Justine Cassell

2008 Winner of the ABIE Award Winner for Leadership

Justine Cassell is the director of the Center for Technology and Social Behavior at Northwestern University, and the AT&T Professor of Communication and Computer Science. Before coming to Northwestern, Justine was a tenured associate professor at the MIT Media Lab where she directed the Gesture and Narrative Language Research Group.

In 2001, Justine was awarded the Edgerton Faculty Achievement Award at MIT. Cassell holds undergraduate degrees in Comparative Literature from Dartmouth and in Lettres Modernes from the Universite de Besançon (France). She holds a M.Phil in Linguistics from the University of Edinburgh (Scotland) and a dual Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in Linguistics and Psychology.

After having spent 10 years studying verbal and non-verbal aspects of human communication through microanalysis of videotaped data, Justine began to bring her knowledge of human interaction to the design of computational systems. She directed the team that implemented the RST Embodied Conversational Agent in 1994 (a multimodal dialogue system in the form of a virtual human, bringing together innovation in Computer Graphics, Computational Linguistics, and Artificial Intelligence), and since then she has continued to integrate insights from face-to-face verbal and nonverbal human interaction into the design of computational systems.

More recently, Justine has explored the practical applications of Embodied Conversational Agents to the ELD of learning. In particular, her development of the Virtual Peer has resulted in systems that help young children explore literacy, that support the learning of code-switching by children who speak African-American English, and that scaffold social skills in children with autism. Cassell has authored more than 100 book chapters, journal articles and conference proceedings, and has given more than 50 keynote addresses at international conferences. Her work has been featured widely in the press.

Justine’s interest in the use of technology to empower and give voice led her, in 1998, to direct the Junior Summit. This international project brought together 3000 children from 139 countries in a 6 month on-line forum that allowed children to communicate with each other across languages on topics of international concern. The forum culminated in a 6-day program at MIT where 100 of the children met with world leaders. The technology and design of the program focused on bringing voices to the table that are not often heard, to help children reach beyond clichés to the areas in which they can make the most valuable contributions, and potentially increase their role on the world stage afterwards. Justine has continued to follow these young people, and has published on the children’s interaction during the Junior Summit, and the effects of the Summit on their later development. Her work is demonstrating that these young people were launching a new kind of leadership style where strength was found through engagement with the community.

Throughout her career, Justine has been passionate about improving the status of women and other under-represented groups in science and engineering. In 1994, in the context of an NSF Visiting Professorship for Women, Justine developed a “Survival Skills for Women in Academia” series, which she has subsequently offered every year at summer schools and at her home institution, and which is now carried on in other institutions by women who took the series as graduate students. At MIT, Justine sat on the committee to increase hiring and retention of women and minority scholars. She also launched the MIT “Quality of Faculty Life” committee to promote a sense of community among otherwise isolated underrepresented faculty members across the institution.

Justine was named to the AnitaB.org Advisory Board by Anita Borg in 1998 at the board’ s inception. At Northwestern, Justine is the faculty advisor for FREECS (Female Researchers in EECS), an active group that seeks to improve the numbers and status of women undergraduates, graduates, and faculty members. As well as her hands-on work, Justine is well-known for her pioneering research in the area of gender and technology. Justine co-edited the best seller “From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games” in 1998, and recently co-authored a forward to the 10-year anniversary volume “Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat.” The early book, and Justine’s subsequent work on gender and technology, address a critical issue: the assumptions about gender that are implicit (and oftentimes explicit) in video games aimed at a particular gender have considerable power to reproduce or transform gender roles.