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Sunday, April 14
The Indiana Daily Student

campus student life

Far From Home: An IU grad student, Spider-Man and an international award

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Xinran Peng wears a red bracelet with a toy tiger charm around her wrist everywhere she goes. In China, parents give their children charms like hers for good luck, even when they’re well out of reach.  

“It’s worked a lot,” she said.  

Peng, a 25-year-old grad student studying design, couldn’t be much further out of her family’s reach. Home for her is Guizhou, a mountainous province in southern China. She first came to the U.S. to study at New York’s School of Visual Arts. Today, she’s in her last year of a Human Computer Interaction/Design graduate degree in Bloomington.  

On April 28, Peng will be embarking on another unexpected journey. She’s headed to San Diego to be recognized for her award-winning data visualization about the many film iterations of “Spider-Man,” the Marvel superhero. 

She was one of three winners of the Iron Viz competition’s student division. Iron Viz is a global competition hosted by Tableau, a platform for creating and sharing data visualizations like Peng’s.  

The competition began as a breakout session of Tableau’s annual conference, attended by data experts worldwide. It drew inspiration from the hit TV show “Iron Chef,” in which chefs face off against each other with limited time and ingredients.  

Likewise, in Iron Viz, three data experts face off against each other live on stage. Each has 20 minutes to create the most compelling visualization of a predetermined set of data.  

The winner receives a cash prize and a WWE-like prize belt. 

Courtney Totten, Tableau’s Director of Data Skills and Academic Programs, gets excited just thinking about it.  

“We do this on stage — prior to the pandemic — in front of 30,000 people,” she said. “It’s kind of absolutely insane.” 

Peng isn’t exactly a data person. She came across Iron Viz when IU professor Chase McCoy told her about it in his Data Visualizations class . 

“I didn’t expect to win anything,” she said. “I didn’t have any experience in this field.” 

Peng hadn’t even heard of Tableau prior to learning about it in McCoy’s classroom. Her visualization was her final project for the class first and a contest entry second.  

What Peng knew was that she wanted to make a project about “Spider-Man.” 

She watched “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” five times when it was released in theaters. She said she lost count of how many times she watched the animated Spider-Man’s first film, “Into the Spider-Verse.” 

When Iron Viz declared its category for this year’s student contest as “Data + Movies,” she saw an opportunity.  

Peng’s visualization compiles critical reception numbers and facts about actors into a compact and accessible format. The design is reminiscent of the animation style of the latest Spider-Man movies.  

“The use of color is stunning,” Totten said.  

Peng is the type of statistician Totten and Tableau’s Academic Programs team leader KJ Kim love to see flourish. Students like Peng might not be entering data-heavy fields, but the skills are crucial. 

A LinkedIn analysis of the most in-demand skills sought by employers found analytics and research both ranked in the top 10. Jobs outside the tech sector are increasingly looking for data literate employees to keep up with a changing business landscape.  

Kim, who works closely with educators and students alike, wants students entering the workforce to embrace data instead of fearing it.  

“No, it’s not just for that special set of people. No, it’s not just those people who love numbers,” Kim said. “Whatever you care about, there’s some data out there about it.”  

While people like Kim look to change the narrative surrounding data and statistics, Peng is changing her own narrative.  

She realized in New York her art wasn’t making the difference she wanted it to.  

“I was just making art for art’s sake,” she said.  

Peng thought of people like her grandmother who could benefit from her design skills. She only visits her family, who still live in Guizhou, China, for a couple weeks each year. In the interim, she has to call and text her family to keep up with them.  

The younger generations take talking on the phone and texting for granted, but many, such as Peng’s 90-year-old grandmother, were left out of the technological revolution.  

“The technology isn’t really made for them,” she said.  

Peng is no stranger to feeling like an outsider. As an international student, she’s struggled to find her sense of identity while splitting herself between the U.S. and China.  

“I feel like, a lot of the time, we don’t get much attention. Both here and in China,” she said. “Because we’re foreigners here — we’re students, we have very little power.” 

Peng now designs intuitive user interfaces that are easy to use for the elderly and disabled. She’s working with Collaborative for Aging Research and Engagement, an IU project group designing interfaces for Black Alzheimer’s patients and their caretakers in Indianapolis. 

The work she’s doing is important. That’s enough for her, she said.  

Even her love for Spider-Man is eclipsed by her love of the underdog.  

Growing up, she loved Marvel comics, but not “The Avengers.” She found herself drawn to the grittier “X-Men,” who never seemed to have the upper hand.  

“They’ve come through terrible things, but they always find a way to unite,” she said. “I think that’s something that The Avengers or other superheroes don’t have.” 

Peng graduates this spring. She’s not sure whether she’ll pursue a doctoral degree, or even whether she’ll stay in the U.S..  

In a month, she’s flying to San Diego on Tableau’s dime. She’s headed to accept an award that she never thought she’d win, for a subject she never thought she’d know about, in a place she never thought she’d be.  

Peng has always been the underdog of her own story. Now, for underdogs around the world, she’s turning into Spider-Man. 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story included an incorrect abstract. The IDS regrets the error.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the official title of Peng's major.

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