Staff spotlight: By minding the details, Alexis Barnes helps the UNC Reese Innovation Lab see the big picture


Alexis Barnes likes the details and the nuances that keep a project running.

She’s happiest when stitching together video edits or figuring out the minutiae of some new technology.

She likes order and precision and following through on the day-to-day tasks that bring UNC’s Reese Innovation Lab projects to life.

Barnes, a 2017 graduate of the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, serves as the Lab’s creative content producer, helping to manage a team of students, fellows and staff who are studying audience engagement and immersive storytelling using tools like artificial intelligence, augmented reality and virtual reality.

“I really like storytelling,” Barnes said of her passion for her role. “When done right, technology is a great tool in helping people learn, evolve and be able to tell their stories.”

Chief Innovation Officer Steven King, the Hussman associate professor who leads the Lab, first saw Barnes’ passion and precision when she was his student, and he hired her shortly after she served as a Lab Media Innovation Fellow in the summer of 2017.

Spotting her focus and fearlessness, King knew Barnes’ meticulous nature would fit nicely with his big picture thinking.

“Alexis is not afraid to try or learn anything, and she’s not afraid to get anything done,” said King, former director of video at The Washington Post. “She’s great at working through the details.”

Under King’s leadership, Barnes has worked through the details of projects with high-profile clients such as Time, Quartz and the University of North Carolina System.

Under King’s tutelage, she’s helped create an augmented reality game for hospitalized children, 3D modeling of some of the world’s most famous buildings and virtual trips through the Amazon Rain Forest.

“Steven is a great mentor because he always has your best interest in mind. He gives you room to explore and try new things and then apply it to projects, giving you the opportunity to grow professionally,” Barnes said.

A favorite project for Barnes has been her work on the GEAR UP VR app, a Lab partnership with the UNC System that allows high school students to virtually explore colleges throughout North Carolina.


Reimagining the Campus Visit - GEAR UP NC VR from SeeBoundless on Vimeo.

The GEAR UP VR app represents the equity technology can create, something Barnes thinks about as a small-town kid from Mebane, North Carolina. Growing up, she saw neighbors and extended family members without the same opportunities she’d been given. She likes that technology brings possibilities closer to everyone, especially in terms of education.

As a Hussman staffer, she’s brought those possibilities back to her hometown as a guest presenter at her former alma mater of Cedar Ridge High School where she popped in on Andrea DeGette’s videography class last year.

“For my students to be able to see a success story like Alexis and the benefits of what hard work can give you, is so important,” said DeGette, who taught Barnes in high school.

Barnes provides the same inspiration at the Lab, King said, where she’s increasingly taken on a leadership role, acting as a manager for the Lab’s many projects and helping fellows and students develop their work.

“One of the things I find most impressive about Alexis is her diversity in knowledge and skills,” said Madelyn Welch, a Hussman senior and current Media Innovation Fellow in the Lab. “She knows so much about a ton of different topics and skills, and her knowledge allows her to work with both the creative and technical teams and help each of them understand the other.”

Barnes relishes her mentorship role in the Lab and hopes that as a young woman of color she shows the Lab’s students and fellows that technology is for everyone.

“I think young women have always been interested in tech, but now there are more spaces that help young women navigate within the tech industry. There are groups and hackathons on college campuses that support and give space to young women and non-binary students,” Barnes said. “But even organizations such as Black Girls Code and Girl Scouts are teaching kids at a young age about tech and other STEM fields while also providing them with mentors.”

More than anything, Barnes counts herself lucky that she’s doing work she loves on a campus she always dreamed of attending.