Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Frauke Zeller

Faculty Spotlight - Frauke Zeller

From robotics to maple syrup – a conversation with ProCom’s Dr. Frauke Zeller

By: Caitlin Boros, MPC 2014

If there’s one word that I would use to describe Dr. Frauke Zeller’s passion for linguistics, digital communication and even robots, it would be this: enthusiasm. Since she joined the ProCom program in 2013, Dr. Zeller has captured the attention of students and faculty alike with her insightful and engaging teaching style and her unique research interests, which have produced a certain famous hitchhiking robot.

Dr. Zeller and I sat down to talk about her time at ProCom, her research, and her favourite things about her newly adopted home.

You’re a relative newcomer to Toronto. Tell us a bit about your background.

Before I started as an assistant professor in ProCom, I was a Marie Curie Research Fellow at the University College London in England, conducting research in digital communication and big data analysis. I received my PhD (Dr. Phil.) from the University of Kassel in Germany in 2005 in English Linguistics and Computational Philology. My thesis focused on human-robot interaction from a linguistic perspective. From 2005 to 2011, I was a researcher and lecturer at Ilmenau University of Technology in Germany, working in the Institute of Media and Communication Studies. I finished my Habilitation (highest academic degree in Germany) in 2011, working on methods to analyze online communities. I also used to work in a German investor relations and public relations agency. This experience still helps me today in combining the theories in my teaching with hands-on, practical and applied perspectives.

With a background in linguistics, what appealed to you about joining a communications faculty?

I think that there are quite a few opportunities to integrate linguistics with communication studies, both on the theoretical and methodological levels. I always try to integrate this in my teaching and research. With my work experience in investor and public relations, I gained a solid understanding of the actual skills that are needed in communication. I also learned that being a linguist helps a lot in the communication profession by providing in-depth knowledge of language and how it can be used as a powerful tool.

For those who may not know, you are one of the original collaborators on the hitchBOT project. What inspired the project?

I have always been interested in robotics and how robots interact with us and vice versa. David Harris Smith from McMaster University and I are both interested in what we call “cultural robotics”—creating and working with robots from both an arts and science perspective. We came up with the idea of hitchBOT as a collaborative arts and science project to see how people react and interact with a robot that is (a) in a very unusual situation and (b) absolutely helpless. We wanted to see whether people want to interact with a robot that cannot help us but needs our help. And if they interact, how do they feel?

I also decided to add a rather unusual dimension to the robot: a social media identity. Social robots need to have a personality, so we’re using social media to communicate hitchBOT’s identity, personality and aims. This turned out to be very successful, thanks to the fantastic support from my ProCom research assistants! We now have a big data set of people’s opinions and attitudes toward the robot based on their tweets and Instagram and Facebook entries.

We are currently very busy planning hitchBOT’s next trips with our research assistant teams both from Ryerson ProCom and McMaster. Stay tuned for hitchBOT’s updates on its Twitter, Facebook or Instagram accounts!

What are some of your current research interests? 

I want to analyze all the communication that occurred around hitchBOT, which will hopefully provide new insights into human-robot interaction. I am also working on a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Partnership Development project, which aims to use 3D environments for participative urban planning. As well, I am collaborating with researchers from Europe in the field of audience and reception studies, focusing on the development and application of interdisciplinary methods to analyze complex data sets. That’s why I am also an affiliated researcher at Ryerson’s Centre for Cloud and Context-Aware Computing.

Do you have any stand-out moments that come to mind in your time with ProCom so far?

There are many positive experiences that I have had with ProCom. My first teaching term was a rather important moment. I had never taught before in Canada so I was a bit anxious and excited. It turned out to be such a great term with exceptional students—really a jolly good experience!

What are your top three favourite things about Canada?

I simply love maple syrup. I also admire Canada’s multiculturalism and how people welcome and embrace different cultures. And of course, I love the fact that Canadians are open to new ideas—even if that idea is letting a robot hitchhike on its own across Canada.