ASU grad's career in planning off to a running start

May 14, 2015

ASU 2015 commencement banner

As she receives her master’s degree in urban and environmental planning this semester, Stephanie Watney has not only been a top graduate student but has made professional-level contributions to several planning initiatives. And based on her work, she has been hired and is already working as a planner for a nationally recognized law firm. photo of Stephanie Watney Download Full Image

In recognition of her academic achievement, leadership, commitment to planning as a career, and community service, Watney has been selected for a 2015 American Institute of Certified Planners Outstanding Student Award.

A Canadian citizen, Stephanie Watney earned an undergraduate degree in political science with a minor in geography from the University of Calgary. A member of one of Canada’s First Nation communities, she had an interest in fostering opportunities for Native peoples and worked as a student ambassador for the University of Calgary’s Native Centre, providing role modeling and encouragement to Aboriginal youth to encourage their participation in post-secondary education.

After graduating, Watney moved to Arizona.

“I chose Arizona because of its large Native populations,” said Watney. “I wanted to study the initiatives in Arizona compared with Canada.”

In Phoenix, she took a position as an intern with Native American Connections, a non-profit that focuses on improving lives of Native Americans through culturally appropriate behavioral health, affordable housing, and community development services.  She determined to pursue a career in planning and chose ASU because of its active engagement with American Indian planning.

Once at ASU, she quickly took on two key roles beyond that of first-year graduate student: She became a teaching assistant for a course offered for the first time, American Indian Community Planning.

And in the same semester, she began work on what became the capstone experience for her graduate studies – a project with Arizona’s Havasupai Tribe. She synthesized and analyzed the community’s previous master plans and produced a report on current socioeconomic and infrastructure conditions including the tribe’s demography. 

With this information forming a basis for thinking about future planning efforts, she worked with the tribe to develop a survey intended to gather community members’ perspectives on future directions.

While still working on the Havasupai project, Watney took on an opportunity to learn about community participation in planning for a very different setting – Arizona’s largest city. As an intern for the City of Phoenix, Watney became part of the team developing PlanPHX – an initiative to get input from Phoenix’s residents on an update to its General Plan. She took on a multitude of tasks, from researching best practices for gathering public perspectives to designing the content for, a web tool that offers Phoenix residents the opportunity to share their ideas online.

In her role as in intern, she also created partnerships with Arizona Local First businesses to provide incentives for citizen participation, assisted with writing and editing draft text for the General Plan update, and recruited volunteers for PlanPhx Summit, a daylong event to get input on the draft plan.

Word of Watney’s good work began to spread. When the senior urban planner at the Phoenix office of law firm Snell & Wilmer was looking to hire a new staff member, he reached out to Watney.

“After that followed an intense interview process, which consisted of three interviews,” Watney said.  “I was selected as the final candidate, and began working there in March.”

In her current role as a planner with the firm, she’s responsible for zoning entitlement due diligence – ensuring that zoning is in place for specific developments/properties, researching whether a property has stipulations or conditions for development, and ensuring that all aspects of a project/property are in conformity with the zoning code. 

Professor David Pijawka, who leads efforts related to American Indian community planning at ASU, mentored Watney in her graduate studies and especially her work on the Havasupai project.

“I am full of gratitude toward Dr. Pijawka and the ASU planning program for all of the opportunities I have been given,” Watney said.  “Dr. Pijawka has been instrumental for my growth in the program. There are not many professors like him anymore – the program is very lucky.”

For his part, Pijawka feels Watney has been an asset to ASU’s planning program.

“Stephanie has done well in independent work and as part of a team, and has often taken leadership positions. Her professional attitude and dedication have allowed her to make very meaningful contributions to several planning efforts in her two years with us,” Pijawka said. “We’re looking forward to seeing where her career will take her.”

Barbara Trapido-Lurie

research professional senior, School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning


ASU grad creates new system for interactive media design

May 14, 2015

ASU 2015 commencement banner

Matthew Ragan is the only ASU student graduating from his particular degree program this year. He is earning an master's degree in theater with a concentration in interdisciplinary digital media and performance. portrait of ASU graduate Matthew Ragan Download Full Image

The degree is one of the newer cross-institute degree concentrations in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, which is split between the School of Film, Dance and Theatre and the School of Arts, Media + Engineering.

“The reality that I had the most trouble with coming in as a student, but now I really appreciate on the other end of this experience, is how new this particular thing is,” Ragan said. “I came in wanting someone to sit me down and show me the way. Instead, the experiences I have had with a lot of my faculty mentors is that they would just push me. They’d say, ‘Stop looking to me for answers and go do that thing and come back and report to me about what you learned, and then I’ll push you in a different direction.’ ”

For Ragan, this open landscape of possibility allowed him to explore uncharted territory at the intersection of live performance and interactive design.

But he didn’t discover this path immediately.

After earning his undergraduate degree in theater and dance at Cal State Fresno, he spent several years working at Keene State College in New Hampshire, first in educational outreach and later in educational media creation and distribution. In the meantime, he was also training at the New England Center for Circus Arts and performing circus acrobatics.

“I had this schizophrenic life where I felt like I had this one part of me that was all technology and media and this other part of me that was all performance,” he said. “I finally ended up landing in the Interdisciplinary Digital Media and Performance program here at ASU because it felt like it was a chance to finally steer both parts of my life together in a way that felt less divided.”

During his time at ASU, Ragan estimates that he worked on close to 26 productions in total. He can’t pick a favorite, but he does identify several important benchmarks along the way.

The first of these benchmarks was the thesis project of then-MFA-student Boyd Branch, called “Neuro,” which was a devised piece that had audiences interacting closely with actors and a slew of different pieces of responsive technology.

“Working on ‘Neuro’ was interesting because at that time I didn’t know hardly anything,” Ragan said. “So that was really an opportunity to start thinking about installation artwork and how sensors work and how you build something that’s interactive, not just for an operator, but for some person to interact with in a live environment.

As a more recent benchmark, Ragan points to a summer project in a live quarry in Branford, Conneticut (the same quarry that provided the stone for the base of the Statue of Liberty and portions of the Brooklyn Bridge). The performance, “TERRA TRACTUS: The Earth Moves,” was the largest project Ragan had ever tackled; it was also important because it involved live media mixing in what Ragan describes as a sort of DJ-style improvisation.

This ability to improvise through digital media became the foundation of Ragan’s MFA thesis.

“One of the things I kept coming back to in the process of designing shows in the first two years [in the program] is that we were constantly reinventing the wheel every time we wanted to do any kind of interactivity in a show,” says Ragan. “I just always felt like it was crazy that we were building a program and designing the media every time. So I started to ask, what happens if we think of the interactive environment as something that we can come back to?”

Part of Ragan’s thesis was to design the media for ASU School of Film, Dance and Theatre MainStage production “romeo&juliet/VOID.” But he went a few steps further, programming the actual media system for the show and teaching a concurrent class in the School of Arts, Media + Engineering about how to program for live performance.

“For my thesis, I developed a yearlong piece of curriculum that’s really about how you use media with live performance, as well as developed a tool to use in theatres,” he said. “So it was both about building an application and then building all the documentation and curriculum around it.”

In a way, Ragan’s story has come full circle, incorporating performance, design, media and teaching all together.

Completing that circle, he’s moving back home to California. Ragan has a job lined up post-graduation as an interactive engineer at San Francisco-based Obscura Digital, one of the leading creative technology companies in the United States.

“They do large-scale immersive interactive environments, projection, video systems – they run the gamut in terms of artistic work and corporate work, in terms of the kinds of things that they produce,” Ragan said. “And it’s on the scale that we always talk about but never have the time or budget to actualize.”

Communications Program Coordinator, ASU Art Museum