UF lab director puts ‘human’ into human-centered computing

Fourteen graduate students in royal blue polo shirts emblazoned with University of Florida College of Engineering logos sit around conference tables and at their computer stations, awaiting their team leader, adviser and director of the Human Experience Research Lab.

Juan Gilbert walks in and takes his seat in front of a giant white board with all sorts of quotations and calculations scribbled on it, and Jessica Jones notices he’s wearing a white shirt.

“You look like the choir director for a youth choir,” she says, eliciting bursts of laughter from her fellow students.

He smiles and launches into the day’s topics — the design for a new logo for the lab, an editor’s job description — when there is a sudden interruption from a three-foot-tall robot being operated by Jones that gets more chuckles:

“Sorry. I don’t get it. Let’s talk about something else.”

But the biggest laughs are reserved for when Gilbert brings up a request from the Graduate Leadership Series to give a presentation on self-confidence.

“You could have R. Kelly playing in the background,” one bursts out. “Use big mirrors,” another cracks.

Gilbert smiles, taking the good-natured ribbing all in stride. “Hey, this was not my idea. They asked me!”

This demonstrates the close-knit ties of a group working together for the last four years. When Gilbert was hired away from Clemson University last summer as one of UF’s first pre-eminence hires, he not only brought with him four professors and two postdoctoral researchers, he brought along 15 of his graduate students, as well.

And another 20 students from Clemson are on their way.

“It’s a big family,” graduate student Phillip Hall said.

They are all members of the Human Experience Research Lab in the Department of Computer and Information Science and Engineering in the College of Engineering. Gilbert, 46, is also the department’s associate chair of research and the Andrew Banks Family Preeminence Endowed Chair.

“I had an endowed chair at Clemson. I wasn’t leaving for something less,” Gilbert said. “I said I wasn’t interested in moving, and that it would take a lot. They said they were interested in the entire team.”

Gilbert’s hire represents the direction UF has taken in spending $150 million in state and private money hiring top research faculty from around the nation. UF has hired 76 of the 120 professors they originally set out to hire, and is asking the Legislature for an additional $10 million this year to hire another 60 professors.

“Each faculty member we’ve recruited to work in more than two-dozen UF Preeminence areas of focus are outstanding in their areas of expertise,” Provost Joe Glover said. “We’re thrilled to have top-tier researchers such as Dr. Gilbert join our faculty, accelerating our efforts to rank among the nation’s top public universities.”

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