A Magazine from California State University, ChicoFall 2014 Issue

Faculty in Focus

Robin Jeffries

In his 2014 fall convocation, President Paul Zingg announced that California State University, Chico plans to hire 100 tenure-track faculty over the next three years, and 37 of them have already hit the ground running. Drawn from near and far—UC Davis to Berklee College of Music in Spain—new faculty have been added to each of CSU, Chico’s seven colleges. 

Their names already appear in print, exploring bereavement experiences (Janell Bauer, Journalism), social entrepreneurship (Colleen Robb, Management), and the use of robotics to aid stroke patients (Matt Simkins, Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering and Sustainable Manufacturing).

Like their colleagues, the three featured here—Robin Jeffries (Mathematics and Statistics), Tal Slemrod (Education), and Darin Haerle (Political Science)—enrich their classrooms with their research. Jeffries applies computing and statistical skills to big data analysis; Slemrod uses iPod Touches to make science education accessible; Haerle links current brain science research and rehabilitation possibilities for youth offenders. Each in their own unique way, they provide Chico State students with the tools and opportunities to make a difference in the world.

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Taking on Big Data

Big data—huge quantities of information collected by businesses and the government on everyone and everything—is all around us. And while “some of this might sound a bit creepy,” says Fortune magazine’s David J. Kappos, if proper quality and use standards can be developed, big data has the promise to be a “huge creator of value.”

Enter biostatistician and new faculty member Robin Jeffries. As CSU, Chico moves to be at the forefront of training professionals in big data’s proper quality and use, the Chico native has come home to help develop a cross-disciplinary data science program at her alma mater. Data science, Jeffries explains, is “an application of statistics for efficiently extracting practical knowledge” from vast quantities of information in order to respond effectively to “real-life situations and answer real-life questions in any field you can think of.”

How did you get into data science and biostatistics?

I started out at Butte College as a biology major, but I kept taking math mainly because it was moderately easy and I had friends in those classes. When calculus instructor Alice Neath told me I should take statistics, I did and immediately fell in love with the application of mathematics in the real world. Later, after I transferred to Chico State [BS, Mathematics and Biological Sciences, ’05], chemistry professor David Ball told me that a field called “biostatistics” was a real thing.

I kept getting sucked into the usefulness of the field. People come up with great ideas, and I love being able to apply my statistical expertise to help them answer their questions. While earning my doctorate in public health at UCLA, specializing in biostatistics, I worked with HIV epidemiologists and the LA County public health department to implement and evaluate a teen pregnancy prevention program—very interesting projects.

What do you find most exciting about your current work?

What I get to do now that I’m at Chico State excites me a lot. The CSU system has always been about preparing students to have the skills needed to be competitive in the job market or graduate school. These days, companies are throwing money at people who have the skills to bring organization and meaning to information, to help companies come up with informed and moneymaking decisions about products or services. But only in the past year or two have there been educational programs that provide training in those specific skills.

It’s Chico State’s turn to find its approach to this emerging field, and that’s where I come in. My hire was part of Chico’s response to this growing need. We’ll be looking at other college models, seeing what types of programs are being put forth. What has worked, and what hasn’t? Should we offer an entire degree, a minor, or just a certificate? Can we add to existing courses or do we need to build the program from the ground up? We want to give students the skills to manage, search, analyze, and predict using vast amounts and types of data, but we should also educate them on privacy and intellectual property laws, along with ethics regarding personal information—such as having them complete a HIPAA training course on health information privacy laws.

How do you plan to excite students about getting into data science?

In data science, the concentration is on a third field (biology, economics, marketing, hydrology) where computer science and statistics provide the needed tools to effectively answer emerging questions in the chosen field. Ideally our program would recruit students from all over campus, bringing their field-specific knowledge to the table, moving students out of solely department-specific boxes. I want to try to find ways to get students to start asking their own questions, exploring the data on their own, being their own investigators.

Tons of academic fields and thousands of companies are producing and collecting so much data in so many different forms that human beings can’t keep up with how to make sense of the “data deluge” and what to do with it. Hal Varian, the chief economist at Google, remarked in a 2009 New York Times interview that “the sexy job in the next 10 years will be statisticians.” Here we are five years later and everyone wants to be “sexy.” Everyone wants to hire a data scientist, or someone who knows data analytics or who can handle big data.

Do you have a secret ambition?

To travel to Okinawa with my karate dojo family and train under the grandmaster.

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Tal Slemrod

Forging Campus Collaborations

Kids are “fascinating, inspiring, often hilarious, and amazing,” says new faculty member Tal Slemrod. The special education professor, who in addition to his doctorate in special education also holds a master’s degree in environmental biology, has already begun forging collaborations with campus colleagues and community members. As Slemrod explains, the School of Education provides a supportive environment where he can bring together his expertise—and passion—in science, technology, and education to benefit students of all ages. 

How did you first become interested in this area of research?

I love science and all of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects. Growing up, I always thought I’d become a scientist of some sort, but during my master’s program, my enjoyment of teaching led me to become a high school science teacher. Once in the classroom, I found a calling to support my struggling students—especially my students with disabilities. But I discovered there were few teaching resources and little research on science learning for students with disabilities. My passion led me to earn my doctorate focused on discovering effective and engaging ways to solve that.

Given those challenges, what keeps you going?

First and foremost, I always try to remember why I am here; I keep some of my former high school students’ work, cards, and pictures on my office wall or in my desk drawer. They were and are my inspiration.

I think the greatest challenge is also what I find most intriguing about my research: There is so much to learn. Only a handful of other researchers are studying science and special education. I aim to show that students can learn science in new, fun ways that best suit their own learning styles. It’s a challenge I enthusiastically accept.

Another highlight is that my research lets me collaborate across disciplines. I have begun to work with faculty in science education and to have great conversations with faculty in child development. I hope to expand my collaboration to the other STEM subjects as well.

How do you bring that research enthusiasm into the classroom?

In the School of Education, where teaching and research go hand in hand, I have support to research practical applications in the field, develop partnerships in the community, and bring those experiences into the classroom—which to me is essential in supporting our teacher candidates to become the best teachers they can be. For example, my current research is on how to incorporate iPod Touches into learning science vocabulary in a way that not only increases a student’s academic skill but also is fun and engaging. I’ve begun to see some amazing results that have not only benefited the high school students and teachers that I work with but also can now be used by my teacher candidates in their classrooms for years to come.

Do you have a secret ambition?

I wouldn’t say my ambition is a secret: to create academic interventions and programs that revolutionize education to support all of our students, especially those who typically struggle.

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Advocating for Juvenile Justice

Criminal justice professor Darin Haerle brings to CSU, Chico a conviction of  “the need to include socio-legal perspectives in criminological work.” Although California, like the rest of the country, has increasingly moved juvenile offenders to adult courts for trial and sentencing, recent legislation has the state now shifting many offenders to the county level for probation or incarceration. Haerle believes this shift, coupled with recent Supreme Court decisions that appreciate research in psychology and neuroscience, opens opportunities “to move juvenile justice in the right direction,” back toward the rehabilitative ideal to provide young offenders access to better rehabilitative resources.

How did you come to focus on prison systems and youth?

My undergrad work was in kinesiology and psychology. But working as a group living counselor with juvenile offenders opened my eyes to the often frustrating and convoluted state juvenile justice system. I gained an appreciation for the challenges these youth face, most of whom were really just dealt a bad hand, bounced around in foster care and into incarceration facilities with minimal understanding of the complex legal system in which they found themselves. I’ve seen struggling youth work to rehabilitate themselves, and I believe it to be possible with the right resources. Now I actually have the opportunity to connect those professional experiences to research and to teach others how to hopefully make the justice system more just.

What do you find most exciting about your research and teaching?

I find it exciting that juvenile justice has received attention from the U.S. Supreme Court. Beyond banning the juvenile death penalty in 2005, two recent judgments have now opened conversation acknowledging the diminished capacity of youth and the importance of empirical research in judicial decisions.

I was trained that no matter what our perspective, liberal or conservative, empirical research drives advocacy. There’s no way to study the concept of diminished capacity for juveniles if we have no knowledge of why juveniles behave differently from adults. For example, neuroscience findings indicate that the brain’s prefrontal cortex (where risk-taking behaviors are processed) isn’t fully developed until people are about 25. Further, the adolescent brain is still malleable—something rehabilitation programs can capitalize on.

My first semester here, I’ve gotten to teach a research methods course, which lets me share the importance of coming face-to-face with the topic or population that you aim to study and understand. Most of these undergraduates are within a few years of being juveniles themselves, so they can easily grasp the gravity of a juvenile being transferred to adult court and receiving a sentence of 23 years to life for a crime he committed at 14 or 15. I look forward to facilitating internships and research projects in Butte County to provide my students with a bridge between the classroom and the “real” world.

What is the greatest challenge for you in your current research?

Patience. Seriously, your hard work in grad school gives you so many great ideas and ambitions. Then you get to start a job that you love, but at the same time, it’s unbelievably difficult to find time to kick off new and exciting projects—all the while knowing these projects will take time to produce results. I need a Post-it on my wall to remind me that patience is a virtue.

Do you have a secret ambition?

To save the world, one struggling youth at a time. As naively optimistic as that may sound, it’s the truth.

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Helping New Faculty Thrive

The heart of a university’s reputation is its academic reputation. And the foundation of a university’s academic reputation is its faculty.” With these words, CSU, Chico President Paul Zingg welcomed the university community to the start of the 2014–2015 academic year. Just as important as making great hires, Zingg added, is “signaling to our new faculty, our current faculty, and our future faculty that this University will choose excellence in the ranks of its faculty and dedicate the resources necessary to build and sustain it.”

An expanded Faculty Development Program, run by Interim Director Kate McCarthy, is one such resource. McCarthy is taking a “grassroots,” collaborative approach to supporting new and established faculty, she explains, initiating new, University-wide components as well as building on existing services like the E-Learning Academy, which helps faculty integrate the latest technology into their teaching. Peer mentoring, another revitalized program, links the newest members of each college with a tenured colleague, like Chris Fosen (Department of English, College of Humanities and Fine Arts), who is meeting with the four new HFA faculty monthly to answer questions and share ideas “about working with students and student writing.”

For students, professors, and administrators, the Chico experience encompasses more than just the campus, so faculty orientation sessions also provide what McCarthy calls a “zoom in, zoom out” tour. The usual practical elements (where to get copies made, etc.) are, of course, covered, but experiences like a hike in Upper Bidwell Park introduce new faculty to other elements making up the “sense of place” that makes this university and town special. 

That Chico is a special place didn’t come as news, however, to a number of these recently hired faculty: Nine are themselves Chico alums. College of Agriculture faculty member and alumna Kasey DeAtley (BS, Animal Science, ’05) says, “I loved my Chico experience. As a student, I worked at the University Farm, conducted individual research, and was involved in four clubs. But it was the enthusiasm, compassion, commitment, and high expectations of the faculty that made me want to come back as a team member. There was always a feeling of family in the College of Agriculture, and I wanted to be a part of that. Now I am and couldn’t be happier!”

A few days before the start of the fall semester, the new faculty were welcomed by President Paul Zingg (left) and Provost Belle Wei (third from right). The CSU, Chico alums who joined the faculty this year are David Alexander (’92) and Matt Simkins (’04), both Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering and Sustainable Manufacturing; Kasey DeAtley (’05), Agriculture; Robin Jeffries [see page 12] and Christopher Marks (’99), both Mathematics and Statistics; Carl Pittman (’78), Nursing; Michael Smith (’07), Kinesiology; Laura Sparks (’04, ’08), English; and Anne Kinney Stephens (’02), Science Education.
For more on this year’s new faculty, including their names and departments, go to www.csuchico.edu/inside/2014-09-08/bigpicture-1.shtml.