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News Release

Q&A with UC San Diego Electrical Engineering Professor Pam Cosman

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Pamela Cosman, professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering

San Diego, Calif., May. 7, 2019 --  Following a string of awards and honors, University of California San Diego electrical engineering professor Pamela Cosman spent some time on a Q&A for the general public that touches on her research; diversity, equity and inclusion; and advice for students.

In March, Cosman formally accepted the Diversity Award from the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Heads Association. This annual national award is given to departments or individuals “in recognition of proactive efforts to increase cultural, ethnic, and gender diversity within the ECE (Electrical and Computer Engineering) student body and among ECE faculty, that go well beyond and above the normal institutional recruiting practices.”

Also in 2019, Cosman was honored with the inaugural Dr. John and Felia Proakis Chancellor Faculty Fellowship. She took home a 2017 Pinnacle Award from Athena and a 2016 UC San Diego Diversity Champion award. 

Cosman specializes in data compression and image/video processing and is a Fellow of the IEEE, among many other professional accomplishments. From September 2013 to December 2016, she served as the Associate Dean for Students at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering. As Associate Dean for Students, Cosman won the 1st NSF S-STEM grant of the Jacobs School; this 5-year award provides fellowships and academic support to low-income undergraduate students.  She regularly engages with K-12 classrooms and with Girl Scouts to introduce kids to electrical engineering. As Faculty Equity Adviser for the Jacobs School, Cosman won a California grant for advancing faculty diversity, and she educates faculty search committees on best hiring practices.  As Co-Director of the Center for Research on Gender in Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, and Medicine (CRG-STEMM), she studies faculty hiring processes, career assessment tools, and experiences of minority graduate students in STEM fields. Her work has led to positive change within her home department of electrical and computer engineering, throughout the Jacobs School of Engineering, and across UC San Diego. 

In the Q&A below, Cosman provides some insights on her research; her work in diversity, equity and inclusion; as well as some general advice for students.

 

What research question or questions are you most interested in these days?

On the electrical engineering side, which is about 90 percent of my research, I've gotten involved with algorithms for assessing behavior in individuals with autism spectrum disorder. Recently, I've been most interested in eye-tracking and machine learning and computer vision techniques for quantitative evaluation of gaze behavior.  I’ve also been working on energy-constrained wireless communications, and on machine learning for cognitive radios, in which some users may not get assigned radio spectrum and so they have to sense the spectrum and opportunistically make use of radio bands that are temporarily free of traffic.

Related research: “Characterizing Joint Attention Behavior during Real World Interactions using Automated Object and Gaze Detection,” in 2019 ACM Symposium on Eye Tracking Research & Applications, June 2019. Authors: Pranav Venuprasad, Tushal Dobhal, Anurag Paul, Tu N.M. Nugyen, Andrew Gilman, Pamela Cosman, and Leanne Chukoskie.

On the sociology side, which is 10 percent of my research, I've been looking at gender effects in interruptions of job talks, and at how speakers are introduced. There are differences in how women get introduced. I've also recently been studying career assessment tools, which are questionnaires that attempt to assess aptitudes and interests and that suggest possible careers and majors.  

Related research: “Gender in Engineering Departments: Are there Gender Differences in Interruptions of Academic Job Talks?,” Social Science, Volume 6, Issue 1, 2017. Authors: Mary Blair-Loy, Laura E. Rogers, Daniela Glaser, Y.L. Anne Wong, Danielle Abraham, Pamela C. Cosman.

 

Would Pam Cosman from ten years ago be surprised by your 2019 answer to the first question?

Even though most of my engineering research is in video compression and wireless communications, I've always had an interest in video processing related to healthcare, since the days when I was an undergraduate trying to decide between going to medical school or doing a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. So I would not be surprised at this current project, although the specific application to autism is new for me. As for the sociology work, I think the Pam Cosman from ten years ago would be very surprised to find that I'm doing any sociology research at all.

 

You work in many different capacities to increase the number of women who are engineering professors. Are there insights you’ve gleaned over the years in the areas of engineering faculty diversity, equity and inclusion that you still find yourself explaining over and over again?

Many engineers and scientists think of themselves as very objective people and not susceptible to biases. But there are a number of studies which show that scientists have gender biases in hiring. For example, there are studies with matched pairs of CVs which differ only in the gender of the candidate's name. And also the seemingly objective measures of quality which we use in hiring and promoting faculty are in fact very flawed and biased. So I do find myself explaining these things to engineering faculty many times over the years.

One important article is: “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students,” by C.A. Moss-Racusin, J.F. Dovidio, V.L. Brescoll, M.J. Graham, and J. Handelsman PNAS October 9, 2012 109 (41) 16474-16479.

 

Undergraduates studying engineering are often encouraged to get involved outside the classroom, and to join teams, organizations, groups, research labs, outreach efforts etc.  For some students, the big challenge is that they don’t feel they have time “to do it all” due to coursework and studying as well as work and family obligations, etc. Do you have any suggestions for engineering students who are pulled in many different directions and may be starting to doubt themselves?

Coursework comes first, since that is the scaffolding which enables all the later engineering endeavors. And of course working some number of hours may be required to pay for college, and family obligations are important. But then joining teams and organizations and research labs and outreach efforts can all take fourth place, or can wait until later years once you've established good grades and study groups and are on top of all the material. In some ways this resembles the pattern for faculty members, since a new assistant professor has to focus on establishing their research and teaching, and only later on does the faculty member get involved in mentoring student orgs or doing outreach efforts and so forth. I do vastly more outreach and service work now as a senior professor than I did 20 years ago.

 

Do you have any “habits for professional success” that have served you well and that you’d like to share with others?

I have an organization system that works for me, with a short-term to-do list that I look at and prioritize every day, and a long-term to-do list that I look at about twice a month. One method I use for tackling some tasks is pre-commitment that involves another person. For example I'll set a meeting for the next day to discuss a paper or a proposal, and then I'm committed to getting that item done before the meeting, so that I don't let the other person down. There are definitely a lot of different strategies and tricks for time management and for organization, and students should put some deliberate effort into learning about different methods and figuring out what works best for them.

Media Contacts

Daniel Kane
Jacobs School of Engineering
858-534-3262
dbkane@ucsd.edu