White House Honors Castleman for Early Career Accomplishments

By Meredith Cole

The Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers is the highest honor given by the U.S. government to scientists and engineers at the beginning of their research careers.

The U.S. government has honored three University of Virginia faculty members – Ben Castleman, Nitya Kallivayalil and Marilyne Stains – with the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor it gives to scientists and engineers at the beginning of their research careers who show great potential for leadership and advancing scientific knowledge in their fields, and who also are making a contribution to science, technology, engineering and math education.

All three have accomplished groundbreaking research in their fields and simultaneously worked to help underrepresented students succeed in college, especially in STEM fields.

“We are delighted to see three UVA researchers early in their careers honored by the White House,” Melur K. “Ram” Ramasubramanian, UVA’s vice president for research, said. “This honor recognizes the quality and the importance of their work, their potential in developing as outstanding scholars in their careers, as well as its impact of their work on the community.”

The winners were honored by the White House at a ceremony on Thursday in Washington, D.C.

Benjamin Castleman, assistant professor of education and public policy in the Curry School of Education and Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy

Castleman is founder and director of UVA’s Nudge⁴ Solutions Lab, which uses big data to devise effective behavioral strategies that encourage students to apply to and complete college.

Castleman’s early career as a high school teacher and administrator reinforced his belief in the power of education and its importance to economic mobility for low-income and first-generation college students. But the path to college is not easy for students with limited access to mentors and information.

Using technology to reach these students, as well as targeted counseling and mentorship, has been the key to helping them avoid the pitfalls that can lead them to drop out of school.

Castleman applies behavioral economics and data science to his research projects. For one of his projects, “Nudges to the Finish Line,” Castleman and his colleagues are partnering with multiple community colleges in Virginia to increase college completion among students at high risk of withdrawal. Early results suggest these nudges can lead to substantial increases in degree completion.

The Department of Education nominated Castleman for a Presidential Early Career Award.

“The PECASE award for me is an acknowledgement of the value of highly collaborative research partnerships with public agencies and organizations,” Castleman said. “Without our agencies’ investment and engagement, our research efforts would not be possible.”

One of his next projects will focus on identifying students who perform well in high school STEM classes and who want to pursue a STEM field in college, but may encounter challenges following through on this intention. Castleman’s team will provide targeted STEM advising, connecting students to mentors at universities who can provide valuable advice.

For more on Kallivayalil and Stains, read the full story at UVA Today.