Diplomacy Lab partners students and faculty with U.S. Department of State

KENNESAW, Ga. | Feb 11, 2022

When Sherrill Hayes learned the State Department was interested in partnering with universities to find innovative solutions to complex, global problems, he immediately started the application process. 

As the director of the School of Data Science and Analytics at Kennesaw State University, Hayes believed his background in conflict management would mesh well with the Diplomacy Lab’s mission, which is to broaden the State Department’s research base and engage the American people in diplomacy work by partnering with universities. However, Hayes admits he was surprised to learn about the interdisciplinary aspects.

Sherrill Hayes

“People often ask: What is diplomacy? I tend to think about diplomatic problems, negotiation and mediation. But in fact, the Department of State needs help with several STEM-based problems as well,” said Hayes, who currently serves as the director of the Diplomacy Lab. 

KSU was accepted into the Diplomacy Lab program two years ago and is one of 43 universities participating. Each semester, the State Department releases dozens of proposals, and faculty members bid on projects that match their strengths and expertise. If chosen, faculty use the talents of graduate and undergraduate students who, through this partnership, are able to contribute directly to the policymaking process.

“We have an enormous university, and we have faculty expertise across an entire range of disciplines,” said Hayes, who is determined to expand these opportunities to more colleges on campus. “I have long been a believer in real-world projects, and I am committed to finding opportunities for students to do relevant research. The Diplomacy Lab allows students and faculty to work on projects that make a difference in our society.” 

Meaningful Research 

This fall, KSU was awarded three Diplomacy Lab projects, which included geographic information system mapping for global embassies and a project researching the use of artificial intelligence to accelerate the transition to green energy. The third project, led by Shirley Tian and Zhigang Li, both assistant professors of information technology in the College of Computing and Software Engineering, analyzed the effect of COVID-19 on the international airline travel industry. 

Tian and Li oversaw two groups of graduate students and one group of undergraduate students as they used data to determine, for example, the net effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on international air travel and how vaccination rates and daily confirmed case numbers of different regions have affected the airline industry since March 2020.

“What we are doing is interesting and meaningful,” Tian said. “It’s important for faculty and students to work together on these projects, which help organizations all over the world. Students who are interested in pursuing a career in data analysis or a career in the government after graduation have these projects on their resumes, and it’s a win-win for everyone.” 

For senior information technology student Sarah Solomon, the opportunity to do research on this Diplomacy Lab project has helped with long-term and short-term goals. 

“Learning to analyze the data and work as a team on this project has opened my eyes to the research I could pursue in a master’s degree program,” Solomon said, noting the relevance of the current work. “COVID-19 has affected almost every aspect of our lives. Looking at its impact on the airline travel industry has real-world implications, and I’m excited to be a part of this team.” 

The research on COVID-19’s impact on the international airline industry follows a previous Diplomacy Lab project that gained attention from senior State Department officials. In the fall of 2020, Tian, Li and several students were tasked with analyzing data to determine how social media messages posted on government accounts influenced the rate of COVID-19 infections. As a result of their research, the team was one of a select few invited to participate in the Diplomacy Lab Demo Day, where they presented their findings to top State Department officials. The invitation was a highlight of the partnership so far for Hayes. 

“The opportunities for students and faculty to show these top officials what they can do at Kennesaw State is huge, and it raises the profile of the University,” he added. 

For Tian, it was further motivation to continue her work on Diplomacy Lab projects for years to come. 

“I’m so proud of the students who worked together and applied their knowledge to such a relevant challenge in our world,” Tian said about their research on COVID-19 impacts. 

Innovative Solutions 

While the topic of COVID-19 has been popular in the Diplomacy Lab, there have been several other successful projects at KSU. In the spring of 2021, doctoral students joined political science professor Charity Butcher to evaluate the State Department’s global peacekeeping operations. 

They not only provided a review of existing studies on effective peacekeeping, but also developed an evaluation tool the State Department could use to assess the efficacy of peacekeeping missions. Students on the project said the State Department appreciated their work, and it was gratifying to participate in research with such practical applications. 

In 2019, computer science professor Dan Lo brought together a team of undergraduate and graduate students to develop a computer program that uses natural language processing to identify trends in social media posts on Weibo and WeChat. The social media platforms are widely used in China, and it was research Lo was already working on when the Diplomacy Lab asked for help. 

“This was an easy pivot to expand upon research already being done at Kennesaw State,” Hayes said. Lo’s research resulted in two papers accepted by the second International Workshop on Big Data for Marketing Intelligence and Operation and the 2019 IEEE Conference on Big Data. 

Hayes, the self-described “conduit” of the Diplomacy Lab program, said it is an irreplaceable experience that taps into the potential of students and faculty members, and he hopes more colleges at KSU will get involved. 

“This partnership emphasizes research with relevance, and it ties in with our community engagement objectives,” he added. “I look forward to the impact it will continue to have on our students, faculty and society.” 

– Abbey O'Brien Barrows

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A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its more than 45,000 students. Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia with 11 academic colleges. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 7 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu.