Dialogue Winter 2017

Leaders Out of the Gate

Young Faculty Researchers Recognized for Innovation

In an unprecedented demonstration of faculty achievement and school innovation, the Department of Communication Studies now boasts six recipients of the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development (or CAREER) Award.

The grant, distributed over five years, is given to nontenured professors in recognition of distinguished research and exemplary classroom leadership. The six faculty awardees are Leslie DeChurch, Darren Gergle, Brent Hecht, Anne Marie Piper, Madhu Reddy, and Michelle Shumate, all of whom illuminate the department’s exciting new direction toward melding creativity, computation, and the emerging technologies that are shaping our future.

For Jane Rankin, the School of Communication’s associate dean of research, the awards exemplify the department’s depth of excellence.

“The six NSF CAREER Award winners on the communication studies faculty bring a remarkable level of achievement to communication research,” says Rankin. “There are no other communication studies departments that have even close to our number of CAREER winners, another attribute that elevates communication studies here at Northwestern over departments elsewhere that might be considered peers.”

The NSF’s most prestigious award recognizes junior faculty for outstanding research and classroom teaching, supporting those most likely to build a lifetime of leadership in integrating the two areas. The department’s six winners cover a broad range of studies, from how we use computers to communicate to how multigroup teams collaborate.

Shumate studies how networks that include nonprofit organizations can be rewired to maximize their social impact. She received the award six years ago.

“At the time I received my award, only two other people in the field of communication had ever received the NSF CAREER Award,” says Shumate, who completed her grant-based research last year. “To have this many faculty in one place, all having a CAREER grant, it’s like a unicorn. It never happens. Some, like me, were recruited here after we won the award, but others won it while they were at Northwestern. We are the only place in the country with this many communication CAREER winners.”

The award is one of the few available to nontenured faculty, notes Shumate, which can make a major difference in terms of planning research that can lead to tenure. “This is a very important award for junior faculty, and in most cases it’s the first major grant we get,” she says. “The award gives you a real chance to set out a research agenda longer term. You can begin to see what a five-year plan looks like, and have the backing to do it.”

Reddy agrees. “For me, this is one of the most meaningful awards I could get, because it’s a recognition of not just my research potential but also the teaching side,” says Reddy, who studies how computerized medical records and other technologies affect collaboration among healthcare professionals. “It’s about the scholar and the teacher, and my abilities in both areas.”
Reddy says that with his NSF CAREER Award grant— which, like Shumate, he just completed—he mentored multiple master’s students, advised three PhD students who have graduated, and developed new ways to think about his research and teaching.

Piper, who won her award while at Northwestern, designs and develops new technologies to help older adults. “I’m thrilled that the NSF views this topic as important and worthy of support,” she says. “The award provides strong encouragement to my students as we continue with this line of research.”

Her $500,000 CAREER grant will help bolster her efforts to engage older adults with disabilities, whether vision impairments from macular degeneration or a speech impairment from conditions such as aphasia, commonly a result of stroke.

Gergle, too, won his CAREER Award at Northwestern; he studies technology and how it can help us communicate more effectively.

“The CAREER Award was a great source of support and really helped to shape my research program early on,” he says. “The fact that the award spans five years allows you to plan a more ambitious set of research activities. For example, knowing we had longer-term support allowed us to spend the first two years of the project developing the nuts and bolts of the technical infrastructure for a new real-time, two-person eye-tracking methodology. We could then use the latter years of support to develop new metrics and apply the technique to the study of human coordination and collaboration in naturalistic settings. This would not have been possible without the award.”

Hecht, who joined the school’s faculty this past fall, adds this award to those he’s won for research at top-tier publication venues in human-computer interaction and geography. His CAREER proposal focused on the issue of algorithmic bias, particularly algorithms with better performance for people of some demographics than for others. His research will improve understanding of how to design algorithms that are both effective and equitable, rather than just the former.

DeChurch also started at Northwestern this fall. Her CAREER Award helped her continue groundbreaking research —including four large-scale projects with NASA—on how multicultural “teams of teams” work together to collaborate seamlessly. The NSF has steadily funded her research on teamwork and leadership for the past eight years.

- Cara Lockwood