Headshot of Kate Starbird

A former WNBA basketball player, Kate Starbird is now an expert in crisis informatics, studying how misinformation spreads following disasters.

Hoops Star-Turned-Scholar Talks Career Paths, Connections

How, exactly, does someone go from playing professional basketball in Ibiza to researching crisis informatics at the University of Washington? According to Dr. Kate Starbird, the answer is less about a single decision, and more about the hundreds of tiny decisions that help us all find our paths.

The observation is particularly fitting for a professional who has transitioned from being a star basketball player at Stanford University—where she held the all-time university career scoring record from the mid-1990s until January 31, 2008—to a professional basketball player with the WNBA and other basketball leagues around the world to a full-time academic. And, as a scholar, Starbird has long been inspired by the ways in which humans connect to one another.

In preparation for her visit to the University of Maryland tomorrow, College Park Scholars interviewed Starbird about her career transitions, the field of crisis informatics and the ways in which mentors have played a key role in shaping her life. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Q: Going from basketball to academia is a pretty big switch. How did you decide on this new career after finishing your professional basketball career?

A: I was still playing professional basketball at the age of 30, and at the time it was a pretty good life—living on an island and playing one game a week. I knew that it was time to stop, but the longer you do anything, the more it becomes a part of your identity… it becomes more difficult to walk away.

But, in professional sports, you eventually find yourself in decline—after a certain point, you aren’t going to get any better. So I decided not to renew my contract and instead made the move to Seattle.

My undergraduate degree was in computer science, but I initially thought I wanted to do a master’s degree in anthropology. While I was abroad, I became really interested in cultural norms and cultural communications, and the ways in which people interact with each other. I was applying to anthropology programs, but during that time, I was invited to a luncheon for women in information sciences hosted by the National Committee for Women in Information Technology. At the luncheon, I ended up seated next to Bobby Schnabel, who was the head of the computer science program at the University of Colorado, and was involved with the ATLAS Institute there. ATLAS looks at the intersection between computers and people, the ways in which they interact. So I sent in an application. I went from thinking I’d get a master’s in anthropology to a PhD in technology, media and society.

Q: That’s so interesting, the way that these things can just happen.

A: Absolutely—it’s random things that put you on a [particular] path in life. It’s never one big decision—it’s always a lot of little decisions that lead you to where you’re supposed to be. I never wanted to be a professor, didn’t think that was what I wanted to do in life. But in academia you can learn for your whole life, and I was interested in that, in contributing to society. I had been out of school for 10 years and wanted to do a degree, and I ended up sitting next to this person at lunch who turned out to be a mentor for me—and for me my great mentors have always ended up being unexpected.

In life you can make mistakes, and you can fail, and yet there’s an Act Two in life, and an Act Three, and Four.

Q: So how did you end up specifically in the field of crisis informatics?

A: When I started, my initial focus was on STEM and on getting girls and women involved in coding. While I was doing my research, I met another of my mentors, Dr. Leysia Palen—who in fact is one of the two people who coined the term “crisis informatics”—and knew I wanted to work with her. I began in her lab around 2007 or 2008.

At the time, she and her students were looking at varying uses of social media, particularly with Facebook activity during a mass shooting. I was still doing my own research, but I kept looking over because it was clear that what they were doing was exciting. I could tell that this was something that was up and coming, something that was going to be really influential.

Eventually I realized that I was spending a lot of my free time looking at these kinds of things [rather than thinking about my research].

It can be very hard to cut losses, but it’s also important to be able to recognize that [it might be time to walk away] and to be able to do it. For me, the mentorship of Professor Palen was a core piece of why I am where I am today.

Q: How large is the crisis informatics field today?

A: The work we’ve been doing is embedded within the larger community of computer interactions. Within that, we have 20 to 25 researchers. It’s been consistently growing—but more classes are starting to graduate, and researchers are starting to join from other kind of fields as well, such as from hard computer science and machine learning.

The work is distributed across multiple different fields. It’s very interdisciplinary—computers, anthropology, machine learning, sociology—all those things, all together, and that’s what makes it so interesting. Most of these fields are looking at the ways people interact, whether with technology, with one another, making that connection.

When you look at social media platforms especially, people who are using them in crisis situations are trying to help one another. The spreading of false information, or “rumoring,” has always been a part of crisis events,because in times of crisis, people are trying to figure out what’s going on and inform other people quickly. To relieve anxiety, people talk. It’s the natural part of what happens after a crisis.

You don’t want a social media platform that stops all rumoring—it’s all part of the response to a crisis, and we don’t want to stop the process as it’s a process. But at the same time, platforms could do a better job in stopping people who are purposely trying to spread false information. We have a lot of these events [now] where people want to politicize them really quickly. You have to look at what their motives are.

Professor Kate Starbird will be discussing rumoring, connection, information and misinformation on Monday, April 9, in her talk “Muddied Waters: Online Disinformation During Crisis Events.” The event will take place at 4:30 p.m. in 1100 Cambridge Community Center. Starbird’s lecture is part of the programming related to our annual theme for 20172018, “Going Viral.”

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