María P. Angel, Ph.D. ‘24, is a Rising Star in AI Ethics

María P. Angel, Ph.D. ‘24, is a name that resonates throughout the privacy law community. In December, Women in AI Ethics named Angel as one of eight “Rising Stars in AI Ethics” for 2024. Known for her rigorous research and innovative ideas in a community she says has embraced the thought leadership of women, Angel has quickly risen to prominence in a broad legal landscape that encompasses new forms of technology in real-time.

Masterfully writing in English even as her second language, Angel's intellectual prowess and dedication to her work have earned her widespread acclaim. “It feels like everywhere I go, someone mentions her to me!” says Lane Powell and D. Wayne Gittinger Professor Ryan Calo, founding co-director of the Tech Policy Lab and Angel’s Ph.D. advisor.

Angel’s work has been recognized by prestigious organizations, including the OpEd Project in partnership with MacArthur Foundation, which selected her as a Public Voices Fellow to help shape discourse on technology and the public interest. Through this fellowship, Angel honed her skills in communicating complex research to broader audiences, writing op-eds on technology and societal issues. She’s already published op-eds on some of her work with Microsoft Research and other topics, including bylines in Fast Company and Inside Higher Ed.

A Trailblazing Scholar

Angel's journey into academia and technology law began in her native Colombia, where she pursued a dual degree in law and political science. The daughter of an economist and an electrical engineer, Angel experienced years of Colombia’s armed political conflict firsthand. During her four years with the Colombian research and advocacy organization Dejusticia in the Privacy & Access to Information area, she wrote an early white paper focused on privacy in the offline world — specifically on balancing the privacy of victims in the conflict with press coverage of events.

As the armed conflict drew to a close, Angel and her colleagues shifted back to focusing on the online space. Angel remembers one particular project focused on the accountability of Google and other data-driven businesses in Colombia, deepening her interest in technology's impact on society. She completed a master's degree in administrative law, writing a thesis — later published as a book — exploring the use of data by public administrations.

To become a director of one of the research areas in her organization, however, she needed a Ph.D., so she applied for a Fulbright scholarship to fund her pursuit of a doctoral degree in the United States. Angel set her sights on Seattle. “I thought the opportunity to study in the U.S. would be unparalleled, because this country is where lobbying and public policy discussions really take place when it comes to technology, and where most of the big tech companies are located. So, I decided to target the city of Microsoft and Amazon and spend two years doing Ph.D. coursework at the University of Washington.”

During her time at the University of Washington, Angel focused her work on scholarly conversations and public policy discussions. Through the encouragement of Professor Walter Walsh, Angel enrolled in the graduate certificate in Science, Technology & Society Studies (STSS). For her capstone project, last spring she presented her completed portfolio to the STSS Certificate community.

She also played a pivotal role in the Tech Policy Lab, where for a while she managed events as a research assistant and facilitated discussions on pressing legal and ethical challenges in technology. It remains one of her favorite memories: “I was in charge of organizing the Tech Policy Lab's weekly Tech Policy Discussion between December 2019 and April 2020 (just before the pandemic hit!). During these lunches, people from all over campus would come to the lab to discuss the most recent news in tech policy. In addition to meeting the larger tech policy community at UW, during those months I also learned from so many different perspectives and disciplines. I have wonderful memories of that period.”

In her Ph.D. dissertation, Angel examined the evolution of the concept of information privacy in American legal scholarship and the “techno-legal imaginaries” of American privacy law scholars. She also worked as a summer legal/public policy intern at America’s Open Technology Institute (OTI), served as an expert member of the Washington State Automated Decision-Making Systems Workgroup and interned at Microsoft Research’s Social Media Collective (SMC).

“María has already been a great success story as a student, but I expect she will be a great success story from the work she's done here, in terms of its impact,” says Associate Professor of Law Michael Townsend, faculty director of the Ph.D. in Law program.

Angel’s work has been presented and awarded at conferences such as the Privacy Law Scholars Conference (PLSC), We Robot, the ACM Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency (FAccT), the Society for the Social Studies of Science(4S)/ESOCITE, and the Internet Freedom Festival.

Shifting Paradigms in Privacy Law

Angel's research focuses on the intersection of privacy law and algorithmic governance, challenging conventional approaches to privacy regulation. She argues that the concept of privacy has evolved to encompass broader values such as accountability, transparency, and equality, in the framework of AI-driven technologies. By adopting a socio-technical lens, Angel aims to analyze the multiple intersections that exist between the legal and the social aspects that surround these technologies.

“One of the hallmarks of a successful scholar is being responsive to critique,” says Professor Calo. “Maria never shies away from critical engagement with her work, which is a big reason her ideas and research are so strong. She is one of the most capable graduate students I have worked with in any discipline.”

Angel’s groundbreaking dissertation explores the evolution of the concept of information privacy in response to technological advancements, emphasizing the need for interdisciplinary perspectives in shaping regulatory policies. Through her meticulous analysis, Angel seeks to contribute to meaningful discussions and policy reforms in the realm of privacy law.

Future Endeavors

Just weeks before the UW Law commencement ceremony, Angel flew back to Seattle from New York — where she and her husband have lived since she completed her Ph.D. coursework — to successfully defend her dissertation. As Angel celebrates the completion of her Ph.D., she looks ahead to new opportunities for impact and engagement. Angel's ultimate goal is to bridge the gap between academia and policymaking, leveraging her research to drive tangible change in society.

On July 1, Angel will begin her postdoctoral studies with Yale University’s Information Society Project (ISP) under the supervision of Yale Law professor Jack M. Balkin. “A combination that is very important to me is to do in-depth research that can also have a lot of impact through advocacy and public engagement. It's hard to find places that have both things, but that's what I envision for myself,” she says.

Beyond academia, Angel envisions a career where she can continue shaping the discourse on the intersection of privacy law, law & technology, and STS, inspiring future generations of scholars and policymakers.

A Legacy of Excellence

Angel's journey from Colombia to the forefront of privacy law, even AI ethics, exemplifies the power of perseverance and passion in academia. Through her groundbreaking research, dedication to interdisciplinary collaboration, and commitment to social impact, Angel has emerged as a trailblazing scholar in her field. As she embarks on the next chapter of her career, Angel's legacy of excellence serves as an inspiration to all those who strive to push the boundaries of knowledge and innovation.