Meet the Luddy School’s research champion

Kay Connelly loves math, using tech to improve human health, and breaking down barriers for her faculty

NEW ERA. Thanks to the school's $60 million gift from Fred Luddy, "We're just on the cusp of some major changes within the school. It's an incredibly exciting time to be part of the administration," Connelly said.

Did you hear the one about the computing school administrator who grew up hating computers? No joke—Kay Connelly, associate dean for research at IU’s Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering, was not a fan of the technology as a kid in Terre Haute.

Tree with photos attached

Healthy tech. One of Connelly's research projects is the National Science Foundation-funded check-in tree. The device allows older adults to check in with each other in the morning by pressing a button on the base of the display. LEDs near pictures of their friends let them know who in their group of friends has also checked in. 

“My dad was an early adopter of computers, back when these things were not reliable,” she recalled. “I remember him bringing home the Adam computer—he was so excited. He told me it would be a great way to write my school reports. So, I’m in junior high, writing some English paper and it died and there was no backup function—I lost that hour’s worth of writing. I became a sworn enemy of computers.”

She was appointed to a research scientist position with a guarantee that once she finished her doctorate, she could join the faculty of IU’s computer science department—as one of its very first women. 

Fast forward a few decades, and Connelly has built her academic career around the machines that now dominate our digital age. When IU dedicated its new Big Red 200 supercomputer as part of the IU Bicentennial’s Day of Commemoration on January 20, 2020, Connelly was a featured speaker, alongside IU President Michael McRobbie, Vice President for IT and CIO Brad Wheeler, and Charles Morreale of Cray.

With this latest high-performance computing acquisition, IU is now home to the state of Indiana's fastest supercomputer. “It really is amazing what Big Red 200 is going to be able to do, not just for our school, but all over campus,” she said. “For Luddy specifically, we're investing in artificial intelligence and to have this supercomputer available to our faculty for free is huge.” 

A woman of “firsts”

How does one go from a low-key Luddite to Luddy School associate dean for research? Mathematics, of course.

“I loved math as a kid. I still love math. I always have,” she said. “My dad has a Ph.D. in math, and he’d do the kitchen table thing, where he’d say ‘here's a problem: solve it.’” Connelly took her love of math to IU to work on an undergraduate degree in the subject. On a whim, she took a computer programming course—and it changed everything. Because it was taught with Scheme, a language that basically describes math, Connelly softened her anti-computer stance.  

“For me, Scheme showed me that if you can do a math proof, you can write a program. And it was amazing,” she said.  “I was on equal footing with all the kids who had been programming for years because they were thrown by this non-industry language. They were just as challenged as I was in this class, and I was hooked day one.”

“Hooked” might be an understatement. After IU, Connelly earned both a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Illinois. (“My dad loves that I have a Ph.D. in computer science!” she laughed.) She made her way back to Bloomington after her graduate advisor moved out to California and she decided to stay put in the Midwest.

Once she settled in Bloomington again, she started making history. She was the very first hire at IU’s Pervasive Technology Institute, then known as the Pervasive Technology Labs. She was appointed to a research scientist position with a guarantee that once she finished her doctorate, she could join the faculty of IU’s computer science department—as one of its very first women.

Bookshelf

The written word. Java, Android, Little Lisper—here's a smattering of the books in Connelly's office, including Little Lisper, which covers Scheme, the computing language that helped her fall in love with computer science. 

Wearable data pioneer

With research interests in the intersection of mobile and pervasive computing and healthcare, Connelly helped pave the way for the smartphone age. “I was doing mobiles before we had smart phones, working instead with personal data assistants, or PDAs,” she said. “I was doing work on wearable activity monitors back when we only had those dumb pedometers on your belt clip. All these things I was studying 10 to 15 years ago are on the market now. I wish could have somehow capitalized on that,” she said, laughing.

These days, Connelly’s research still involves wearables, but is now focused on one of IU’s Grand Challenges: the Precision Health Initiative’s gestational diabetes project. Known as the Hoosier Moms Cohort, the study investigates the causes of diabetes during pregnancy (gestational diabetes) and seeks to stop its transition into Type 2 diabetes. Working closely with IU School of Medicine colleagues, Connelly and her team monitor what women self-report on physical activity, sleep, nutrition, and more to see if it matches the wearable data.

“Maternal health in Indiana is near the bottom of the stack in our country,” Connelly said. “And if a mom has gestational diabetes while pregnant, then she and her child are at a higher risk for all sorts of complications later in life. With our wearable research, we hope to show that even little changes in your everyday life can have substantial impact down the line on your health.” (Interested in learning more? Read about Connelly’s other research projects.)

‘On the cusp of major change’

A passionate scholar herself, Connelly was thrilled to be offered her current role by Luddy School Dean Raj Acharya. “I love research, I love hearing about everyone's research, and I want to advocate for everyone's research, so it's kind of the perfect administrative position for me,” Connelly said.

“I love research, I love hearing about everyone's research, and I want to advocate for everyone's research, so it's kind of the perfect administrative position for me."

She spends her days running from meeting to meeting, working to ensure Luddy’s faculty and graduate students can work on their research, free from administrative barriers. With more than 100 tenure-track faculty members, it’s a big job. She also does a fair amount of what she calls “match-making,” i.e., connecting faculty from around campus with the Luddy faculty with whom they’d like to collaborate.

With Fred Luddy’s $60 million gift to the school last fall establishing a multidisciplinary initiative in artificial intelligence, Connelly’s match-making duties are growing. The gift will focus first on AI approaches to digital health and fund a new building to house the AI research. It will also fund six endowed chairs, six endowed professorships, and six endowed faculty fellowships, as well as graduate and undergraduate scholarships.

“With this new Luddy gift, we're just on the cusp of some major changes within the school. Where we’ll be in five years is going to be so different from where we are now because we just had this big enabling gift that allows us to do some things that we haven't been able to do before,” she said. “It's an incredibly exciting time to be part of the administration.”