Graduate Center Research Scholars Awarded Impressive Range of Federal Grants

September 28, 2012 | Brooklyn College, CUNY Graduate Center

In recent months, Graduate Center professors, along with the centers with which they are affiliated, have been awarded grants totaling more than $2.8 million in federal funding through the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). While many of these grants fund projects centered on the best use of technology and technologic innovations, all are designed to increase access to, and ensure the best use of, the information gathered.

The American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning (ASHP/CML). With help from the NEH, for example, this GC institute  will be able to share, through their Picturing U.S. History website, research and teaching resources drawn from the presentations of leading historians, art historians, and archivists who participated in their 2012 NEH summer institute for college and university teachers, “The Visual Culture of the Civil War.” Thanks to the $10,000 NEH subvention, supplementing the institute’s original $170,000 grant, multimedia presentations, documents, images, and other resources focusing on the war’s array of visual media—from images of fine art, photographs, and ephemera, to podcasts and video casts of lectures—will be added to the website by the end of the year.

“Altogether, in keeping with the spirit and goals of the NEH summer institutes,” says Josh Brown (Prof., History), executive director of ASHP/CML, “the website we create for the presentations and resources . . . will introduce a new and expanding body of scholarship to a much wider constituency of interested researchers and teachers—a group the dimensions of which already were indicated in the large number of applications we received.”

Center for Advanced Study in Education (CASE). Using technology in a wholly different way is a CASE project that has received an NSF-funded infrastructure grant for an interdisciplinary faculty seminar on data mining in education. Though massive amounts of personal and longitudinal performance data about students (schools attended, courses completed and dropped, GPAs, socioeconomic status, family makeup, and so on) is readily available to educational researchers, not as clear is how analysis of this information can be used to improve outcomes for those academically at risk. Are there key factors, or certain types of intervention, that matter more than others? And, once identified, how can this information then be used to improve student retention rates and grades?

With help from this $363,000 NSF grant, a research community is being developed to prototype computationally intensive analyses of large-scale educational datasets, the ultimate goal being to improve the tools and skills of the tool-users and to better understand factors related to student retention, academic success, and similar matters of great interest to educational researchers. “These questions have potentially broad social impacts,” writes co–principal investigator Paul Attewell (Dist. Prof., Sociology, Urban Education) in the grant’s project description, “but answering them depends upon researchers first improving the analytical techniques, strategies, and knowledge-base required to handle big data.” Joining Attewell as co–principal investigator is Robert Haralick (Dist. Prof., Computer Science, Engineering).

Luxembourg Income Study (LIS) Center. Also working with enormous sets of data are users of the Luxembourg Income Study (LIS) and Luxembourg Wealth Study (LWS) Databases —cross-national databases that include data, focused on income and wealth, from more than forty-five countries on six continents. The value of these data is that they are available at the “micro” level, meaning that researchers have access to the data at the level of persons and households. Critical to the best use of these microdata, says LIS director Janet Gornick (Prof., Political Science, Sociology), is the documentation, or “metadata,” that details how these microdata were originally gathered and that describes the changes applied by the LIS staff—details that are key to making meaningful socioeconomic comparisons across countries and over time. “While we have worked hard to standardize the data (across datasets) that we have,” says Gornick, “it is inevitable that, in some countries, certain variables are measured differently relative to the ideal, or standard, definition.”

Now, using NSF funding totaling $750,000 over two years, these metadata are going to be clarified and modernized. “Currently, if a researcher is studying thirty countries, she has to locate and open thirty different documents to find out how a variable—such as self-employment income or the value of one’s home—was measured in each case,” Gornick explains. “In our new system, she will be able to log into a search engine, click a button, and the definition for each variable will pop up for each country in question.”

Not only will this project enable the thousands of researchers who already work with LIS and LWS data to use both the microdata and metadata more quickly and accurately, Gornick emphasizes, but “the new infrastructure will also facilitate the use of the LIS and LWS microdata by new research communities, thereby promoting innovative social science research.”

Human Ecodynamics Research Center (HERC). Finally, the GC’s HERC, under the direction of doctoral faculty member Sophia Perdikaris (Prof., Brooklyn, Anthropology), has received funding through the NSF for three ambitious multidisciplinary projects.

Two are located in the North Atlantic. The first, with funding of about $100,000 over a year, is dedicated to salvaging critical organic remains from rapidly degrading culture deposits in Garðar, the administrative and religious center of Norse Greenland from first settlement in the eleventh century to the colony’s extinction circa 1450 CE. A second Norse-based project, with funding of approximately $1.1 million over three years, is focusing on Comparative Island Ecodynamics in the North Atlantic. This study seeks to improve scientific understanding of the complex interactions of human governance, climate change, and human environmental impact on the diverging fates of two closely related Scandinavian communities in Greenland and Iceland.

Also notable, with funding of about $500,000 over five years, is the Research Coordination Networks (RCN) project, which is devoted to examining social and environmental conditions that allow people to develop sustainable relationships with their environment on a millennial scale. RCN will showcase the work of doctoral students and network on a multidisciplinary level. The project has three parts. First, regional research teams examine aspects of ecodynamics (adaptation, resilience, periodicity in climate change, and so on) in cases ranging from prehistoric farms in the U.S. Southwest to societies rocked by explosive volcanic eruptions in ancient Central America and Mexico; then, another team concentrates on focusing the data and modeling the information; and a third team manages the aspect of the RCN project that is so crucial to its success—sustainability education. “The current global threats to future sustainability have developed over multiple human generations,” Perdikaris emphasizes. “Achieving a ‘soft landing’ for our species and planet over the next century will require another sustained intergenerational effort that is transdisciplinary and a true collaboration between policy makers, scientists, and local communities.”

The work supported by these grants complements the goals and objectives of the GC’s newly established Advanced Research Collaborative (ARC), which extends the Graduate Center’s global research and prominence as an international hub of advanced study. Specifically, ARC promotes interdisciplinary research and partners with the Graduate Center’s forty research centers, institutes, interdisciplinary committees, and other academic initiatives. Through its Distinguished Fellowship Program, a research-focused initiative, ARC will offer even more possibilities for collaboration between campus-based and Graduate Center faculty, in addition to visitors, doctoral students, and postdoctoral colleagues. Winners of these semester- or yearlong fellowships will focus on ARC’s seven areas of study: Inequality, Immigration, Digital Initiatives, Transnational Non-state Actors, Human Ecodynamics, Urban Studies, and the Humanities. Further, ARC offers support in the shape of ARC studentships to Graduate Center doctoral students pursuing research in a wide variety of disciplines as well as to postdoctoral students who have completed their initial projects.