Macalester Today Summer 2010

isaac and senTagging and Connecting

Computer science professor Shilad Sen (far right, shown here with Isaac Sparling ’10) is jazzed about empowering people to be better online contributors. This summer he’s directing eight students on two research projects that are opening new doors in academic networking and research.

The first project advances a site called Macademia, which connects Macalester faculty members who share research interests. An elegant visualization shows that Sen shares an interest in group psychology with fellow professors Kendrick Brown and Brooke Lea, and an interest in politics with anthropology professor Arjun Guneratne. Just go to the site and play with it. Simply as a fluid graphic, it’s irresistible.

Sen and students are also working to expand that network to faculty of the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM), of which Mac is a member. A $19,000 grant from the ACM supports this work.

Faculty will describe their research with tags, and then Sen and company hope to use those tags to connect nearly 1,000 ACM faculty members. This could be a real boon for faculty researchers who are seeking collaborators. “It’s fun to build sites,” says Sen, “but the focus is on facilitating research.”

Sen, who has been at Mac for two years, had previous industry experience with companies like Thomson Legal Research and Google. He’s an expert on tagging in online communities. Many companies, such as Amazon and YouTube, which use online communities also use tagging systems.

Along with partners at the University of Minnesota, Sen recently received a four-year $1.2 million NSF grant to develop a research collaboration between Macalester and the U, with tagging systems a focus. The grant will allow Mac students to work with graduate students; the NSF and the U also hope it will encourage them to consider graduate school. “Mac students are the kind of people we want in our field,” says Sen. “They’re interested in the world and in why people do things. Our work is at the crossroads of psychology, computer science, and statistics.

“Also, they have their fingers on the pulse of online communities better than we do.”