“Austin is a pioneering doctoral student in the field of human-AI interaction. His research has the potential to help design bots that can provide social support for people who need it.” – Ethan Chetkov, Visiting Assistant Professor, Communication Studies
• Hometown: Holland, MI
• Faculty mentor/advisor: Dr. Kate Magsamen-Conrad, Associate Professor, Communication Studies, and Affiliate Member, Holder Comprehensive Care Center; and Dr. Andrew C. High, Associate Professor of Communication, The Pennsylvania State University
• What is your degree program and expected graduate date? PhD in Communication, Summer 2022
• Please describe your research: I research how social support is facilitated through (and with) technology. My focus is the growing trend of supportive human-machine communication (SHMC), the human use of socially interactive technologies (e.g., chatbots, A.I.) to seek and receive resources to buffer stress. My dissertation examines message and support provider characteristics in order to determine how, why, what, and when machine agents impair or improve supportive conversations.
• In simple terms, why does this research matter? With the presence of A.I., chatbots, and other interactive technology continues to expand, I believe growing a richer perspective of how humans interact with such technologies will contribute to applied understandings about what could make them more effective, equitable, and inclusive.
• How soon after starting at the University of Iowa were you able to participate in research? Immediately – I have published several papers in my time at Iowa, and am a Fellow in the Communication and Social Robotics Labs (www.combotlabs.org).
• How has being involved in research made you more successful at the University of Iowa? It has strengthened me as an educator in my field. I have taught several semesters of Social Scientific Research Methods in Communication (COMM 1305), and it’s fantastic to be able to use my OWN examples in class! I’m thrilled that as a TA, I can give my students a perspective on research they might only have from full-time faculty at other institutions.
• What are your career goals and/or plans after graduation? I hope to continue my research and teaching career as a tenure-track professor.
• Does your research have connections to or implications for COVID-19? Please explain. COVID-19 accelerated the phenomena I study. With more people working from home, more interaction is occurring through and with technology (e.g., Zoom). If you’re talking to another human, it’s likely to be a virtual interaction. When coupled with supply and labor shortages, this has created an environment where and in some cases you may not be talking to a human at all. It’s the perfect time to expand our understanding of how we as humans make sense of these emerging communicative contexts.
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