Weatherspoon, Lewis honored for contributions to diversity

Hakim Weatherspoon, professor in the Department of Computer Science at Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science, and Neil Lewis, Jr. ’13, an assistant professor in the Communications Department of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, have been named recipients of this year’s Faculty Award for Excellence in Research, Teaching and Service through Diversity.

President Martha E. Pollack and Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff announced the awards based on nominations from students, faculty, and staff, and the recommendations of a selection committee. The recognition comes with a $15,000 prize that can be used toward research, grants, and other activities at Cornell.

“We are pleased to honor Professor Weatherspoon and Professor Lewis for the commitment, expertise and creativity they have invested in building a welcoming community at Cornell,” Pollack said. “They are committed advocates for diversity in their scholarship, mentorship and service, and the impact of their work reverberates across and beyond the university.”

Colleagues praised Weatherspoon’s involvement with the Cornell Institute for Digital Agriculture; the CMD-IT/ACM Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing, hosting the most diverse gathering in computing; and the CSMore summer program for emerging sophomores; and the role he played in encouraging undergraduate and graduate students from groups underrepresented in STEM to take computer science at Cornell.

Its reach extended beyond Cornell through the annual SoNIC Summer Research Workshop, which recruits nationally and aims to encourage students to pursue PhDs; and CodeAfrique, which encourages high school students in Ghana and Eswatini to pursue a bachelor’s degree in computer science.

“With each of these opportunities,” Weatherspoon said, “students first think of themselves as a computer science student or researcher before they actually become one, and for students from underrepresented backgrounds, this can be critical.”

Students praised Weatherspoon for being a good listener and making them feel heard.

“My primary goal with these programs and opportunities was to create spaces where students feel like they belong, giving them the confidence to succeed,” Weatherspoon said.

Weatherspoon promoted diversity at Cornell even before formal programs existed in Cornell Bower’s CIS, colleagues said. He was the college’s second associate dean for diversity and inclusion and led the search for the first director of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. He received the College of Engineering Zellman Warhaft Commitment to Diversity Award in 2014, was named Black Engineer of the Year by Modern Day Leader in 2009, and was elected a Fellow of the Society of Black Engineers in 1997.

“I began my research career at Cornell in 2006, and a long-standing goal was to be an outstanding researcher who also helped diversify student and teacher representation,” he said.

Lewis’s research examines how context and identity shape people’s perception of the world around them, and the implications for their motivation to pursue equality-enhancing goals. He also studies how these perceptions influence their willingness to build diverse coalitions to address pressing societal issues and diversify organizations that play an important role in those issues. This work has earned him three early career awards from professional organizations in the social sciences.

His publications in peer-reviewed journals have been cited 1,956 times since 2016, according to Google Scholar. In addition to his academic work, Lewis also contributes to: Thirty-FiveEight and writes the “Letters to Young Scientists” column in Science magazine

“Writing scientific journal articles is important, but that doesn’t get me out of bed in the morning,” Lewis said. “I do public grants because I think it’s important to take our work out of paywalls and share it with the world.”

Many students of color and first-generation college students turn to Lewis for support.

“Not long ago I was a college student and first-generation student at Cornell,” Lewis said. “I remember what it was like walking around in isolation and not knowing where to go or who to turn to for help. When I came back as a professor, I wanted to create spaces here where all students – not just the privileged ones – could come and be seen and heard and have the great peer experiences that we often advertise on the university website and fuel social media.”

Lewis also works with policymakers to design equitable interventions. For example, during the pandemic, he helped the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene with equitable vaccination efforts. He was also invited to brief White House staff on an adaptive intervention approach to equitable vaccination.

Launched in 2019, the Faculty Award for Excellence in Research, Teaching and Service through Diversity recognizes tenure and tenure-track faculties for their ongoing and transformative work promoting diversity through research, education and service. Nominations for recipients of the 2023 award will be solicited by the end of this year.

Lori Sonken is the communication and program manager of the Office of Faculty Development and Diversity.

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