PhD Candidate in Technology and Social Behavior
Diego Gómez-Zará is a PhD candidate in Technology and Social Behavior, a joint program in Computer Science and Communication. Diego is a member of the Science of Networks in Communities (SONIC) research group led by Professor Noshir Contractor. In 2020, he received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Dissertation Grant and a Microsoft Research Dissertation Grant. He is also president of the Northwestern Tango Club.
How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
I study how people use online platforms to assemble teams. We now live in a world full of digital assistants, recommender systems, and artificial intelligence. Can we use them to make better teams? My goal is to study how people search for, invite, and create teams using online platforms. Although algorithms can assemble teams according to our skills and personalities, most people prefer to have the power to choose their own teammates. For that reason, I study how online platforms can help us create more efficient and diverse teams by overcoming obstacles such as prejudices, discrimination, and lack of social connections with others. I envision systems that provide opportunities for those who are less socially connected by enabling the formation of teams with members that would not have met otherwise.
What have been some of the most memorable twists and turns of your career?
In 2018, we conducted an experiment to see if a team recommender system could help people assemble diverse teams by showing them how diverse their peers were. We found counterintuitive results: showing users information about diversity affected their perceptions and made them choose similar teammates rather than those who could increase their teams’ diversity. That experiment inspired new questions and motivated me to understand discrimination and segregation in online spaces. Now, I have a new lens—a more social one—to understand how online platforms are reconfiguring our groups and relationships and, sometimes, reinforcing our biases.
What is a mistake you have learned from in your career?
A big mistake I made was isolating myself from others. Ideas and research can only get better by talking, sharing, and listening to other scholars, students, and professors. I used to work only based on my own ideas, but I learned that those ideas can improve remarkably after attending a conference, participating in a workshop, or having conversations with your research peers.
Whom do you admire in your field and otherwise, and why?
I admire my advisers, Professors Noshir Contractor and Leslie DeChurch. They are collaborating with the NASA’s Artemis mission, which plans to send the first woman and the next man to the Moon by 2024 and then on to Mars. Beyond our Northwestern community, I admire Professors Melissa Valentine and Michael Bernstein from Stanford University, who are exploring how computers can augment teamwork.
In 2010, while I was finishing my undergraduate studies in Chile, I visited Chicago with the idea of starting a graduate program in the future. Northwestern was the first university that I visited in the U.S. My family and I took the “L” and arrived at Davis Street. After one afternoon of exploring, we loved the campus, the lake, and the city of Evanston. I imagined myself studying on that campus in the future, without knowing that I would start a PhD program six years later. Northwestern is well known in my country and that motivated me to come here. My adviser’s support was also essential. He was key to my final decision. At Northwestern, I have found a community that allows me to be the best version of myself.
How do you unwind after a long day?
A 5k run or dancing helps me clear my mind. Before COVID, I took tango lessons every quarter at Northwestern.
What advice would you give your younger self or someone considering a similar path?
Enjoy your time with your friends and family. Try not to work when you’re spending time with them. In the winter of 2018, I was visiting my parents in Santiago, Chile. I had to submit a paper after the holidays. I spent several days working on the paper, sacrificing the time with the people I care about most. Four months later, the paper was rejected. Was working on that paper during the holidays worth it? No. I realized that time is something you can never get back. Enjoy your time with your loved ones and establish clear boundaries between your life and your work.
Tell us about a current achievement or something you're working on that excites you.
I recently got funding for my research experiments. Last year, I did not have enough money to conduct a large-scale experiment planned for my dissertation. During the winter, I applied and got two grants; one from NSF and one from Microsoft Research. I was so excited. In addition to making it possible to conduct experiments, having this financial support is both a special recognition and a validation of our ideas.
Published: January 26, 2021
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