By Andrew Bauld, Ryan Goodwin, Claire Stamler-Goody, Louise Lerner, and Rob Mitchum | Photos by Jean Lachat and Nancy Wong
Across the University of Chicago, a prestigious program is helping early-career faculty dig into into decolonization in Africa, the effects of human-computer interaction on privacy, and the relationship between crime and how electoral districts are drawn.
The Neubauer Family Assistant Professor Program provides support that’s essential as scholars undertake ambitious research projects early in their careers. Established in 2007 with a donation from the Neubauer family, the program includes a five-year professorship appointment and time and resources to pursue scholarly work. Neubauer professors have created a vibrant community on campus—a place where a physicist and a law scholar can feed off each other’s research.
“The Neubauer Family Assistant Professor Program provides the time and support for early-career scholars to flourish, while being part of a dynamic, intellectual community. The program brings exciting new ideas, insights and energy to UChicago, fostering the next generation of leaders in an array of fields,” said Melissa Gilliam, vice provost for academic leadership, advancement, and diversity and the Ellen H. Block Professor of Health Justice, who directs the program.
Meet current Neubauer Family Assistant Professors and learn more about their research by clicking on the names below:
Adom Getachew hasn’t been at UChicago long, but has a strong sense of the community here thanks to the Neubauer program.
“I arrived two years ago as a postdoc,” Getachew said. “The Neubauer community introduces you to a whole set of other early-career faculty across the University who I would never really have interacted with otherwise. I think, too, one of the surprising things about it is the access to upper administration. It helps me to better understand the institution and how the leadership is thinking about questions.”
Getachew said in addition to getting a better sense of the breadth of the intellectual life of the University, the resources of the Neubauer program have been invaluable in funding archival research, conference travel and research assistance for her upcoming book, Worldmaking After Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination, a study of decolonization of the British Empire in the Caribbean and Africa.
Getachew said it is an honor to have been selected for the program.
“Being recognized and selected for this, which I came to learn is very prestigious, made a difference for me as I weighed another offer,” Getachew said. “That the department nominated me for a Neubauer illustrated that it valued my work and felt that I was worth investing in.”
Experimental particle physicist David Miller has liked building things ever since he was a kid using his dad’s construction equipment in the basement workshop. Today he builds technology to study the building blocks of the universe.
Miller is part of a network of thousands of people working on the Large Hadron Collider, the 17-mile-long accelerator in Geneva, Switzerland that discovered the Higgs boson in 2012. He and his group build systems for the collider, including new detectors and better ways to select and save the most interesting data out of the million gigabytes that is generated every second during experiments. It’s all in pursuit of teasing out more information about how the universe is put together.
He said the Neubauer program helped broaden his research both financially and intellectually. For example, Miller used part of the grant as seed money to buy some prototype electronics that he thought could prove useful for the Large Hadron Collider.
“I’m now leading an initiative because I was able to jump on that area of R&D early,” he said. “It really made a dramatic difference.”
It also gave him a different perspective, over the course of dinners and presentations with other Neubauer professors. “To have to interact with and explain to and work with people from very different fields, I think, was enlightening,” he said. “It really gives you a broader view of a university.”
Jennifer Nou’s fascination with administrative law began with the knowledge that it combines big, philosophical questions about government with practical issues that affect real people.
“The air we breathe, the food we eat, the workplaces that we sit in, are all governed by the administrative state,” Nou said. “To me, the field grapples with these arid, theoretical debates in political philosophy and how they intersect with the real-life project that is the law.”
Nou’s scholarship looks at government agencies as autonomous institutions, rather than as mere subordinates to the legislative and executive branches. Currently, she is examining the statutes that govern the separations of power within different agencies—laws that, according to Nou, yield parallels to the constitutions that govern democratic nations around the world.
As a Neubauer professor, Nou has had the opportunity to connect with faculty outside the Law School, and she often finds that her colleagues in different disciplines present questions relevant to her own work.
At an event last year that brought assistant professors in the Neubauer program together, Nou attended physicist David Miller’s presentation on the construction of a particle collider. During the talk, in an effort to engage with Nou’s research, Miller charted the leadership structure within the National Science Foundation. His insights about the organization’s governance and appointments process, Nou said, were remarkably germane to her own scholarship.
“These conversations really illuminate how much you can learn from those in other disciplines,” she said.
The user-centered research of Blase Ur examines how human-computer interaction impacts password security, the collection of browsing data, and other core elements of computer security and privacy in a connected world.
Because his projects involve a mix of disciplines including cybersecurity, social sciences and law, Ur has relished the opportunity to connect with faculty and administrators across campus through the Neubauer program. As he looks to establish and expand his new SUPERgroup—Security, Usability, & Privacy Education & Research group—Ur finds bouncing ideas off other Neubauer scholars helps him find new perspectives.
“Lots of people have opinions about privacy and security and computers,” Ur said. “Often these conversations provide great insight, because as a scholar always so deep in the weeds of your own particular problems, you benefit from trying to explain what you do to someone who has no shared context.”
Regularly meeting with early-career scholars at various stages of their careers also has helped Ur make the leap from graduate student to faculty member. Hearing not only from fellow new arrivals but also from assistant professors at the end of the Neubauer program has provided valuable perspective, he said.
Interested in education research, Robert Vargas worked with a group of young people in a Chicago neighborhood to understand what was affecting their academic outcomes.
One day Vargas found the students scrambling to find rides to avoid a nearby gang initiation, and he realized how much the threat of violence was shaping their everyday decision-making. Vargas decided to address the problem from a sociological perspective.
The result was his book, Wounded City: Violent Turf Wars in a Chicago Barrio, which showed violence was most concentrated in blocks whose ward boundaries were gerrymandered—a practice of drawing electoral districts in ways that create political advantage. Vargas is now scaling up his research to look at the relationship between violence and gerrymandering on the city level across several decades, seeking to understand the depth of the relationship.
“This isn’t what I expected to do at all,” Vargas said. “But just through the process of entering the field and letting the data guide me, I arrived at this focus on politics and redistricting.”
Vargas said the program allows him the freedom to undertake these kinds of ambitious projects and take bigger risks in his research.
“The position carries a lot of responsibility, but it motivates me to want to do the best research I possibly can,” Vargas said. “It’s a real privilege to have such research opportunities through the Neubauer professorship.”
As a member of the first cohort of the program in 2008, Agnes Callard, AB’97, was honored by the support and resources that came along with the distinction. But perhaps the greatest thing she received from it was the gift of time.
In her first years as a UChicago scholar, Callard said she was floundering, trying to come up with a new version of her dissertation on the philosophical concept of the “weakness of will,”—the phenomenon of individual’s going against their better judgment.
While giving a talk at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Callard said she was presented with an objection from a graduate student that completely refuted her argument. While some early-career scholars may have been deflated, Callard was inspired.
“I had this profound sense I was onto something,” Callard said, even though she knew the graduate student was correct. “I realized that it was a good theory for something else; I just had the wrong label for it.”
That “something” was a theory on a new form of agency. Called the agency of becoming, it is the center of her upcoming book, Aspiration, which comes out in March.
“It was Neubauer which gave me space to give talks at a lot of different departments and meet new people and get their reactions,” said Callard, now an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy. “And that is part of why I was able to take on a big, new project.”
Originally published on January 3, 2018.