Sepehr Vakil Wins CAREER Award

Sepehr Vakil Wins CAREER Award

Sepehr VakilNorthwestern University’s Sepehr Vakil received the Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the agency’s most prestigious honor for promising young academics.

The CAREER Award supports junior faculty members who have already demonstrated strong leadership as both a teacher and scholar through a combination of outstanding research and education.

Vakil, assistant professor of learning sciences in the School of Education and Social Policy, is particularly interested in the intersection of technology and equity. He will receive $672,379 over five years from NSF’s Division of Human Resource Development to design and study innovative learning environments that encourage students to explore issues at the intersections of race, ethics, politics, and technology.

As part of the project, Vakil and his team will bring together undergraduates from Northwestern and local high school students from Evanston and Chicago to critically explore how new technologies such as artificial intelligence shape the experiences of communities of color.

Vakil argues that while there is much research on diversity issues in STEM, few studies have explicitly considered how students construct identities in relation to the ways in which ethics and political values are conveyed in engineering and computer science learning experiences.

“There needs to be a lot more conversation in the education sphere around the broader purposes and values in STEM,” he says. “Who is it for and why are we developing it?”

Vakil’s family moved to the United States in 1986 from Iran, where his mother, now a medical doctor, treated victims of mustard gas during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

After moving to the Bay Area in 2011 from Southern California, where he studied electrical engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles, Vakil co-founded an after-school STEM outreach program called Oakland Science and Mathematics Outreach (OSMO).

At OSMO, he helped students develop important digital literacy skills by fostering their awareness about the power and privilege of technology, and teaching them how to use newfound technical tools for social change.

Before coming to Northwestern, Vakil was assistant professor at the University of Texas, Austin. In 2018, he received a National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral fellowship to conduct a historical and comparative study examining undergraduate students of color experiences in engineering and computer science majors.

Vakil hopes his research findings will “broaden how we understand identity processes in STEM contexts” and spark efforts to “rethink the ethical, moral, and political dimensions of engineering and computer science education.”

Vakil was one of three Northwestern University assistant professors to win the award. Other recipients include Nicholas Diakopoulos, assistant professor of communication studies in the School of Communication and director of the Computational Journalism Lab; and Yevgenia Kozorovitskiy, assistant professor of neurobiology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Chemistry of Life Processes Institute.

Kiakopoulos will receive $549,562 over five years from NSF’s Division of Information and Intelligent Systems to develop tools to advance the practice of computational journalism.

Kozorovitskiy was awarded $824,670 over five years from NSF’s Division of Integrative Organismal Systems to map the proteomic landscape of neural systems, work that can be applied to a broad range of cells.

SESP Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Awards from NSF
2019: Sepehr Vakil, Northwestern University
2016: Melissa Luna (PhD13) West Virginia University
2015: Michael Horn, Northwestern University.
2014: Michelle Wilkerson (PhD12), University of California, Berkeley
2011: Victor Lee (PhD08), Utah State University
2011: Ravit Golan Duncan (PhD06), Rutgers University
2011: Paulo Blikstein (PhD09), Columbia University

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 3/21/19