Eight UMSI Faculty Celebrate Distinguished Early Career Awards
It has been a busy few years for University of Michigan School of Information scholars. Since 2020, faculty earned eight esteemed research awards, including seven National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER awards, and one Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) Young Faculty Award.
In May, UMSI celebrated these achievements with a luncheon event. Each faculty member gave a brief summary of their research plans and the progress they’ve made on their multi-year projects – even during a global pandemic.
Assistant professor Robin Brewer was awarded an NSF CAREER grant in 2022 for her project, “Voice Technologies for Helping Older Adults Navigate Uncertain Information in Decision Making.” She will be looking at how to nudge older adults toward better decisions about the quality of information when they use voice technologies.
For instance, during the celebratory lunch, Brewer pulled up a screenshot of a website showing a Michigan COVID-19 map from the Mayo Clinic. “On a visual website you might be able to see the icon of the Mayo Clinic or in the URL, that it comes from the Mayo Clinic, so you think, ‘OK, this is a trustworthy source,’” says Brewer, adding that clean website design, a lack of pop-up ads, or links to trustworthy, primary studies or organizations all indicate the information comes from legitimate experts.
But all these clues are visual. Brewer wants to understand what happens when websites are translated by voice assistant technology. Often, she says there are no sources noted and no visual cues for suspicious information. Older Americans in particular can have trouble assessing cues about possible misinformation on a visual website.
Brewer is researching ways to mitigate these challenges, including creating strategies to change behaviors and how people are accessing information with voice assistance. “I am proposing what’s called a ‘nudge,’ ” she says, explaining that it’s a way to guide people’s choices with conscious changes in their environment.
She says some visual techniques can include a pop-up warning about sources or providing other links to more reputable sources. But Brewer wants to rethink how these warning systems can be designed for voice technologies. She plans on starting her research by understanding how older adults experience uncertainty over voice technologies, then try to design effective tools, test their effectiveness, and collaborate with these communities about their needs.
Assistant professor Ceren Budak was awarded an NSF CAREER grant in 2021 for her proposal, “Large-Scale Examination of Problematic Online Behaviors and Their Regulators.” Her research focuses on how community norms, social media platforms, and markets can influence and shape the spread of disinformation and cross-partisan animosity online.
“Disinformation and cross-partisan animosity are two big, and related, challenges for our societies and democracies,” says Budak. She is using a combination of machine learning and network science to figure out what strategies can stop the spread of misinformation and help regulators refine their strategies.
“While we have multiple ongoing projects related to norms, platforms, and markets, our strongest emphasis thus far has been on markets,” she says.
“I am excited to make progress on this generally overlooked research area,” says Budak. “ I hope that the tools we are currently building will empower consumers and journalists to keep advertisers and ad servers accountable — pushing them to break ties with content providers that pollute our information environments."
Assistant professor Barbara Ericson was awarded an NSF CAREER grant in 2022 for her work “Improving Undergraduate Computing Education by Scaffolding Write Code Problems with Automatically Generated, Personalized, and Adaptive Parsons Problems.” Her research focuses on improving how to attract and keep students in the computer science field.
“There’s a lot of demand for computing degrees,” says Ericson, adding that the demand for undergraduate enrollment has exploded. However, the failure rate in these classes is large, sometimes up to 90%. In addition, Ericson notes that computing isn’t diverse. “Unfortunately, the people that are missing from computing are often the ones most at risk in these courses because they don’t have prior experience.”
Ericson wants to change this with a different approach to computer science education using a tool called Parsons problems. With Parsons problems, students drag mixed-up blocks of code into the correct order to construct a solution. She has been using Parsons problems as a type of active learning exercise in her lectures and has seen promising results. Ericson says students can usually solve Parsons problems faster than writing the equivalent code, and most (82%) find them useful for learning to program.
She is testing approaches to generating Parsons problems from student written code in addition to using Parsons problems to help students who are struggling while writing code from scratch. She will be generating and testing both a most common solution and a personalized solution — a correct solution that is closest to the student’s incorrect solution.
Ericson will test this new approach in her undergraduate course, in online courses, and in projects to help secondary students from underrepresented groups succeed in Advanced Placement Computer Science.
“I'm just trying to change the world, as most of us are,” she says.
Assistant professor Patricia Garcia earned an NSF CAREER grant in 2021 for her research “Developing Agentic Computing Identities Through Computational Justice Programs.” Her research examines how girls of color can develop technical interventions that might help address issues of justice and equity in computing.
“Educational and career statistics continue to demonstrate that women of color are underrepresented in computing– it’s well documented,” says Garcia. “People who research this issue, like myself, often think about educational interventions that can occur earlier in their educational trajectory.”
Garcia says that intervention efforts in K-12-age students often focus on developing students' “computing identity,” which helps them see themselves as participants in computing fields. But Garcia takes this work further to understand what happens when efforts are overly focused on technical and academic performance without considering the sociocultural barriers.
“These are things like racialized and gendered stereotypes about girls of color and their academic performance and interests,” says Garcia. “I argue these factors are just as important as the academic and performance-based barriers.”
She says she wants to investigate how to combat the internalization of these negative stereotypes, including the norms of who can succeed in computing.
Garcia has been developing a program to help girls develop a sense of individual and collective agency. Agency includes things like believing in their computing ability, seeing themselves as someone who belongs in computing, deciding what role they want computing to play in their lives, and choosing how to use those skills to create change. Through these experiences, “it’s not only what they can do for others, but also figuring out what computing can mean to them personally.”
Assistant professor and former Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow Oliver Haimson earned an NSF CAREER grant in 2020 for his work, “Toward Equitable Social Media Content Moderation for Marginalized Individuals and Communities.” His research goes into the gray areas of website moderation, to examine the causes and consequences of online platforms banning users and content that do not actually violate site policies.
Haimson, his students and collaborators, have been collecting data to figure out who is experiencing content moderation at higher rates, including account removals. “We found that politically conservative, trans participants, and Black participants — these are seperate groups — experienced disproportionate levels of social media content and account removals,” he says.
But the types of content that were removed were substantially different for the marginalized groups of trans and Black participants. For these users, content removal is often related to their identities, limiting their participation in the public sphere.
“On the other hand, for the conservative participants in our data set, these content removals demonstrated enforcement of site policies,” says Haimson, adding that their content was removed for things like spreading misinformation about COVID.
Haimson continues to dig deeper into contempt moderation, looking at concepts like shadowbanning and digital ethnography studies on Reddit and Twitch users. He and his students have also created a digital literacy resource for people who have had content removals, which includes a collaboration with Harvard Cyberlaw Clinic and Salty.
Assistant professor David Jurgens was awarded an NSF CAREER grant in 2022 for his project “Fostering Prosocial Behavior and Well-Being in Online Communities.” His work will focus on identifying and measuring how social media can have a positive impact on people’s lives.
“I've been curious whether social media has actual benefit in our lives for all its downsides,” Jurgens says. He wants to understand the effects of prosocial behavior in social media and how it can boost the psychological well-being of users.
He and his students will be looking into what sort of social media conditions best foster social support, empathetic encounters, and genuine connection. “I want to understand what kind of conditions online can lead to and support that kind of behavior in general.”
As part of the project, Jurgens plans on releasing tools for everyday users to help people track the good and bad interactions and content on their social media feeds. He says the tools will help people recognize when to take a break from social media, with encouraging messages to log off or even go outside for a bit.
Jurgens says the CAREER award will fund new experiments to find out what type of interactions encourage more empathetic and positive interactions. “I'm hoping to give folks a hand, and a helpful nudge, to show more care and compassion toward others,” he says.
Sun Young Park
Associate professor Sun Young Park was awarded an NSF CAREER grant in 2020 for her project “Advancing Pediatric Patient-Provider Communication through Collaborative Tracking and Data Sharing.” Her research focuses on how mobile and cloud-based computing technologies can support communication efforts among children, parents and healthcare providers.
She is particularly interested in how to increase a child’s participation in their own health care. “Through this research, I hope to empower these child patients to become active, engaged actors in their illness management and care," she says.
Park says there are four large steps to her research efforts: understand communication practices between child, parent and practitioner; develop tracking tools that allow for active engagement; design collaborative communication to promote shared decision making; and address patient engagement to improve health outcomes.
"In the first phase of this multi-year project, we conducted an interview study with children with Type 1 diabetes and their parents,” says Park. She and her collaborators identified different types of child-parent collaboration and found that the child’s levels of knowledge and motivation matter the most in their transitioning toward independence in collaborative care.
Park says these findings suggest that new technology developments could support parents to monitor and identify their child’s knowledge and motivation levels. These tools could also help to develop strategies for effective collaboration. In the next phase of the study, Park hopes to co-design health-tracking tools with child-parent pairs to improve the child's involvement in collaborative Type 1 diabetes management.
Assistant professor Florian Schaub was awarded a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Young Faculty Award in 2020 for his research project “Enabling Comparative Analysis of Privacy Expectation-Risk Misalignments in Exposure-sensitive Populations.” His research focuses on the misalignment of expectations of privacy and the actual risk of sharing information.
Schaub is developing a new way to measure and compare how people are regarding privacy. For example, Schaub says, “People struggle to protect their privacy when using technology.”
While some privacy lapses may be a result of oversharing, Schaub notes that people can find it almost impossible to keep certain factors of their life a secret online, which can have dire consequences for certain people and populations. For instance, a Muslim woman may not be able to easily hide the fact that she is a person of color who practices a certain religion. But is the protection of privacy a general issue or individual problem?
He and his collaborators are conducting research on intersectionality in privacy and recent research has focused on Muslim women. Schaub is also collaborating with UMSI assistant professor (and fellow Early Career grantee) Robin Brewer, focusing on privacy needs of older adults.
—Sarah Derouin, UMSI public relations specialist