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First Class of Annenberg Fellows Greeted

by Eva Emerson
Vice provost Jean Morrison called the fellowships a key part of the university’s push to build the “best graduate programs in the nation.”

Photo/Brian Morri

One thing quickly becomes clear after spending just a few minutes with members of the inaugural class of USC Annenberg Fellows, who were introduced at a reception in September. And that’s the breadth of USC’s strength in communications-related disciplines.

To electrical engineering graduate student Satash Vedantam, communications research means using math and information theory to create new algorithms that could one day improve cell phone reception.

Communications Ph.D. student Inna Arzumanova plans to investigate how the form and content of new media � from digital storytelling to blogs and online advertising � influence traditional forms of literature and arts.

Meanwhile, MFA student Arthur Baum, who studies production in cinematic arts, is interested in an entirely different area of communication � how to improve the integrity of sound reproduced in movie theatres, televisions, headphones and other portable devices.

Vedantam, Arzumanova and Baum are three of the 103 graduate students from the USC Annenberg School for Communication, the USC School of Cinematic Arts and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering named to the first cohort of Annenberg Fellows.

USC Provost C. L. Max Nikias announced the new, $4 million USC Annenberg Graduate Fellowship Program as part of a reconfiguration of the USC Annenberg Center for Communication in March. With funding from the Annenberg Foundation, the program is designed to create an elite cadre of world-class graduate students involved in cutting-edge communication and digital media research.

At a Sept. 11 reception, Jean Morrison, the vice provost for graduate programs who oversees the program, joined deans and faculty from the three schools to greet the fellows. She called the fellowships a key part of the university’s push to build the “best graduate programs in the nation.”

“The Annenberg Fellows will conduct communications-related research, advance bold new ideas in the communication arena and produce innovative creative works,” Morrison said. “They will constitute an internationally recognized and highly regarded group of communications research scholars and creative practitioners. We are delighted to launch this program and to accelerate the university’s leadership role in cross-disciplinary communications-related graduate research and education.”

Elizabeth Daley, dean of the School of Cinematic Arts, noted the growing importance of the visual and interactive media in today’s mass communication, two areas in which USC excels and that the new fellowships will further strengthen.

“This is an incredible catalyst for students seeking to take the theory and practice of communications to new levels,” Daley said. “Annenberg fellowships are going to a substantial number of animation, writing, production, interactive media and critical studies students, as well as to the first cohort of candidates in the Media Arts & Practice Ph.D. that we just started.”

USC Annenberg School Dean Ernest J. Wilson III said that the fellowship program “has started great communication among the three deans and represents an exciting opportunity to build stronger connections among scholars whose work falls under the broad theme of communications.”

Wilson suggested planning follow-up events for fellows and faculty advisers to meet and communicate with each other. “We could come together around a common topic � such as innovation � to talk about what it means in each of our fields,” he said.

In his remarks, Yannis Yortsos, dean of the USC Viterbi School, pointed out that the new fellows program brings together two schools named in honor of two “giants in communication,” � referring to USC trustee Andrew Viterbi (who created the algorithm that provided the theoretical basis for communications applications such as cell phones) and the late Walter Annenberg, who had a distinguished career as a publisher and broadcaster before becoming a diplomat and philanthropist.

Yortsos also praised Nikias’ decision to convert the Annenberg endowment into funds for graduate students. “Innovation comes largely from our graduate students, (so it is) critical that we support them.”

The 2007-08 class of fellows includes 34 Ph.D. and M.A. students from USC Annenberg; 40 Ph.D., M.A. and MFA students from cinematic arts; and 29 Ph.D. students from USC Viterbi.

While all of the Annenberg School’s fellows are first-year students � whose recruitment was aided by the fellowships � USC Viterbi and cinematic arts recommended a mix of new and continuing students for the awards.

“It’s an exciting opportunity for our students,” said Urbashi Mitra, professor of electrical engineering systems and Vedantam’s adviser. “At Viterbi, we do the mathematics of communications. For radio, cell phones � all telecommunications � you need to do the math to figure out how to send the pieces of information, as well as to deal with the distortions � the noise � created by the medium itself.”

Arzumanova’s faculty adviser Thomas Goodnight, a professor of communication and head of doctoral studies at USC Annnenberg, said he and his colleagues selected candidates for the fellowships with the aim of creating a global group of scholars, who come from diverse backgrounds but have overlapping research interests.

“We’re interested in communications from a social science background, as well as looking at communications through critical, humanities-type studies,” he said. Many of the doctoral students’ research involves “creating, studying, experimenting with what happens when you bring together traditional and new forms of media � when you bring together the past and the future,” he said.

“It’s an exciting area to study,” Arzumanova said, “because so much of our understanding of communications are based on analyzing a single medium � like the text in a book. The new media forms are playing off each other.”

Third-year MFA candidate Baum studies sound design for film and television and is especially interested in improving documentary sound. That’s in addition to his work with cinematic arts professor Tomlinson Holman working on technologies that reproduce sound in different environments.

Holman, who is also a principal investigator in the Integrated Media Systems Center’s Immersive Audio Lab at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, developed the collection of technologies called THX during his 15-year tenure at Lucasfilm, has won numerous awards for his contributions to advancing sound system technology.