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Scholarly pursuits
Academy rewards research and creative activity among faculty

Their research and creative interests are wide-ranging, but members of the Academy of Distinguished Scholars have at least one thing in common: passion for their work.

Take Susan Hekman: "I love being an intellectual. I love reading books, playing with ideas and solving questions. And in all my years of teaching, one thing I have found to be true is that enthusiasm, more than anything else, connects with students."

Susan Hekman
Susan Hekman, a member of the Academy of Distinguished Scholars, has written four books on feminist theory, the latest of which examines questions about gender.

Dr. Hekman, a political science professor and director of the Graduate Humanities Program, also helped establish the UT Arlington Women’s Studies Program. She researches feminist theory and has written dozens of publications and four books on the subject, the latest of which, Private Selves, Public Identities, examines the question of gender.

She has experienced an evolution of virtually no discussion of women or gender issues, to seeing those issues at the forefront of the intellectual process. "That’s been very gratifying," she said.

Hekman, who joined the faculty in 1977, received the University’s Distinguished Record of Research Award in 1998 and is a 2004 charter member of the Academy of Distinguished Scholars, which was modeled after the University’s Academy of Distinguished Teachers.

"We believe that given our research strengths and parallel emphasis on teaching, it was appropriate to develop a comparable academy to celebrate and recognize our faculty’s research distinctions," said Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Dana Dunn.

Among its goals are to advocate the importance of research and creative activity, to create a reward structure for scholars and to promote a sense of community among role-model scholars.

Members must be tenured faculty who have made sustained contributions to research and creative activity and who have won either the University’s Distinguished Record of Research or Creative Activity Award or the Outstanding Research Achievement or Creative Accomplishment Award.

"Each individual who receives the distinction is an outstanding scholar," Dr. Dunn said. "And the word ‘scholar’ was selected because we have many disciplines on campus where the focus of the scholarship is on creative work. We wanted an all-inclusive term to reflect that."

Creative, indeed. Visit www.substanceabuseprevention.org, a Web site created by social work Professor Richard Schoech, a 2004 charter member of the academy. Thanks to a three-year grant (that expires this year) from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Dr. Schoech has partnered with the Holmes Street Foundation, a drug treatment agency in south Dallas, to deliver substance abuse prevention strategies via the Internet.

"That’s what this Web site is for," he said. "It’s designed for teens, teachers, counselors and parents to supplement substance abuse prevention efforts in the home or classroom."

Schoech’s team of researchers, which includes students from the Computer Science and Engineering Department, uses streaming audio and video, interactive exercises, computer games, rap music and testimonials to help at-risk teens, ages 13-18, avoid substance abuse. Some of the Holmes Street teens helped create site content while in treatment.

Schoech’s interest in virtual communities prompted him to start the project 2 1/2 years ago. "It’s becoming more and more obvious that you can do a lot of (supplemental) social work on the Web," he said. He continues to analyze how the site might be making a difference.

This type of research bears little resemblance to the work of fellow academy member Krishnan Rajeshwar, associate dean of the College of Science and professor of chemistry and biochemistry. Dr. Rajeshwar is researching the fundamental aspects of solar energy conversion to fuels and electricity.

"We’re looking for ways to make hydrogen from sunlight and water, which can be used in cars to replace gas," he said. "But we’re looking at 50 years from now before anything we do on the lab bench can be translated into something useful."

Despite the timeline, Rajeshwar says his determination is born of a pure desire to replace fossil-based fuels and end the global climate consequences that can result from them. "That’s where solar energy conversion comes in. And hydrogen is a clean source of energy."

The Department of Energy’s Office of Basic Energy Sciences is sponsoring Rajeshwar’s research. He collaborates with scholars from a number of other disciplines, including Fred MacDonnell, associate professor of inorganic and bioinorganic chemistry; Meng Tao, associate professor of electrical engineering; and Norma Tacconi, research associate professor in the Chemistry Department.

Diane Cook, another 2004 charter member and a professor of computer science and engineering, is researching artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, data mining, robotics and parallel AI algorithms. She focuses on two primary research projects.

The first, MavHome, views a home as an intelligent agent. The home learns a model of activities and automates to meet inhabitant needs. The second project, Subdue, is a data mining algorithm that learns concepts from data represented as a graph.

Cook, who came to UT Arlington in 1992, says both projects could someday have practical applications. With MavHome, benefits should include improved comfort and lower utility costs, along with increased security.

"We’re also working with faculty at the University of North Texas School of Aging to adapt these technologies to assist aging in place," she said. "The idea of aging in place is to allow individuals to stay safely in their own homes as they face the physical limitations and challenges of aging.”

The Subdue research, meanwhile, is being used to identify threats in terrorist data.

Not only is Cook internationally known for her work, but she has helped secure more than $8 million in research grants.

"With my research, I would like to generate new methods of applying machine learning theory to really difficult problems such as automating entire environments," she said. "Moving from theoretical ideas to realizable applications is appealing."

Cook has had more than 150 technical papers published in journals and conference proceedings, has written one book and authored several book chapters, and serves as the editor for numerous publications. In 1998, a team she advised won the American Academy of Artificial Intelligence’s "Life on Mars" robotic competition.

Asked how she balances teaching and research, Cook said they both require creativity, but in different formats.

"Teaching allows me to get up in front of students and motivate them to want to learn about computer science. If I do this well, the students not only learn the material but often become great researchers that who in the other aspect of my job."

It’s that kind of passion that has distinguished these professors as the University’s top scholars.

— Susan M. Slupecki

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