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Home » Discover Rackham » Student Spotlight: Iván Chaar-López

Not many people went to college when they were 5, but Iván did. Granted, he was in kindergarten at a lab school at the University of Puerto Rico. He was ready for a change when it came time for graduate school, but he kept going, finishing his Master’s in History while his partner finished her law degree.

Iván delivered a paper in 2009 at a history conference in Ann Arbor and was drawn to the intellectual community here, recognizing a strong cohort of people who share work with one another and offer meaningful feedback. He recalls, “I was craving that. I was really looking forward to being part of that kind of dynamic and engaging community. I know people say that about Michigan, but I really truly mean it. It’s been what I expected. I am part of a space where I can learn as much as I can, where I can collaborate with others in imaginative and exciting ways. When I got the offer from U-M I was stunned. It was a really good offer.”

Iván transitioned from History to the Department of American Culture when he came to U-M: “It’s an incredible program. You get to make it your own; there is so much freedom in terms of the classes you take. I feel like I have a hyperactive mind, sometimes to my own detriment, but that means I love exploring and learning and trying new things. In American Culture, you’re given that space to experiment by only taking two core classes while the rest you take in whatever you want (consulting your advisor, of course).”

Iván’s research interests evolved from his original intent to study social movements and digital media. This change was the result of his studies at Michigan, the influence of faculty advisors and his passion for Latina/o Studies and issues affecting Latino communities in the U.S. During that process, he says, “I was thinking and collecting articles, and I stumbled upon unmanned aerial systems or drones. My advisor, Dr. Lisa Nakamura, suggested I should start a tumblr account and treat it as an archive by posting any article I’d find, but I had to stop at a point because there was so much, and I wouldn’t ever get to do any actual work.” The byproduct is the blog Drone On.

Combining drones with his training in Digital Studies and Latina/o Studies led Iván to research the history of drone use in the U.S.-Mexico border. “I’m focusing on military drones for now. It is interesting because 98% of the conversation around drones involves drone strikes, such as those in the Middle East and North Africa. When I saw military drones being used on the border, it dawned on me this was generally left out of conversations around unmanned aerial systems. That there was military drone use in U.S. territory, I wanted to know how that came about, what did it mean and how people dealt and continue to deal with it. These became research framing questions for me.”

In the fall 2015, Iván held the Digital Studies Fellowship at the John W. Kluge Center (Library of Congress) where he spent the semester in residence studying early versions of surveillance technology along the border. He particularly researched sensing devices installed along the ground that capture different data such as motion, thermal, and other measurements. These sensors are in use since the 1960s to monitor areas of the border that are hard to get to. Funded by the Rackham Research Grant and his advisor, Dr. Nakamura, he has undertaken further archival research at the San Diego Air and Space Museum and completed oral history interviews in Tijuana and San Diego.

In the upcoming academic year (2016-17), his writing and research will be enriched by his participation in the Precarity Lab, an interdisciplinary humanities research collective at Michigan that studies how digital platforms produce and mediate various forms of insecurity and vulnerability.

Where his graduate studies will lead is something Iván is comfortable letting unfold as he finishes writing his dissertation. He says, “I would love to pursue a research or teaching position, but I’m open to whatever life throws at me. Digital studies and the history of digital technology are growing fields with growing interest. I’m hopeful there will be good opportunities to come.”

It is helpful that Iván has seen how the sausage is made in the Department of American Culture when he served on a faculty search committee, something he considers an amazing opportunity for any graduate student.

In his spare time, Iván plays pickup soccer games three times a week with a fun group of mostly Latinos and Latinas. He and his wife love to travel as well, always finding time each summer for a trip to Chicago, one of their favorite destinations. His wife, who finished her law degree, is a newly minted Ph.D. candidate in Developmental Psychology here at U-M.

Iván has been involved in a number of initiatives at Rackham. He is a former member of the Rackham student advisory board and participant in the Program in Public Scholarship Mellon Fellowship as a fellow at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn. He says, “I have Lebanese ancestry through my great-great grandparents. I wanted to interact more with and learn from the community. It was an amazing experience.”