Rutgers Names FASN Professors to Henry Rutgers University Professorship and Term Chair

Lawrence Lerner

Two Rutgers University–Newark professors, both from the Faculty of Arts & Sciences, recently received coveted distinctions from the university.

Lee Slater, of Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences (EES), was appointed Henry Rutgers University Professor (in Geophysics)—the second RU-N faculty member to receive this honor—while Patrick Shafto, of the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, became RU-N’s first Henry Rutgers Term Chair (in Data Science).

The Henry Rutgers University Professorships and Term Chairs are among the major initiatives announced by Rutgers President Robert Barchi as part of the University’s Strategic Plan, a five-year blueprint released in 2014. The goal: to establish two initial groups of chairs “to augment faculty excellence build on Rutgers’ strengths,” according to Barchi.

Slater came to RU-N in 2002 and has held several leadership posts within EES, including graduate program director and chairperson.

In his research, he uses geophysical imaging methods to investigate the structure and processes occurring in the shallow subsurface of the earth commonly referred to as the “critical zone,” a living, breathing, constantly evolving boundary layer where rock, soil, water, air and living organisms (including humans) interact.

Such imaging allows geophysicists to examine groundwater resources and pollution issues, interactions of rivers and streams with groundwater, and the exchange of carbon gasses (e.g., methane) from the earth's subsurface to the atmosphere.

“This appointment is a very unexpected honor that I’m grateful for, and partly attribute to the incredible hard work of many outstanding Ph.D. students that I've been fortunate to work with during my career here,” says Slater. “This is meaningful for many reasons, one being that it recognizes Rutgers University–Newark as an important center of expertise in near-surface geophysics at an international level.”

Shafto, who arrived at RU-N this fall from the University of Louisville, has research interests at the intersection of computer science, psychology, and education. He runs a Cognition and Data Science Lab, which is developing tools to facilitate human learning and decision-making, while also advancing machine learning.

He says that data science brings together statistics and computer science to handle many kinds of data—numbers, text, images, video, audio—and to solve problems within and across domains. He sees his field as a prime opportunity to break down old divisions between academic disciplines, citing its wide application to not only areas that are currently leveraging it (business, hard sciences, geography, criminology, psychology, etc.) but also to the humanities, social sciences and fine arts.

“My role is partly that of evangelist, because this can be useful to scholarship in many research disciplines,” says Shafto. “At the same time, we need to educate students to enter a world that’s very different from the one we grew up in, one of algorithms, data and computer programming merging with daily existence, as it’s already doing with Google, Facebook, Amazon, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight and the like.”

In his inaugural year, Shafto is splitting his time between his lab, which is staffed with one Ph.D. student and four post-docs, and establishing cross-disciplinary partnerships. He’s also thrilled to be at RU-N and for the opportunity the Henry Rutgers Term Chair has given him.

“My work is interdisciplinary, and this term chair is focused on building on interdisciplinary research, and so I’m grateful to be here,” he says. “There’s also a lot of excitement in building data science, both from within RU-N and outside the university. It’s fun to be a part of.”

In line with its Strategic Plan, the university earmarked five each of the University Professorships and Term Chairs for the first year, with plans to expand to 30 University Professorships and 25 Term Chairs over the next five years, as funds become available.

Proposals for recruitment areas were solicited in spring 2014 and selected after evaluation by Executive Vice President Richard L. Edwards and the chancellors of Rutgers University–Newark, Rutgers University–Camden, and Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences.

Recruitment areas for the initial University Professorships include arts and humanities; earth, marine and coastal, and atmospheric sciences; emergency and disaster preparedness; big data; and bioethics
For the initial Term Chairs, recruitment areas overlap the Professorships for strategic purposes and include big data; ethics and bioethics; global health; digital filmmaking; and Hispanic and Latino/a Studies

“We are thrilled that the university is supporting us and that we are supporting the university with these two appointments in areas critical to the sciences and the strategic plan,” says FASN Dean Jan Lewis. “These appointments have given us the opportunity to recognize one of our faculty stars, Lee Slater, and to recruit an emerging star, Patrick Shafto. And because both are outstanding collaborators, these appointments will reverberate throughout our school.”


Photos: (top) Professor Lee Slater; (bottom) Professor Patrick Shafto