Dr. Xi “Sunshine” Niu Earns NSF Grant

UNC Charlotte College of Computing and Informatics (CCI) Assistant Professor, Dr. Xi “Sunshine” Niu, has been awarded a $496,041 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for her work studying the merits of computational serendipity.

Serendipity, in a traditional sense, is any unexpected occurrence with a happy outcome. Niu’s project – with co-PIs by Dr. Mary Lou Maher, CCI Professor and Software Information Systems Chair, as well as Dr. Jingfeng Xia from East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania – directly models serendipity from a computational perspective and includes the ability to evaluate the amount of surprise that most stimulates user curiosity, prompting users to seek and make additional unexpected discoveries.

In short: Can surprise and joy encourage discovery?

“As a use case,” Niu says, “we will implement this framework as a library recommender, SerenCat, for suggesting surprisingly valuable books and articles to students, and to encourage their curiosity through an interactive user experience.”

Once fully developed, it is hypothesized that long-term use of SerenCat will encourage broader reading interests, persuading students to step out of their habits and appreciate more surprising concepts.

Proposing SerenCat as open source, Niu’s goal is to make progress on how to predict and foster serendipity when people interact with information online, facilitating the natural joy of discovery and using curiosity to expand users’ horizons and reading interests.

“Doing this,” Niu says, “promises to make contributions to the study of recommender systems, information retrieval, and human-computer interaction, along with developing real tools to support serendipity and knowledge discovery in libraries.”

The project uniquely connects two fields: information retrieval (IR) and human computer interaction (HCI).

“We are so glad to know NSF values this type of interdisciplinary research, and recognizes the importance of interaction between the users and a recommender system in an effective information retrieval process,” Niu says. “In addition, we have long-time passions for libraries. We are proud of seeing the impact of computing research in libraries to help people explore, discover, and read.”

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