Many people envision computer scientists as individuals who are tech driven and spend most of their time interacting with digital devices—not people, but Assistant Professor Pamela Wisniewski got into the field to help others.
“Within computer science is the intersection of technology and people,” Wisniewski says. “Tech has become so engrained in everyday life as we live and operate as a society, so I’m interested in technology because I want to help people. It’s important that we think thoughtfully about how new technologies are going to affect humanity.”
On a larger scale she is working to impact the world through her research, which primarily focuses on adolescent online safety. Since arriving at UCF in 2015, she’s made a difference in hundreds of students’ lives by serving as their mentor. Currently, she has 24 registered mentees —from post docs to undergrads — working with her this semester, as well as several other volunteers.
Through her role as director of UCF’s Socio-technical Interaction Research Lab she guides students through research projects that involve online safety interventions or developing apps that facilitate trust and communication between parents and teens. She’s also developed the User Experience (UX) Lab at UCF because she recognized that students at the university were looking to gain experience in this field but didn’t have a specific opportunity on campus dedicated to it. These students now have a chance to collaborate on projects that serve companies in the industry.
“I want to give as many students as possible the opportunity to do research and something impactful for the world,” Wisniewski says. “It also gives those who want to go to graduate school and work in a research lab the chance to gain valuable experience.”
But Wisniewski knows from first-hand experience that in order to be the best mentor she has to be invested in her students beyond their work in the classroom or research lab. In college she struggled to find good mentors and dropped out for a semester due to personal circumstances. When it came time to return to school, she had to navigate that transition on her own.
“I believe in whole-person mentorship. It’s my job to help students grow as people. I share some of my hardships with my students and they share with me when they are facing challenges,” says Wisniewski, who cares for her ill mother, her husband who has lupus and her 5-year-old daughter. “Because of that we are able to balance our work and work through it together to achieve success and develop meaningful, life-long relationships.”
One of her strongest examples of this can be seen with modeling and simulation doctoral student Karla Badillo-Urquiola ’14 ’15MS. When the two first met, Wisniewski recognized Badillo-Urquiola was an introvert. When Badillo-Urquiola began working with the professor in 2016, one of her biggest challenges was letting Wisniewski know she was pregnant.
“I was really scared to tell my advisor because in our department it’s not common for students to experience that, but she gave me a big hug and said, ‘This is something you should be happy about and it’s not something negative. We can work this out and I’m very happy for you,’ ” Badillo-Urquiola says.
The two have been able to work together to improve Badillo-Urquiola’s academic work, which focuses on online safety initiaves for foster children, and professional skills as she adapts to life a new mom with a second child on the way.
Recently she met with her former undergraduate professors and was told she seems more confident and speaks with authority now. Last year, she even won a Best Paper award at the Human Computer Interaction conference and the Academic Excellence award from the McKnight Foundation. Badillo-Urquiola also says her experiences with Wisniewski has made her into a better mentor herself as she prepares her for a career as a professor.
“When students can see that growth in themselves is being recognized by others it makes them proud and have a sense of accomplishment, and I think that’s what really matters,” Wisniewski says.
Wisniewski has been recognized with numerous accolades, including an Outstanding Mentoring honor from the McKnight Foundation; a 2019 Reach for the Stars award from UCF; and Early CAREER awards from the National Science Foundation and William T. Grant Foundation. She has also secured $2.83 million in external grant funding since coming to UCF. During that time she’s published over 65 peer-reviewed papers, many of which her students have co-authored.
When it comes to finding great mentorship, Wisniewski has a few pieces of advice for students. The first is to seek multiple mentors because each one can provide support in a different way. She suggests when reaching out for mentorship, be specific with the person you’re contacting so they can tell you’re truly engaged and know what it is you’re looking to learn from them.
“Another thing I also make sure my Ph.D. students submit a paper and get accepted to present their work at one of our primary conferences so they can get experiences outside of UCF,” Wisniewski says. “As Ph.D. students, they are competing nationally and internationally, not just locally.”
But the ability to make a difference in the world starts with the right mindset to overcome any challenges. Wisniewski models that for her students and notes that mentality which is instilled in one of UCF’ mottos.
“To me ‘Charge On’ is about balancing life, responsibilities at work and still being a good mentor to my students, while trying to make an impact on society,” Wisniewski says, “It’s hard, but if it weren’t challenging, it wouldn’t be worth doing.”
Story by Nicole Dudenhoefer ’17, UCF Today