Pamela Wisniewski and two other UCF faculty members who use the power of technology to make the human experience better were recognized today with Reach for the Stars awards during this year’s UCF Founders Day Honors Convocation.

The award recognizes early career professionals with highly successful research and creative activity with a national impact.

This year’s recipients – Wisniewski, from the College of Engineering and Computer Science, Megan Nickels, from the College of Community Innovation and Education, and Tim Hawthorne, from the College of Sciences – have more than $8 million in sponsored research funding combined from a variety of organizations including NASA, the National Science Foundation and private foundations. But the striking part of their success cannot be measured in terms of dollars alone. The reason they were selected is because of the impact of their work.

As a human-computer interaction researcher, Wisniewski studies the interplay between technology and society. She explores how people use technology to make meaningful connections with one another, as well as ways to mitigate the dangers encountered online, such as sexual predators. She is working to determine the best methods to protect online users, especially teenagers, against such threats.

Internet-enabled technologies and social media have so much power, she says.

“I want to find ways to leverage technology to truly make a positive impact on the world – not by removing humans from the equation, but by bolstering our personal strengths, helping us connect with one another, and being more empathetic towards our loved ones and strangers,” Wisniewski says. “Technology has the power to divide, but it also has the power to connect us in ways never before possible.”

The Gainesville native has received $2.5 million in external-grant funding to support her research in privacy and online safety, including two prestigious early career awards. Wisniewski is the first computer scientist to become a William T. Grant Scholar and join in the foundation’s mission of reducing inequality in youth outcomes.

She is examining the risk and protective factors that contribute to online sexual-risk experiences of at-risk youth, particularly girls ages 12-15 who are of color, socio-economically disadvantaged, and foster youth. The goal is to design socio-technical interventions that can help youth be more resilient to sexual predator risks.

She also recently received an NSF CAREER grant to work closely with teens to co-design online safety interventions that can help them effectively manage online risks.

“The ultimate goal of both of these projects is to leverage resilience-based approaches that protect, teach and empower our youth to use the internet in beneficial ways,” she says.

She has a Ph.D. in computing and information systems, and a master’s degree in decision and information sciences.

For features on all three Reach for the Stars award recipients, see the full story by Zenaida Gonzalez Kotala on UCF Today.

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