Alterovitz receives Amazon Research Award

April 30, 2021

Ron AlterovitzProfessor Ron Alterovitz received a 2020 Amazon Research Award for his research in cloud-based motion planning for autonomous robots.

The Amazon Research Award provides unrestricted funds and AWS Promotional Credits to academic researchers investigating research topics across a number of disciplines. Each award is intended to support the work of one to two graduate students or postdoctoral students for one year. The 2020 awards, announced in April 2021, recognized 101 recipients from 59 universities and 13 countries.

Alterovitz’s proposal, “Cloud-based motion planning: an enabling technology for next-generation autonomous robots,” seeks to enable robots with low-power embedded computers to perform more complicated motion planning tasks. To work around the limitations of the embedded computer, Alterovitz and his UNC Computational Robotics group split computation tasks between the embedded computer and a high-performance, cloud-based computing service. The robot communicates its configuration, goals, and obstacles to the cloud-based service, and the cloud service returns a motion plan, taking into account the latency and bandwidth of the connection and the time frame necessary to meet the goals. The group’s work with cloud-based motion planning will enable lightweight and battery-operated robots to perform tasks previously limited to bulkier, high-powered devices.

Amazon Research Award recipients have access to more than 200 Amazon public datasets, as well as AWS AI and machine learning services and tools. Recipients also are assigned an Amazon research contact who offers consultation and advice along with opportunities to participate in Amazon events and training sessions. Researchers are encouraged to publish research results and related code under open-source licenses.

For more information about the Amazon Research Awards and a list of all awardees, see the Amazon Science announcement of the awards.

Fang receives 2021 Horizon Award

April 7, 2021

Shiwei FangGraduate student Shiwei Fang has been recognized with a Horizon Award from the Graduate School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Fang was one of five Horizon Award recipients for 2021.

Since 2003, the Graduate Education Advancement Board (GEAB) has provided Impact Awards annually to recognize graduate students and recent graduate alumni whose discoveries directly impact the state of North Carolina. The Horizon Award, created in 2017 to be awarded alongside Impact Awards, recognizes those whose research “holds extremely high potential for making a significant contribution to the educational, economic, physical, social or cultural well-being of North Carolina citizens and beyond at some future time.” The award focuses on research of a more theoretical or basic nature that is likely to one day solve major problems in the state and beyond.

Fang’s awarded research addresses public health issues by providing low-cost, energy-efficient sensing and tracking technology. One project combines data from multiple low-cost sensors to enable body cameras to operate with significantly reduced power consumption and record much smaller video file sizes. These changes allow body cameras to operate autonomously and remain on at all times, producing smaller video files that can be archived and transmitted more easily.

Another application of Fang’s research is indoor human sensing and tracking, which could help mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic as well as future viruses. Fang’s work provides low-cost and privacy-aware methods to scale up contact tracing using sensor data from Wi-Fi and cameras. In addition to aiding public health experts, the data collected could inform business in areas like retail and dining to improve customers’ safety and overall experience.

“These tools enable communities to build trust between law enforcement and the public,” Fang writes, “and they also provide valuable information to policymakers, officials, and store owners, without sacrificing privacy.”

The 2021 Horizon Award carries a $500 cash award. Fang will be honored at the annual Graduate Student Recognition Celebration. Fang is advised by Assistant Professor Shahriar Nirjon of the Department of Computer Science.

To read Fang’s award announcement, visit the UNC Graduate School website.

Lei named 2021 Adobe Research Fellow

March 29, 2021

Jie Lei

Computer science doctoral student Jie Lei has been awarded a 2021 Adobe Research Fellowship in the area of natural language processing. The Adobe Research Fellowship recognizes “outstanding graduate students anywhere in the world carrying out exceptional research in areas of computer science important to Adobe.”

Lei was one of only 10 fellows selected worldwide for the prestigious fellowship. Fellows are selected based on their research, technical skills, how their work would contribute to Adobe, and personal communication and leadership skills. As a recipient, Lei will receive a $10,000 award and a one-year subscription to Adobe’s Creative Cloud software, as well as an opportunity to interview for an internship with Adobe.

Lei’s primary research interest lies in the intersection of computer vision and natural language processing, particularly video and language understanding. Some of his primary projects tackle video question answering and information retrieval. Video question answering involves training a computer to analyze a video in order to answer questions about its content, while information retrieval trains the computer to isolate and retrieve only information that is relevant to a given question answering task. These research areas study and reflect the complicated methods through which humans communicate in the real world. Lei’s research will help enable computational systems like robots to communicate effectively with humans and operate efficiently in our world.

“My long-term goal is to equip computational systems with the ability to interact with people in various environments using language, including online video platforms and real-world environments,” Lei said. “I am so thrilled and humbled to be selected as an Adobe Research Fellow. This fellowship will be very helpful in supporting my future research.”

Lei is advised by Associate Professor Mohit Bansal and Adjunct Associate Professor Tamara Berg and is a member of the Multimodal Understanding, Reasoning, and Generation for Language (MURGe) Lab. Lei has previously worked as an intern with Microsoft and Tencent AI Lab and will intern with Facebook this summer. He has published papers at numerous academic conferences, including the Association for Computational Linguistics (ACL), the Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition (CVPR), the European Conference on Computer Vision (ECCV), and the Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing (EMNLP).

For more information about the Adobe Research Fellowship and a full list of fellows, visit

Post-pandemic life: our digital habits, health care [Junier Oliva interviewed]

March 26, 2021

In part three of a three-part series, Carolina experts discuss some lasting effects of the pandemic on digital technologies and health care.

Scott Jared, The Well, Friday, March 26th, 2021

Carolina’s Pandemic Year: This week last March, the University shifted to remote instruction. The Well is marking the occasion with a week of special stories, including ways the University has addressed the crisis, reflections from Chancellor Guskiewicz and, below, predictions from Carolina’s faculty on lasting changes to post-pandemic life.

Less travel, more virtual meetings. More protection of patient privacy to improve drug discoveries and medical care. New versions of home health care and psychiatric care provided to every North Carolina community.

These are some of the ways the pandemic has changed how we use digital technology and how we receive health care.

In the wake of this past year’s devastation, death and adaptation, The Well asked experts in various fields about how daily life may look different after the crisis lifts.

Virtual reality, data and diagnoses

Junier Oliva, assistant professor in the College of Arts & Sciences’ computer science department, is an expert on machine learning and artificial intelligence. He sees broad changes in the digital world stemming from the pandemic, starting with more demand for virtual meetings using the latest technologies.

“We are seeing that since there is little travel, one upside is that it’s much easier to invite folks to give a talk, meet with a class, do a seminar or a group or a happy hour. It’s a lot easier to do this virtually,” he said.

Junier Oliva.

Junier Oliva

“I think generally people are connecting more virtually across the U.S. and beyond because there isn’t that expectation that you would bring someone in-person with all the associated overhead. That is something that may stick,” Oliva said.

Oliva said that computer scientists and industry leaders such as Xerox have been thinking about virtual meetings and collaborations for more than 50 years.

“It isn’t something that came out of the blue for computer scientists. As far as the latest and greatest innovations, I would imagine that things like virtual reality and augmented reality, virtual meetings and being able to collaborate remotely will be in demand,” Oliva said.

Another area that the pandemic accelerated is problem-solving with digital tools. Oliva is working on ways to take in sensitive medical data, then protect patient privacy by generating fake synthetic data that is useful for researchers without leaking private information.

“Once the pandemic hit, computer scientists were keen on solving some of the issues related to COVID-19. For example, I’ve been collaborating with folks trying to develop algorithms that can take in sensitive data related to health care, things that would be of interest to downstream researchers trying to make drug discoveries or trying to better diagnose patients. But, we can’t just release these data sets because they contain sensitive patient information.”

Even when no name is associated with a raw data record, a lot of information such as a person’s height or weight might allow for identification. “We’re looking for ways to perturb these values that would make it hard to track back features to one particular person and preserve their privacy,” Oliva said, referring to methods of replacing or distorting data so that unauthorized users cannot access it.

“For predicting if someone has COVID or trying to predict what drugs are going to be useful for a particular patient, it’s important to keep patterns intact as a whole in the data while perturbing and destroying any factorization that could be tracked back to an individual.”

Oliva said that computer scientists are also exploring digital means for less invasive medical procedures, more efficient COVID-19 testing and a machine-learning algorithm that can hear someone cough and predict whether the person has a certain illness.

New models of patient care

Dr. Ian B. Buchanan, president of ambulatory and post-acute care for UNC Health, is responsible for coordination of outpatient and continuing care in over 600 physician practices and at 12 hospitals.

Buchanan said that health care, normally a conservative, relatively slow to change industry, has experienced more flexibility and change in the past year.

Dr. Ian Buchanan of U.N.C. Health.

Dr. Ian Buchanan

“Some changes have been really positive advancements, and some have simply been a response to the greatest public health crisis in 100 years,” he said. “We’ve had to adapt and do things and flex in ways that we never would have been willing to under other circumstances.

“The biggest sea change in terms of direct patient care that absolutely is going to stick is a recognition and a growing expectation by our patients that we care for them where they are. The pandemic is the first time in modern memory that people have felt really scared to go into health care settings. Our typical patient a year ago viewed our clinics and hospitals as safe places to be. Now, they’re concerned. ‘Gosh, who’s the person sitting next to me in the waiting room, and who is the person being wheeled past me in the hallway?’”

The confluence of patients’ expectations and maturing technologies brought an explosion in the amount of care that “we can provide and our patients would like us to provide when they’re not physically sitting in one of our clinics,” Buchanan said. And increased familiarity with using digital services for tasks such as ordering groceries makes people more comfortable interacting with health care providers via telemedicine.

Health care providers are engaging underserved populations in new ways. The pandemic has “laid bare existing inequities in health care delivery to minority, rural and underserved communities across the state and the nation,” Buchanan said. “That’s been a major focus for us throughout the pandemic.”

Increased telemedicine has created positive changes in psychiatric care that will benefit North Carolina, especially in communities without psychiatrists. “It’s no longer just folks who are able or willing to drive to Chapel Hill to see a psychiatrist,” Buchanan said. “We can provide psychiatry services across the state.”

Buchanan credits Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody, the UNC School of Medicine’s psychiatry department chair, with tailoring virtual care that has succeeded for physicians and their patients.

“Out of all the specialties in the state, we have per capita fewer psychiatrists than just about anything else. Even in a lot of medium-size communities, never mind small communities or rural areas, there are few or no psychiatric resources available,” Buchanan said.

UNC Health has enhanced home health care, building off a traditional model in which nurses evaluate and care for patients in homes. Buchanan said that new technology allows nurses to see and talk with patients, monitor their condition and also have immediate access to a physician.

That model enables patients to return home more quickly after hospitalization. It has also decreased emergency room visits because in situations that exceed a nurse’s licensure and normally require an ER visit, the nurse can contact a physician.

“We’re pushing the boundaries of our continuum of care at home,” Buchanan said.

This summer, UNC Health will begin admitting patients needing lower-acuity care into an at-home program. “It’s essentially a hospital admission, but in the patient’s home,” Buchanan said. “Nurses and physicians at a command center will monitor patients at all times. Patients will have all the resources available in their home for their nursing care, respiratory care and pharmacy needs.

“Patients who are relatively lower acuity move to the comfort and safety of their home while freeing up hospital beds,” Buchanan said. “It’s a much less expensive care model, which is good for patients and good for us.”

See all the stories from Carolina’s Pandemic Year.

2021 IEEE Virtual Reality Conference awards recognize Whitton, Luebke

March 23, 2021

The two major awards at the upcoming 2021 IEEE Virtual Reality Conference will honor individuals with long-standing connections to UNC Computer Science, retired Research Professor Mary C. Whitton and Research Professor and NVIDIA Vice President of Graphics Research David P. Luebke. 

Whitton will receive the 2021 IEEE VGTC Virtual Reality Career Award for her lifetime contributions to the field, while Luebke will receive the 2021 IEEE VGTC Virtual Reality Technical Achievement Award, given annually for a seminal achievement in virtual and augmented reality. 

Mary WhittonMary Whitton

Whitton is being recognized for her lifetime contributions to “the technologies, techniques, and theory that enable virtual and mixed reality systems and applications to better achieve their intended goals.” 

Whitton has been undertaking research in interactive 3D computer graphics and virtual and mixed reality since 1976. She founded two successful graphics hardware companies in 1978 and 1986 and joined the Department of Computer Science in 1994. At UNC, she co-led the Effective Virtual Environments (EVE) research group for 20 years, driving cutting-edge research in areas including computer graphics, virtual reality, and mixed reality data exploration. In addition to her research, Whitton has mentored generations of doctoral students and held leadership roles with ACM SIGGRAPH and IEEE Virtual Reality. In recent years, she has worked with ACM committees to preserve computer graphics history.

David LuebkeDavid Luebke

Luebke is being recognized with the Technical Achievement Award for his “research and leadership at the intersection of rendering algorithms, display technology, and human perception” that has “advanced the state of virtual reality across topics as diverse as real-time rendering, low-latency display, foveated resolution, redirected walking, haptics, and focus-supporting displays.” Over a career in both academia and industry, Luebke has led research projects related to graphics rendering, display hardware, and even the use of neural networks to generate photorealistic imagery.

Luebke co-founded NVIDIA Research in 2006 and currently serves as vice president of graphics research. Prior to joining the faculty, Luebke also earned a doctorate in computer science from UNC in 1998.

Established in 2005, the IEEE VGTC Virtual Reality Awards program recognizes individuals who have made a significant contribution to the community. The awards are given annually to recipients selected by a vote of the Awards committee. This year’s committee was chaired by Henry Fuchs, Federico Gil Distinguished Professor of Computer Science at UNC, who abstained from voting due to professional connections with multiple nominees.

The 2021 IEEE Virtual Reality Conference will take place from March 27 to April 3. For more information about the recipients and awards, please see the announcement from IEEE VGTC.

Finding their place in tech [profile of Pearl Hacks]

March 4, 2021

In the annual Pearl Hack Event, which was created by Tar Heels in 2014 to close the gender gap in college hackathons, women and non-binary students from across the country competed in a demo fair for prizes, attended tech workshops and met other students through social events.

By Yenah Joe, University Communications, Thursday, March 4th, 2021

In late February, students from around the world participated in the annual Pearl Hacks, a beginner-friendly hackathon for women and non-binary students interested in technology.

The Carolina student-run hackathon, which is supported by the College of Arts & Sciences’ computer science department and part of Major League Hacking, provides college students across the U.S. with a weekend-long opportunity to compete in a demo fair for prizes, learn and network through tech workshops and meet other students through social events.

“It’s a really fun way to explore tech in different ways,” said Bea Manaligod, Pearl Hack’s marketing chair and a senior studying computer science and communications. “People can meet each other and feel safe in a field that’s completely dominated by men.”

Pearl Hacks started in 2014 when Carolina alumna Maegan Clawges saw the gender gap in college hackathons and wanted to start an event that gave women and non-binary students a space to participate. It was one of the first beginner-friendly hackathons targeted toward women at the time.

A collage of nine photos of students running pearl hacks.

The directors of Pearl Hacks.

Manaligod said Pearl Hacks helped her feel more comfortable as a computer science major her first year at Carolina. Large computer science lectures felt intimidating, but Pearl Hacks was an opportunity for women and non-binary students to find their place in tech.

“It’s such a unique atmosphere and a welcoming environment,” said Tylar Watson, Pearl Hack’s executive chair and a senior studying computer science and women and gender studies.

“Our event provides a steppingstone into the major and career opportunities, and it enhances those skills so they’ll feel more comfortable in the content and other people around them,” Manaligod said.

But students do not have to be a computer science major or have any experience in coding to participate. “I attended Pearl Hacks as a participant my first year,” said Watson. “One of my friends who I went with wasn’t a computer science major, but she felt inspired, really loved her experience and ended up declaring her major a week after the event.”

This year, the event was hosted virtually due to COVID-19 restrictions, but that only broadened the possibilities. In previous years, the event was limited to students who could travel to Chapel Hill. The new online format offered students from all over the world, including India and the United Kingdom, a chance to participate, increasing project submissions by 25%.

“For a virtual event, I was very impressed and excited with the amount of people who enjoyed it,” said Manaligod. “We had over 500 attendees, 31 countries represented and 69 projects submitted. Though there were tons of hoops to jump through when navigating this new and unfamiliar format, I felt that we were able to recreate the feeling of growth and community as we did when we were in person. We all hope everyone got to grow with Pearl Hacks, and we can’t wait for Pearl Hacks 2022.”

Not only could participants network with more than 20 sponsors like Amazon and Bandwidth, but they got to meet with students from all over the world and form new tech communities.

“The networking was invaluable, the workshops were super informative and well-organized, and of course, the project experience itself opened my eyes to new skills that I hadn’t previously had the opportunity to explore,” said Melody Griesen, a junior studying computer science at North Carolina State University who was part of February’s event. “I absolutely loved my experience at Pearl Hacks — my only frustration is that I have to wait a full year to participate again.”

See this year’s Pearl Hacks projects

Johnston, Chapman Family Awards [Kris Jordan receives Chapman Family Teaching Award]

March 4, 2021

One professor started his Zoom lectures with funny photo backdrops and the line “Broadcasting today from in front of a [insert photo quip],” while another teleported into the famous PBS artist studio of Bob Ross, complete with wig.

Today, The Well shares the fourth in a series of stories introducing the winners of the 2021 University Teaching Awards. Join us each day this week as we celebrate teaching achievements by sharing personal stories about the winners.

Johnston Teaching Excellence Awards

Created in 1991, these awards recognize excellence in undergraduate teaching. Winners are nominated by Johnston Scholars and selected by a special committee of scholars in the James M. Johnston Scholarship Program. Two winners will receive $5,000 and a framed citation.

Maya Berry

assistant professor, department of African, African American and diaspora studies in the College of Arts & Sciences

Maya Berry

Maya Berry, faculty member since 2017.

Excerpt from award citation: A student wrote: “Class activities were designed to draw on both knowledge obtained from course readings as well as personal thoughts on the topics at hand, and she encouraged us to use artwork and music to inspire our educational pursuits in her course. She did not tell students that we were wrong — she regarded every opinion and thought as valid.”

Who was the best teacher you had and why?

I’ve been fortunate to have so many great teachers in my life, which is what ultimately led me to this profession. A common characteristic they all shared was the ability to create an environment that motivated me to challenge my preconceived conceptions and limitations and discover my own potential. They were both demanding of the utmost rigor and simultaneously created a space for vulnerability and self-reflection (it’s such a delicate balance!), so that by the end of our time together I had learned as much about myself as I did about the course material.

What does it take to be a good professor in 2021?

Active listening, compassion and creative thinking. When we shifted to remote learning on Zoom in the spring of 2020, I relied on my self-administered mid-semester student evaluations to inform my strategic lesson planning for the remainder of the semester. With that data generated by the students themselves, I was able to customize a remote learning plan that was best suited to the specific dynamic of each class while still honoring the course’s learning objectives.

Tell us a story about something creative you’ve done to engage your students.

Art is a powerful teaching tool. One of the pillars of my teaching philosophy revolves around the core belief that the arts have a unique ability to make vivid and tangible otherwise abstract concepts, histories and theories. One year, I weaved in a special collaboration with Duke Forum for Scholars and Publics, Carolina Performing Arts and the Ackland Museum into my Afro-Cuban Dance: History, Theory & Practice (AAAD261) class. During that year’s collaboration, students engaged with guest artist-scholars from the University of the West Indies and right here at Carolina Performing Arts and participated in a series of visits to the Ackland Art Museum. These encounters, in conjunction with the course content, built up students’ capacity to choreograph their own site-specific performance inspired by an exhibit on display at the Power Plant Gallery in downtown Durham. The students performed their original creations at the closing celebration of the exhibit for the public. They later adapted the performance for the Ackland’s Student Showcase and engaged in a Q&A for that public audience as part of their final grade.

Hans Christianson

associate professor, department of mathematics in the College of Arts & Sciences

Hans Christianson, faculty member since 2010.

Excerpt from award citation: Dr. Christianson’s classroom is also a collaborative space, where students work with him to consider, reconsider and parse through strategies to approach and solve a problem. Dr. Christianson’s students also see that he is committed to meeting them where they are to ensure they get as much out of his class as possible.

Who was the best teacher you had and why?

As an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, I had two great professors who influenced me a lot. Dennis Hejhal and Victor Reiner both taught me that education does not end outside the classroom, and an “A student” goes to office hours at least four times a semester. I tell this to all my students. They both also taught me that original research in mathematics is attainable as an undergraduate and can be one of the most influential parts of education.

What does it take to be a good professor in 2021?

Teaching in 2021 is so intertwined with the pandemic that it is difficult to separate what parts of the job constitute teaching and what parts constitute student support. It is always important to respect and listen to the students and even more so with remote instruction. Taking time to listen to the concerns and struggles of students helps make sure they know there is a human being on the other end of the line whose top priorities are the health and safety of the students, as well as their academic success, and informs the instructor about the pace and content of lectures. With so many unknowns with remote teaching, being flexible and patient with students (and colleagues!) is essential.

Tell us a story about something creative you’ve done to engage your students.

Teaching evolves constantly, and remote instruction presented us all with new obstacles. I like to interact with my students a lot during lectures. One thing I tried (that failed) last semester was to get a laugh track going that I could play whenever I tell a joke. One thing I tried (that succeeded) was to frequently change my Zoom background with photos I have taken in the last few years. I started my lectures with “Broadcasting today from in front of [insert photo quip].” My favorite was a giant apple pie at Thanksgiving. At the end of the semester, a student posted on our Piazza forum: “Full Collection: ‘Today we are broadcasting from … ’” with a list of my quotes — they had been keeping track all semester! Knowing I was reaching my students, if only for a laugh, during the most difficult semester any of us have had was one of the high points in my career.

Chapman Family Teaching Awards

Created in 1993 with a gift during the Bicentennial Campaign from Max Carrol Chapman Jr. ’66 on behalf of the Chapman family, these awards honor distinguished teaching of undergraduate students. The award carries a stipend of $30,000 to be used over the period of five years.

Todd Austell

teaching professor, associate director of undergraduate studies, STEM academic adviser, department of chemistry in the College of Arts & Sciences

Todd Austell, faculty member since 1998.

Excerpt from award citation: From a student: “Professor Austell provided so much support, encouragement and tools for students to succeed that I not only understood concepts but enjoyed and thrived in my learning. I consistently felt challenged, driven and excited to plunge myself deeper into the subject.”

Who was the best teacher you had and why?

My high school chemistry teacher, Dick Hamrick, who was the most dynamic, motivating and caring teacher I’ve ever encountered. He massively influenced many to pursue careers in science and medicine.

What does it take to be a good professor in 2021?

Patience, persistence and true understanding of how to love and care for students during one the most challenging times of all our lives.

Tell us a story about something creative you’ve done to engage your students.

I realized a long time ago my role at Carolina and in life is far more than just teaching students. I’m blessed to be where I am on this campus and in my life. With great blessings come great responsibilities. I’m called to love my students in a Christ-like way every minute of every day, and that’s what I (most often imperfectly) try to do. I believe in letting my students know early on that I am more than just their instructor for the semester, that I do love them and feel blessed to get to be in my role with them. Lastly, I desire to be in their corner far beyond the time they are my class. I AM FOR THEM … and try to make that clear every day in my communications.

Glenn Hinson

associate professor, departments of anthropology and American studies in the College of Arts & Sciences

Glenn Hinson, faculty member since 1989.

Excerpt from award citation: Professor Hinson’s community-engaged project has impacted students profoundly. One student nominator described the experience as “truly transformative” and elaborated further to say, “He taught me that reckoning and reconciliation are only possible if we conjure the most vulnerable aspects of our own lives and experiences. Research does not have to be cold and impersonal. It can be deeply human.”

Who was the best teacher you had and why?

Hands down, it was the folklore professor Kenny Goldstein, who taught in the graduate department of folklore and folklife at the University of Pennsylvania. Kenny was an activist and engaged scholar, someone who encouraged students to step beyond the limits of the academy and to engage broad publics in their scholarship, working with communities as equal partners in the pursuit of shared intellectual/programmatic/political ends. For Kenny — who came to the academy from a background as an activist — scholarship was all about contribution. He wasn’t interested in how many articles you had published or how many books you had written; he wanted to know how you had changed the world, and how the change had bettered the lives of the disempowered, of those who had been strategically and systematically oppressed.

What does it take to be a good professor in 2021?

Awareness, engagement and a willingness to listen to — and, when needed, be guided by — the wisdom of our students.

Tell us a story about something creative you’ve done to engage your students.

Before the pandemic, in the “By Persons Unknown: Race and Reckoning in North Carolina” first-year seminar (first taught in Spring 2020), students investigated the heretofore untold story of the Norlina 18, a group of Black men in Warren County who were arrested in January 1921 after defending their community from an advancing white mob. Within 24 hours of their arrest, two of these men were lynched; the others were imprisoned in the state penitentiary for periods ranging from four months to eight years. Our job was to learn who these men were, what impact these murders and imprisonments had on their families and what happened to them and their descendants. To be able to tell their stories, we had to do more than comb through archival records; we needed to visit the site of the gunfight that led to their arrest, to view the communities in which they lived, to step into the fields where they labored, to visit the jail where they were imprisoned, to stand in the courtroom where they were tried. So we did, traveling by bus for a long day in Warren County, moving from site to site. At each stop, Black community members guided our way, offering trenchant stories about oppression and resilience and inviting our reflections. The wisdom of these community guides — coupled with the experience of actually stepping into the spaces of the stories we were investigating — brought the archival research alive, inspiring all of us to recognize our responsibility as chroniclers of untold stories and as contributors to community efforts to recover erased histories.

Kris Jordan

teaching assistant professor, department of computer science in the College of Arts & Sciences

Kris Jordan, faculty member since 2015.

Excerpt from award citation: He is engaging to each of his students, creating a comfortable in-class atmosphere, and he has an incredible awareness of the different backgrounds that his students have come from. This awareness has allowed Professor Jordan to help students who may not have the necessary background in math or technology, and he has propelled students to continue in the computer science field who otherwise would have chosen different courses of study.

Who was the best teacher you had and why?

I studied computer science as an undergraduate at Carolina, and the best teachers I ever had are faculty members here. Many were fantastic but three were instrumental in supporting me in independent studies and research: Prasun Dewan, Gary Bishop and Diane Pozefsky. When I returned to Chapel Hill nearly a decade later, these three were once again great role models and mentors in becoming an educator. Each treated me as a respected colleague, both as an undergraduate student and as junior faculty, which is a cultural tradition in Carolina’s Department of Computer Science that I work to carry forward.

What does it take to be a good professor in 2021?

To be a good teacher in 2021 requires creativity and flexibility. During the COVID-19 pandemic, our “classrooms” changed, our modes of instruction and content delivery changed and our means for assessment changed. Success requires adapting to those changes and looking for opportunities to take on new challenges previously unthinkable. Around 50 of my students this past year participated in Carolina Away and completed my courses from China, India, Japan, Turkey and other international locations. Adapting my courses to equitably serve students participating in time zones 12 hours offset from Eastern Standard Time has led to my teaching team improving its practices by becoming more flexible without losing its high structure design. Many of the innovations required to make the most of teaching in 2021 will improve what University teaching and learning looks like after the pandemic.

Tell us a story about something creative you’ve done to engage your students.

I teach Computer Science 110, a course that introduces students to the fundamentals of programming and data science at Carolina. One of the most notoriously challenging topics taught is recursion. A classic example of recursion is the definition of a factorial function, but factorial is so dull that someone made its symbol an exclamation point to try and keep students awake for it!

I find recursive art to be a more engaging, visually exciting and intellectually stimulating means to introduce students to recursive thinking. A favorite lecture activity of mine is tasking students with writing code to procedurally generate trees with computer graphics. When we reach that segment of lecture, I put on my Bob Ross wig and we “paint” some happy, little trees together using recursion as our brush. This year, teaching in front of a green screen instead of a lecture hall, I was able to “teleport” to the iconic PBS show’s set to host “The Joy of Programming” for the first time. Learning how to code is often frustrating and error-prone, so I hope to impart the wisdom and energy of the late Bob Ross in my course: “We don’t make mistakes [in programming]; we have happy accidents.”

Lisa Woodley

clinical associate professor, School of Nursing

Lisa Woodley, faculty member since 2003.

Excerpt from award citation: Students in her class do not passively receive information but are actively and affectively engaged through a range of teaching tools including humorous YouTube videos, emotional patient narratives and personal stories of success and failure from Professor Woodley’s own nursing career.

Who was the best teacher you had and why?

I have had many exemplary teachers over my lifetime, but the one who rises to the top is my dad. Don Woodley is a retired high school Latin teacher living in Southern Ontario, Canada. He taught me that the key to effective teaching centers on relationships built with students. From a young age, I watched how he cared for and about his students as individuals. This in turn fueled their enthusiasm and excitement for the subject he taught. His unwavering work ethic, attention to detail and creativity were ever-present, and his passion and love for his career was obvious to everyone around him. He never hesitated to go the extra mile for his students and regularly served as a mentor for those struggling with life crises. He taught me how to make a difference in students’ lives far beyond the classroom and what it means to be a true teacher.

What does it take to be a good professor in 2021?

Good professors serve as role models and guides in our disciplines. Our words and actions matter. Especially now as we continue to battle the COVID-19 pandemic and national strife, our students must feel like their learning spaces are safe and welcoming. Good professors are passionate about what they teach and are student-centered, seeking to engage, inspire and challenge their learners and genuinely care about how they best learn. They offer clear explanations and cutting-edge information, help students connect concepts and push students to new heights, while remaining humble and approachable. In my experience, the magic happens when these conditions are present.

Tell us a story about something creative you’ve done to engage your students.

In week one of my undergraduate pediatric nursing class, I introduce the story of “Stone Soup.” This centuries-old story tells of a stranger who comes to a remote village with only a large cooking pot, seeking to make soup.

Within the class, we discuss how the story of Stone Soup relates to student engagement and learning. I point out that faculty-based lectures are akin to single-ingredient soups, unlike the rich depth of flavors that arise when students and faculty from a variety of backgrounds share experiences and ideas. Next, using the Poll Everywhere online platform, all class members (including faculty) anonymously indicate on a global map their family’s country of origin, providing an immediate visual cue about the collective geographical diversity in the classroom. We also discuss how collectively we represent other aspects of diversity, such as religion, class and sexual identity. These activities provide a platform upon which discussions of culturally responsive pediatric nursing care are subsequently based in the course.

Alumni Profile: Mentor Katherine Griffin (B.S. 2020), mentee Tarini Ramesh reflect on Alumni Mentor Program experience

March 3, 2021
Tarini Ramesh (top) and Katherine Griffin meet as part of the UNC CS Alumni Mentor Program
Tarini Ramesh (top) and Katherine Griffin meet as part of the UNC CS Alumni Mentor Program

Designed to facilitate a professional development relationship between alumni industry mentors and current students in the Department of Computer Science, the UNC CS Alumni Mentor Program launched in the fall of 2019 with over 80 participants. Since then, the program has continued to grow in number, with both alumni and students eager to participate. 

Relying almost entirely on virtual interactions over the past year has made it more challenging to maintain meaningful connections and collaborations with others. But perhaps more than ever, these relationships and interactions provide valuable guidance and camaraderie that can help students learn and grow during this difficult time.

Despite the challenges of building a mentor/mentee relationship virtually, sophomore computer science and economics double-major Tarini Ramesh and alumna Katherine Griffin (B.S. 2020) have forged a bond through this experience that will extend beyond their year-long structured mentoring relationship.

Having graduated only months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Griffin experienced an abrupt end to her final semester at UNC. For the Class of 2020, everything moved online in a few weeks. To make things even more difficult, Griffin and her peers also had to adapt to an all-online environment as they began their professional careers. After departing under such unusual circumstances, Griffin sought out opportunities to give back to the department and stay connected. The Alumni Mentor Program seemed like a great fit. As a woman in tech and a software engineer at GitHub, she was eager to connect with an undergraduate student who could benefit from her experiences.

Ramesh, a sophomore double-major interning at Lenovo, has never shied away from opportunities to get involved and network across industry. After reading about the opportunity to join the mentorship program in a student newsletter, she decided to apply.

Coincidentally, upon being paired, Griffin and Ramesh realized that Griffin had served as a teaching assistant for one of Ramesh’s courses in the spring. Having a previous connection has served them well in developing a trusting and supportive mentoring relationship. After a semester and a half in the mentoring program, both look back with incredible fondness regarding their experiences. 

Ramesh admitted jokingly, “I came hoping at-minimum I’d find a future reference, but now I’ve found a friend.” 

The two meet weekly via Zoom, where Griffin shares real-world experiences of a software engineer and Ramesh shares about her future goals and classroom experiences and asks questions. Ramesh appreciates that she is “learning all the little things that I’d be doing, including some of the not-so-glamorous tiny details.” 

Reflecting on the importance of technology and careers in the field, Griffin always reminds Ramesh that through all aspects of this journey, no matter how minimal, this work impacts millions of people around the world. 

As a mentor, Griffin reflects on all the ways she’s grown and learned from the experience and what it means to be able to share it with Ramesh.

“It is so hard to find women in computer science, let alone women in computer science that are willing to sit and talk with you about the real experience,” Griffin said. “I have enjoyed sharing all I’m learning professionally, and while I never want to discourage her from following her dreams, I want to share the realities of the experience.”

Griffin has also enjoyed watching Ramesh learn and grow. From sharing advice on college courses to recounting day-to-day challenges on the job, Griffin finds mentorship to be an incredibly rewarding experience. After Ramesh secured an internship with Microsoft Explore this summer, both relished the opportunity to celebrate her success together. It was exciting for both to see all of Ramesh’s hard work come to fruition. In these moments, the two say that they are grateful to be a part of this type of program.

Acknowledging that building a mentoring relationship takes a lot of dedication and effort, particularly in a virtual environment, both are proud of the work they have put in over the last two semesters and encourage others to make the decision to go all-in and invest in the experience. 

“Mentoring is a big mix of rewards,” Griffin said. “I’ve learned that if you give it your all, you get out what you put in. If willing to give it a chance and lean in to the experience, the additional work is worth it.” 

If you are interested in serving as an Alumni Mentor in the UNC CS Alumni Mentor Program, learn more here on the program website.

Nirjon receives NSF CAREER Award

February 22, 2021

Shahriar Nirjon has received an NSF CAREER AwardShahriar Nirjon, assistant professor of computer science at UNC-Chapel Hill and director of the UNC Embedded Intelligence Lab, has received a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The CAREER program is a Foundation-wide activity that offers NSF’s most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.

This five-year, $561,000 grant, titled “CAREER: Toward Embedding Perpetual Intelligence into Ultra-Low-Power Sensing and Inference Systems,” will support his continued research on making small, portable,  resource-constrained, embedded systems capable of sensing, learning, adapting, and evolving over an extended period of time.

Years of technological advancements have made it possible for small, portable, electronic devices to last for years on battery power, and run forever when powered by harvesting energy from their surrounding environment. Unfortunately, the prolonged life of these ultra-low-power systems poses a fundamentally new problem. Although these devices last for an extended period of time, programs that run on them become obsolete when the nature of sensory input or the operating conditions change. The effect of continued execution of such an obsolete program can be catastrophic. For example, if a cardiac pacemaker fails to recognize an impending cardiac arrest because the patient has aged or their physiology has changed, these devices will cause more harm than good. Hence, being able to react, adapt, and evolve is necessary for these systems to guarantee their accuracy and response time.

This CAREER project is aimed at devising algorithms, tools, systems, and applications that will enable ultra-low-power, sensor-enabled, computing devices capable of executing complex machine learning algorithms while being powered solely by harvested energy. As opposed to common practices where a fixed classifier runs on a device, this project takes a fundamentally different approach, wherein a classifier is constructed in a manner that allows it to adapt and evolve to changes in the sensory input or application-specific requirements, such as the time, energy, and memory constraints, during the extended lifetime of the system.

More details on this award can be found on the NSF website.

Nirjon joined the Department of Computer Science in 2015. Prior to joining UNC, he was a research scientist at Hewlett-Packard (HP) Labs. He received his Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in computer science and engineering from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) and received his Doctor of Philosophy in computer science from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

‘Changing the game’: Black in Technology works to support Black students in computer science

February 2, 2021
Former UNC student, Charlie Helms poses for a virtual portrait with his old college laptop in his Seattle apartment on Jan. 27, 2021. Helms co-founded Black in Technology, an organization dedicated to helping students of color in Computer Science.

Photo by Chase Cofield | The Daily Tar Heel

Former UNC student, Charlie Helms poses for a virtual portrait with his old college laptop in his Seattle apartment on Jan. 27, 2021. Helms co-founded Black in Technology, an organization dedicated to helping students of color in Computer Science.

Prior to arriving at UNC, 2020 graduate Charlie Helms had only briefly heard about the field of computer science. But when he attended UNC’s admitted students day, he was immediately drawn to the Black and Latinx computer science group that the computer science department advertised.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m gonna have people that look like me that are coders,’” Helms said. “I’ve never met a Black computer scientist before, so I was like, ‘This is amazing. It’s a perfect match.’”

But after initially struggling in coursework for COMP 110: Intro to Programming at UNC, he began searching for the club that initially drew him to the University. To his disappointment, Helms discovered that the club had been inactive for nearly two years.

For Helms, the next logical step was to start his own organization. And after connecting with Olivia McPhaul, another UNC graduate who now works as a cyber risk analyst at Deloitte, Black in Technology was born.

Black in Technology has planned numerous events to support Black UNC students in STEM and collaborated with other groups, including Xcel, queer_hack and the National Society of Black Engineers.

The organization has also planned events with companies including Cisco and Microsoft, hosted Black software engineers and developers to talk to BiT members about their experiences working in those roles and offered opportunities for resume workshops and mock interviews.

“These are things that we need to help connect us with these professionals,” Helms said. “Putting your application in a portal is only seeing so much, but when you’re in person talking to them, it’s changing the game completely.”

After one event with Cisco, some members got internship and full-time job offers — including one of McPhaul’s closest friends.

“He said to me: ‘This is what I see as my dream job. I am doing something that I enjoy, so thank you for having this opportunity,’” she said. “Hearing something like that and actually seeing it come to fruition was amazing.”

In addition to professional development events, BiT has partnered with the Black Student Movement at UNC to help get more Black students interested in technology and the computer science major.

For McPhaul, the co-founder of Black in Technology, the drive behind wanting to support Black students at UNC came from attending a conference for students to learn more about career paths and technology.

She met Helms through Brandi Day, the former diversity and inclusion coordinator for the department of computer science. Day eventually became the group’s adviser.

“I can say this, and maybe Charlie can agree, that we can attribute a lot of our success to her, because she cares so much,” McPhaul said. “Sometimes just having that one faculty member supporting you gives you that confidence and boost to say, ‘I’m doing what I need to be doing.’”

Helms said he advises other students to reach out to others when they need help. He said once he reached out for help himself, he saw a huge shift in his grades and class experiences.

“I was understanding the material better, and I feel like I had better friendships established by actually reaching out and leaning on my community more,” Helms said.

McPhaul said BiT and other organizations for people of color are important because without them, voices will be stifled. Since UNC is a predominantly white institution, she said students of color will continue to feel unseen and unheard until action is taken on the student and University level.

“Lifetime success starts with our foundation,” she said. “I want something to define every single person in a way that they feel like it can propel them exactly where they need to be in life.”

Amanda Harris, a UNC junior and president of Black in Technology, said she joined the organization during her first year after meeting Helms in the Chancellor’s Science Scholars Program.

Harris said being the president of BiT during the pandemic involved a shift in ideas and events for members.

“We definitely have seen a decrease in numbers and our events, unfortunately, so we’re trying to come up with new ideas to keep our members engaged,” Harris said.

Harris said it is important for Black students to be involved in technology because products are often made by white people — and not with people of color in mind. She said this often results in products that are inherently biased and do not cater to everyone’s needs, which further widens a gap that already exists between opportunities of races.

“We really want to be a support system to uplift people who are interested in technology, and hopefully even pursue it so that we can have a world with technological devices that cater to everyone,” she said.

For Black students, Helm said there are many different obstacles to face when going into STEM. The advice he gives to future members or other Black students in STEM is to stick with it.

“Until you know it, you won’t love it,” he said. “I had to keep that in mind myself: the reason I don’t love it is because I don’t know it well. I have to fully take the time to study it and become more comfortable with it for it to feel like second nature.”