By Cynthia McMullen (M.A.’89/H&S)
When Honors College student Dylan Halpern (B.F.A.’15/A) asked his Art Foundation adviser, Brad Birchett, about minoring in computer science, Birchett suggested considering something more complementary to pair with his major in graphic design. Halpern chose urban and regional studies, and he hasn’t looked back. The Fairfax, Virginia, native received a Fulbright scholarship in 2017 to study the effects of Lei Cidade Limpa, or “Clean City Law,” in São Paulo.
How did you discover your passion for research?
My interest started in freshman research-oriented courses, Rhetoric (Honors 200) and Space Research (Art Foundation). I consider the research process an intrinsic part of art and design and like to focus on traditional research when I begin a project. My work focuses on intersections of technology and community, both at the street level and in the clouds. A significant mentor was Mary Boyes (M.F.A.’98/H&S), an adviser for Auctus: The Journal of Undergraduate Research and Creativity at VCU.
What did you learn while working in Brazil?
My proposal for the Fulbright was explicitly aimed at advertising signage law and how that governance affects the creative culture in the city. But it became apparent that it was not hot on anyone’s mind. People were happy with the advertisements and graffiti being gone. They really were more interested in the element of street art, pixação or pixos.
The impact of urban inscription — people coming in and painting on top of the city — is socioeconomically and racially charged. It’s like inscribing political speech on a wall: Is this being done to the city or by the city? There was a lot to think through.
Even in urban research, we talk about positionality ― how we are and who we are in relation to others. One lesson I learned, as an urban planner, is to be more open-ended in terms of the questions I ask.
Did being a Fulbright scholar play a part in what you’re doing now?
In a very kind of career-planning way, the Fulbright bridged the gap for me between graphic design and urban planning. My project looked at the application of graphic form — art on surfaces in the city — and it allowed me to explore this one topic in a deep way, making sure that urban planning was something I was interested in doing.
I came in with a lot of assumptions but learned a lot, for example, how communities can work against disinformation. All my projects have something to do with how we experience media and how important media is.
Right after I got back from Brazil, I had one day to rest before visiting two college campuses and wrapping up my master’s degree applications. I was accepted into the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology for fall 2018.
For about five months, I lived in York, England, with my partner, who was working on her master’s in art history at the University of York. It’s beautiful there, and I was able to take a bit of a break and do a bit of graphic design.
How is graduate school?
The Boston-Cambridge area is a great place to go to school. I’m a big cyclist, and the safety infrastructure here is great.
As a research affiliate with the Civic Data Design Lab, which deals with crowdsourced data, I’ve worked with a mapping project of semiformal transit via GPS in Nairobi, Kenya. And last year, I was able to visit the Beijing Urban Design Studio, a joint program between MIT and Tsinghua University. That was quite the experience! I’m also a research assistant with the Senseable City Lab, which works on sensing technologies in the urban environment. In Singapore, we’re using cellphones to understand how people move through cities. And in Amsterdam, the lidar project uses light sensors that can create maps of the city. It’s been a wild ride!
You’re on track to graduate from MIT in May. What’s next?
People go a lot of different directions in urban planning. I probably will work in cartography or visualization. I like the Apple Maps teams. A research think tank might be a good fit. Or a nonprofit, in research or geospatial analysis.
A lot of times you will see developers just stop showing up at meetings. But it’s important to have planners who are really compassionate about the communities they’re planning for.
Scholarship assistance for alumni
VCU’s National Scholarship Office offers a range of services to VCU alumni interested in applying for competitive national and international scholarships and fellowships, including the Fulbright scholarship.