billion Oyster Project. You can also support by donating directly.

 

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