As I write this annual column, I am struck by how much life has changed in less than one year’s time. I miss handshakes and hugs, smiling with my whole face rather than just my eyes, and walking across campus with my mind on the upcoming meeting or event rather than whether the people walking toward me are masked and how to cross paths with safety and congeniality.
Information theory tells us that impact is signaled in the changes in data streams – that novelty and uncertainty can map to significance – the intellectual energy we call information. As we navigate the challenges and uncertainty of a global pandemic, social and economic strife, and environmental calamities, we must remember that we are in this together and need to help each other meet the challenges – as well as the opportunities – we encounter.
I am inspired by how our students, faculty, staff, and alumni have adapted and achieved, and know we are resolute in our collective strength as we reflect on what we have lost, what we have accomplished, and what lies ahead.
In 2019 and 2020, we lost two giants of SILS and the information professions – Evelyn Daniel last fall, and Barbara Moran in the spring. Evelyn was a transformational dean of SILS, inspiring teacher, champion of online education, and smiling friend to all. Barbara served as dean twice, seeing SILS through significant transitions, achieved world-renown for her work in library management, remembered the names of thousands of students she taught, and championed international programs for SILS.
Other transitions include the retirements of Claudia Gollop and Paul Jones who both brought joy and creativity to SILS. We wish them long and happy next chapters.
We welcomed three new SILS faculty members: Associate Professor Tressie McMillan Cottom, Assistant Professor Francesca Tripodi, and Assistant Professor Anita Crescenzi (PhD ’19), whose primary appointment is in the Eshelman School of Pharmacy.
We also welcomed new staff members: Kathryn Peters, Executive Director of the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life (CITAP); Joanna Burke, CITAP Project Coordinator; Nicole Boryczka, Contracts and Grants Specialist; and Shayna Flint, Undergraduate Student Services Coordinator.
This year brought new achievements and honors across the SILS community. The Carolina Health Informatics Program (CHIP) celebrated its 10th anniversary and its first PhD graduates. CITAP completed its first year of operation and is already coalescing into a research powerhouse, offering important insights and analysis during the COVID crisis and in the run-up to the election.
Tressie McMillan Cottom won the MacArthur “Genius Grant,” Helen Tibbo received the SAA Council Exemplary Service Award, and Zeynep Tufekci was commended by The New York Times for “getting the big things right.”
In addition to the many multi-year research awards already in place at SILS, new research grants were awarded to Mohammad Jarrahi (NC Policy Collaboratory funding for research on COVID-19’s impact on gig workers); Maggie Melo (NSF CAREER grant for creating more equitable makerspaces); Sayamindu Dasgupta (NSF grant to foster data literacies among young people); Javed Mostafa (NSF funding to study the impact of undergraduate research experiences); Brian Sturm, Casey Rawson, Sandra Hughes-Hassell, and Sayamindu Dasgupta (IMLS grant to help transform LIS youth services education); Arcot Rajasekar and Ray Wang (multi-university NIDA-funded project to improve neuroscience data sharing); and David Gotz and Ray Wang (DOD funding to create a new data visualization system to synthesize structured and unstructured data).
Our alumni continue to impress and support us in numerous ways. Though we didn’t get to celebrate them in person at Spring Commencement, we are enormously proud of our 2020 Distinguished Alumni Award recipients Meredith Evans (PhD ’06) and Kathryn Cole (MSLS ’07). We had also looked forward to hearing the commencement address from Jason Griffey (MSLS ’04), who was kind enough to share his inspiring remarks in both written and audio format.
Knowing that recent grads were facing limited opportunities for networking and a tough job market, several alumni took part in SILS Connections, virtual information sessions where they shared career advice and answered questions. Career Services Coordinator Lori Haight did a great job organizing and facilitating these Zoom meet-ups, which were recorded and shared on our YouTube channel. The SILS Alumni Association took a similar approach by turning their annual speed-networking event into a virtual panel discussion focused on getting a job during the pandemic.
SILS students and faculty adapted to remote instruction in the spring and continue to find new ways to learn, teach, and interact with virtual tools and carefully limited face-to-face meetings. Since hallway conversations and casual office drop-ins were not possible most of this year, our faculty delivered a series of online lightning talks to introduce themselves and their research to students. All of these talks were recorded and posted to the SILS YouTube channel and I encourage you to watch them if you have some time. At about 10 minutes each, they are a fast, engaging way to learn about our faculty and how they are making an impact in North Carolina and beyond.
Our online professional science master’s degree in digital curation and management continues to attract new students and our proposal to deliver an online certificate in applied data science has been approved. SILS continues to work with the University administration and other departments at Carolina to define a new campus-wide initiative in data science.
With our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion further galvanized by the tragedies and protests of the summer, we have introduced new racial equity training opportunities for faculty and staff. We are reexamining our curriculum with equity in mind, and I have charged the Diversity Committee with finding new ways to gauge and improve the climate at SILS to ensure that all members of our community feel welcome and supported.
In the fall of 2020, we hosted a distinguished panel of evaluators as part of our UNC Graduate School Review, and we look forward to reviewing their report and responding to suggestions for advancing our graduate programs.
We know that many challenges await in 2021 and beyond. We will move forward with cautious optimism and adapt prudently to leverage the novelty and uncertainty ahead.
Virtual handshakes and hugs are not as satisfying as face-to-face encounters, but they are far superior to isolation. Be sure to offer your good words and positive deeds to others in any way you can. Stay safe, stay productive, stay compassionate, and be resilient.
Dean and Cary C. Boshamer Distinguished Professor