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Alumnus Rob Capra reminds himself and others to 'look up'

2021 Distinguished Early Career Alumni Award recipient Rob Capra.
2021 Distinguished Early Career Alumni Award recipient Rob Capra.

Alumnus Rob Capra (doctorate '06) said he is encouraged by the students he sees and works with at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he currently serves as an associate professor.

Capra provided some reflections about his experiences during the Department of Computer Science annual awards banquet on April 29, where he was honored with the Distinguished Early Career Alumni Award. This distinction is conferred to an alumni whose degree was awarded within the past 15 years and who has demonstrated extraordinary leadership in the computing field in his career whether industry, government, or academia. 

“Don’t forget to look up and look at the broader picture of what is going on," shared Capra at the awards banquet. "I get it, I’m a geek, I like to put my head down and solve the problem by writing a computer program."

He further added, "And sometimes that is what we need, but sometimes life is not just an optimization problem. We need to think about how technology integrates with the world, how it integrates with people’s lives, and the impacts that our decisions as engineers and computer scientists make.”

Taking a page from his own play book, Capra emphasized the importance of having passions outside of computer science. "The strength of being in this field is to see how computer science relates to other fields," said Capra. In his current role, Capra said he is energized by the evolving trajectory of the library science field.  "I enjoy supporting people in searching for information (long-term project or topic) and there is great interest and energy around the  information retrieval community."

Best of Both Worlds

When searching for where to pursue his doctorate, he said Virginia Tech was both a draw for he and his wife due to its human computer interaction reputation, a great fit for both of their interests. "It was a perfect match as we have shared committee members and classes together," said Capra. His wife received her doctorate in industrial systems engineering with a focus on human factors. 

He credits Jack Carroll, former department head, and others in the department for a great visit to campus and welcoming both he and his wife to their new academic home. It was here that he met and found a lifelong mentor in Manuel Pérez-Quiñones, who served as an associate professor in computer science for 14 years at Virginia Tech.  The last two years of his tenure at Virginia Tech, he served as associate department head for graduate studies.

In fact, Pérez-Quiñones served as the linkage to Capra finding his way to UNC Chapel Hill, as he was affiliated with a workshop hosted by faculty members there. Both Capra and Pérez-Quiñones traveled to North Carolina to meet with members of the School of Information and Library Science. 

Upon completing his doctorate, he called on these same peers at UNC to see if they had any research funding for post-doc students. And the rest is history, as he began is post-doctorate fellowship in 2006 and now is embarking on his third year as an associate professor.

Through a people-oriented lens of information science, he teaches database and programming classes and has the benefit of working with a "really neat mix of colleagues, such as those who teach storytelling techniques. In this scope, there is also a big focus on health information.

He said he is a very lucky person as he gets to study and observe the commonalities on how people use and process information, which can take a variety of forms. 

A-ha Moments and Professional Highlights

For Capra, as an early researcher, receiving a National Science Foundation Early CAREER Award was a significant milestone. "It is a sign that the community recognizes your work," said Capra. This also propelled him to establish the Interactive Information Systems Lab and move it forward with a a colleague at UNC who also received a career award at the same time. "Having been in a great research environment at Virginia Tech, I wanted to create that same type of environment for our students."

With regards to the proverbial 'a-ha moment', Capra said it extends beyond a moment and views it as the trajectory in developing more experiences in the research methodologies that he uses.  Given the opportunity to work with a lot of people well versed in social science methods and qualitative research, Capra said he has collected a tool bag of research techniques. "As I have gone further in my career, it has become more of learning moments."

Teaching both undergraduates and graduates also gives Capra great energy. "They are bright and energetic and also the hope for our future." He has been the recipient of teaching awards while at UNC, of which he received through student nominations. He feels privileged to play a role in taking students down their journey, as he was so guided by many faculty members at Virginia Tech and other universities. 

"I met some fantastic people the first days on campus and have remained good friends over the years," reflected Capra. "Virginia Tech is somewhere where I can always come back and be at home."