Name: Caroline Johnston
Home town: Wilmington, MA
How does it feel to be the recipient of an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship?
I feel very grateful and privileged to have been selected as a recipient of the NSF GRFP. Many people have helped me along my academic journey both here at USC and my undergraduate institution, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, MA. It was an awesome feeling to reach out to and reconnect with old advisors/mentors to share the great news! With the support of the GRFP, I am excited to keep pursuing the research topics that are both theoretically interesting and have the potential for positive societal impact.
What is your research about?
At a high level, my research proposal revolves around the concept of using robust optimization and social choice theory to create a framework that integrates fair, diverse, equitable, and/or inclusive practices into group-decision making processes.
For example, when policymakers are selecting/implementing policies that are socially sensitive (e.g. setting bail, approving loans, etc.), how can we ensure that the ultimate policy that is implemented is not simply the policy that is favored by those with the “loudest” voices in the room? Are there certain voices in the room that should carry more “weight” than others? To this end, I plan to create a systematic framework that explores different techniques in aggregating group preferences, focusing on such issues.
What excites or inspires you most about your area of research?
My research revolves around using concepts in robust optimization (optimization under uncertainty) and fairness and equity in AI. The main reason I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. was to develop new technical ideas that can help to promote positive social change. It’s this thought that keeps me going when the going gets tough!
When did you first realize that you wanted to study engineering?
This is a bit of a funny question for me, since I’m not so sure that I think of myself as an engineer! When applying to Ph.D programs I knew that I wanted to study optimization which put me within “Industrial Engineering” departments so it’s more so a title than anything else. There’s a bit of a running joke in my family about me switching from a mathematician for my Bachelor’s degree to an engineer for my Ph.D. During my undergrad, my father, an engineer, told me that I’d never get a job with a math degree but I told him that I’d never want to be an engineer! Now I’m technically an engineer but I still have no job (at least until I receive my Ph.D)!