Virtual Philanthropist

Microsoft Intern Explores Apps For Veterans

Joan Savage standing in front of a computer.

Not many people with career aspirations in the field of information technology and the digital world turn down an offer from Microsoft. Then again, Joan Savage isn’t your customary digital devotee.

A little less than two years ago, Savage was offered a prestigious internship at Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington, headquarters, when a commitment to a research project funded by the IUPUI Solution Center led the IU School of Informatics graduate student to decline the “offer of a lifetime,” which came from Desney Tan, one of Microsoft’s top research gurus.

But Tan and the company weren’t deterred. They wanted Savage to join another internship program, this time in Beijing in early 2012. So, less than three weeks before she would have to leave for China, Savage found herself in the same spot: tempted by another dazzling opportunity, yet determined to complete her last semester of study and yet another research grant she tackled at IUPUI.

School Stepped In

This time, the school’s faculty and administrators stepped in to make sure an IUPUI student took advantage of such a prestigious opportunity. “They told me that they were going to make sure I had a chance to go to Beijing,” Savage recalls. “In no time at all, they got every approval I needed and the next thing I knew, everything was signed, sealed, and delivered.”

Well, not quite everything. Savage still had to handle loads of logistics, and during the 2011 holiday season, no less. A visa, a passport, plane tickets— all had to be dealt with, and more. Needless to say, “the holiday season was a very stressful time,” she laughs.

Joan Savage and her Microsoft internship teammates.

Joan Savage (front row, center) and her Microsoft internship teammates celebrate in Beijing.

But she returned to China (she and her family once lived there while her engineer father worked on a project) and joined a talented team of fellow budding digital wunderkinds. “I learned so much from the researchers and my peers that it was all worth it,” Savage says. The team’s project will be presented at the international CHI 2013 conference in Paris, April 27–May 2.

Upon her return to the United States, Savage completed her research work and grad school career, picked up her Informatics degree (M.S. 2012) in media arts and sciences/human-computer interaction, and started work for the Roudebush Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital, located on the IUPUI campus, as a program analyst.

Working in the world of veterans is meaningful for Savage, who spent four years in the U.S. Navy and is passionate about doing anything she can—in worlds both real and digital—to help her fellow vets. But her Microsoft internship opened her eyes to other career possibilities, too. Should she tackle a Ph.D. program, perhaps at MIT or IUPUI or elsewhere, as encouraged by her school, VA, and Microsoft mentors? Should she explore her inner researcher, creating and developing video games, including a virtual world in which veterans could develop coping mechanisms to deal with circumstances that affect their transition back into civilian life? Or should she help Virtual Fireflies, LLC, a company she co-owns, grow into a success story of its own?

Yin and Yang of Life

In the digital realm, life is governed by “ones” and “zeros,” a virtual yin and yang—the Chinese symbols for everything and how everything happens. Savage herself is part yin and part yang: She considers herself an introvert, with a strong “artsy side.” By nature, she spends a lot of time contemplating virtual worlds, but she’s accomplished in real-world activities, too. She’s a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. She’s an equestrian. And she speaks basic Mandarin and Spanish as well as English, mostly due to living abroad in such far-flung places as Venezuela, Taiwan, and Japan, as well as China and the United States.

Savage worked in Hollywood for a time as an actress, director, and writer. Don’t get her started on a discussion of any aspect of the world of Star Trek unless you have a lot of time to spare. But she quickly sets aside fantasy worlds when the discussion turns to the problems veterans face when they return from dangerous deployments.

She is convinced that video games and simulations could become a valuable tool for veterans to use to deal with the impact of their experiences. “This is a gaming generation,” she says. “Let’s speak to them in a language they understand and appreciate.”

In Informatics, Savage was an assistant to faculty member and mentor Joe Defazio, a relationship that has expanded into a friendship. “We’re both big into the technology of it all, and we’re both interested in helping our veterans in any way we can,” says Savage. In fact, a veterans-related video game she helped create put her on Microsoft’s radar.

Focus on the Practical

Her projects and research at Informatics shared a similar focus on practical matters. For example, as part of her coursework, she helped create the prototypes for apps that help people manage things like prescription medications and shopping lists. And Virtual Fireflies’ focus is on designing and developing interactive simulations and 3-D environments, both in the field of health education.

Savage’s versatility, passion, and knowledge have garnered attention from people in the School of Informatics, Microsoft, and the VA Medical Center, who are encouraging her to consider chasing a Ph.D. at MIT. The support team for this career move includes Hong Tan, a senior researcher at Microsoft Asia, and Dr. Jason Saleem, a research scientist at the VA Medical Center.

In one of the early steps that led to her Beijing internship, Savage went to a dinner for Mary Czerwinski, an IU Bloomington graduate, member of the Informatics Dean’s Advisory Council, and—most importantly— another senior researcher for Microsoft. “We hit it off as friends right away. We went nerd, and anytime you do that, I’m there!” laughs Savage.

Savage isn’t sure what her future holds. The options are so varied and attractive that it’s hard to choose. She suspects it will be something that helps people—especially veterans—through online games or simulations. But if anyone offers her the chance to sit in the captain’s chair on the bridge of some future USS Enterprise, boldly going where no one has gone before, well, then, all bets are off!