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Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
April 15, 2008
DeKalb, Ill. — Mohsen Pourahmadi in the Division of Statistics and John Skowronski in the Department of Psychology have been awarded 2008 Presidential Research Professorships, NIU’s top recognition for outstanding research.
“Drs. Pourahmadi and Skowronski are widely regarded as top scholars in their respective fields,” said Rathindra Bose, vice president for research and dean of the NIU Graduate School.
“They are passionate in their quest for knowledge, and their cutting-edge work attracts international attention,” he added. “We’re proud to have them at the head of their respective classrooms in statistics and psychology in transmitting new knowledge to students that they have gathered through research. Ultimately, students, peers in their disciplines and society benefit from their work.”
The Presidential Research Professorships have been awarded annually since 1982 in recognition and support of NIU’s research and artistic mission. Award winners receive special financial support of their research for four years, after which they carry the title of Distinguished Research Professor.
Here’s a look at this year’s award winners.
Predicting the seemingly unpredictable
Life is full of uncertainties, but less so, thanks to Mohsen Pourahmadi.
A professor of statistics, Pourahmadi develops mathematical tools that other researchers can use to predict future events with more certainty – from snowstorms to earthquakes. His elegant theories, statistical analyses and complex algorithms also help researchers mine valuable information from massive data sets, thus providing insights into such areas as genetics, engineering, finance, medicine and climate change.
“Mohsen is a scholar of tremendous accomplishment,” says Presidential Research Professor Nader Ebrahimi, a colleague in the NIU Division of Statistics. “What distinguishes him from most other scholars is his ability to cut across disciplinary boundaries and apply interesting ideas to a variety of subjects.”
Growing up in Iran, Pourahmadi excelled in mathematics in high school. In college, he was drawn to statistics.
“I enjoy the applied aspect of it,” he says. “Statistics can be used to shed light on some of the uncertainties that are prevalent everywhere in life.”
Today, Pourahmadi is known internationally for his research in the areas of prediction theory, time series analysis and longitudinal data analysis. He publishes on average three research articles a year in top scholarly journals and in 2001 authored an influential book bridging his areas of study using basic geometrical and regression-like techniques. His work has revived interest in these fields among scholars worldwide.
More recently, he succeeded in overcoming a previously unresolved mathematical obstacle in longitudinal data analysis. The work is important in such areas as medical and social studies, because it enables researchers to understand and harness the power of correlation in repeated measurements over time.
Based on his accomplishments, Pourahmadi last year was named a fellow of the American Statistical Association, an honor given annually to no more than one-third of 1 percent of ASA members. He also is an elected member of the prestigious International Statistics Institute.
“Mohsen has carried the Northern Illinois statistics banner with distinction,” says Richard A. Davis, Howard Levene Professor of Statistics at Columbia University in New York. “He has developed an international reputation as one of the leading experts in time series analysis. He has made deep and fundamental contributions to statistics.”
His services in high demand, Pourahmadi travels frequently, collaborating with researchers in Asia and Europe. He has served as a visiting scholar at Kuwait University and Hokkaido University in Japan and has presented invited talks at more than 50 conferences and institutions worldwide. His work also has attracted significant funding from the National Science Foundation, National Security Agency and U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research.
Pourahmadi earned his Ph.D. from Michigan State University and began his career at NIU in 1981. He served as Division of Statistics director from 1994 to 2001 and now teaches undergraduate and graduate courses.
“In my mind, the importance of research to teaching is like that of being fit to good living. Research helps to motivate and bring out the history and vitality of topics discussed in the classroom,” Pourahmadi says.
When he's not teaching, Pourahmadi is often working with graduate students and collaborators on ideas that could lead to either new or improved theories or statistical methods.
“I work at home or away, and whenever or wherever ideas present themselves,” he says. “At times, such work habits make my family wonder, but I think that’s typical of people who have a passion for what they do. A researcher is like a hunter who does not mind going at it early in the morning or late at night. Usually, the more unpredictable and harder the terrain, the higher the reward.”
Digging into memories
In grade school, a priest visiting John Skowronski’s Chicago parish labeled him a hooligan. Today, social psychologists around the world label him as a leading researcher in the arena of social cognition.
The misunderstanding that earned him the first label (Skowronski’s failure to answer the priest was thanks to daydreaming, not belligerence as the priest assumed) helped lead to the second: Much of Skowronski’s research has explored why and how people form their (often faulty) opinions about others.
His early examination of biases in social judgments contributed to a new theoretical perspective on social judgments and influenced many other researchers. More recently, his work has increased understanding of the spontaneous impressions that people generate about others, how those impressions can be measured and the aftereffects of their formation.
Skowronski also explores autobiographical memory, trying to understand why we remember some things and not others; how we place events in time; how our memories make us feel; and the role that communication has in creating our memories. He also is well-regarded for his evolution-based theoretical ideas related to the development of a sense of self in humans and for his work exploring social memory.
“John’s work is elegant, creative, important and meticulous. He is the perfect model of what a good scientist does,” says Steven Sherman, the Chancellor’s Professor of Psychology at Indiana University. “In addition to his wonderful conceptual work, he has developed important new methodologies for studying these social cognitive issues.”
Since earning his Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of Iowa in 1984, he has authored more than 75 papers, many of which have appeared in top-tier journals. He credits a wide network of collaborators for helping him to maintain that level of research activity. He also has served as an editor and reviewer for major journals, including in his current role as associate editor for the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. For several years he also served on the Social and Developmental Psychology Grant Panel at the National Science Foundation.
His work has attracted about $600,000 in research funding (a sizeable amount in a field where awards are typically small and few) and has earned an international reputation for excellence. He has lectured at universities across the United States and has frequently presented at conferences at home and abroad.
“John is not merely a contributor to his field, but is a leader, someone whose work demands attention and sets the research agenda,” says Jeffrey Sherman, a professor of psychology at the University of California-Davis and editor of the journal Social Cognition.
Skowronski often collaborates with students on research. He speaks with great pride of former undergraduate student collaborators who have earned their Ph.D. degrees and are now on university faculties. He also takes special delight in collaborating with graduate students on projects that they develop for themselves, as well as on projects related to his own research agenda. “There’s nothing better than working with a graduate student and seeing the moment when they really ‘get it,’ moving from being a student to being a collaborator and colleague,” he says.
Despite his heavy research load, Skowronski still enjoys teaching a wide variety of courses from introductory psychology to advanced courses in social cognition. In fact, he believes that teaching and research go hand-in-hand.
“I don’t know how you could be a competent instructor in this area and not be a researcher at the same time,” he says. “Things change so fast that it's the only way to keep up.”