Faculty profiles: Research focus, from ‘fintech’ to nutrition


This Ezra series profiles recently hired faculty members across Cornell’s colleges, schools and units. In their own ways, these researchers, scholars and teachers embody the university’s creative and collaborative vitality.



Courtney McCluney: How organizations can foster equitable communities

Courtney McCluney’s interest in studying diversity, equity and inclusion in organizations began when she was growing up in North Carolina.

Her father was the first Black manager at the manufacturing plant where he worked, and he regularly experienced instances of racism from both his subordinates and peers. Later, McCluney’s own work experiences in low-wage jobs and nonprofit organizations revealed deep-seated inequalities, raising questions for her such as: “How is anyone expected to live off of this salary?” and “Who can afford to work in spaces that advocate for social justice?”

These collective experiences and queries influenced her research on how organizations can create diverse, inclusive and equitable communities.

At the same time, McCluney recognized that her upbringing as a first-generation Black woman college graduate was unique among the students in her Ph.D. cohort. She relied on her perspective to expand her work studying organizations, and it’s something she wants to impress upon her students. She encourages them to embrace their “unique lived experiences as credible sources of knowledge,” adding that it is “important to share with others, as it helps us better understand our social world.”

McCluney arrived at ILR’s Department of Organizational Behavior after a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and Center for Interprofessional Education. She earned her doctorate and master’s degrees in psychology from the University of Michigan and a bachelor’s degree in psychology and interpersonal and organizational communications from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

When it came time to decide her next career move, McCluney said it was the faculty and the focus on interdisciplinary scholarship that drew her to the ILR School.

“I regularly draw on psychology, sociology, feminist, legal and organizational theories to inform my research and teaching, and am excited to continue learning from the brilliant scholars at ILR,” she said.

McCluney uses that interdisciplinary focus to investigate the work experiences of people of color, to understand how they are perpetually marginalized, underrepresented and devalued at work. McCluney’s research seeks to address the interrelated topics of how marginalization practices become part of organizational norms, how members from marginalized groups navigate those norms, and how organizations and individuals can resist marginalization and create inclusive workplaces.

McCluney has used her research as a source for recent articles in the Harvard Business Review, in which she and her co-authors address COVID-19’s effects on the Black community. “Working From Home While Black” and “How U.S. Companies Can Support Employees of Color Through the Pandemic” offer real-world insights for managers.

“We are in the midst of large-scale social changes, and the best way for us to make it through is together,” she said. “My work offers practical ways for organizations to ensure that we all can equitably participate and benefit from these changes through promoting racial equity, advancing gender equality and fostering dignity and justice for all workers.”

– Julie Greco


Will Cong: At the center of fintech research

Digital technology and data analytics are playing an increasingly pivotal role in developments in business, and this area of financial technology research – known as “fintech” – has quickly become an epicenter of activity and innovation in academia. One of the most influential fintech scholars today is Lin William Cong, associate professor of finance and the Rudd Family Professor of Management in the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management.

“I chose Cornell because I believe it’s the most active in economic data science and fintech research, with top-ranked programs in blockchain education, computer science and finance,” Cong said. “The scholars at Cornell are open-minded toward emerging fields and interdisciplinary work, and the business school leadership has the vision and courage to tackle the most relevant and timely issues in business economics.”

Lately, Cong has been focusing on several areas of research, one of which entails artificial intelligence and big-data analytics in social sciences. He has discovered that using technologies from self-driving cars, machine translation and the game-playing computer program AlphaGo can quadruple investment performance once combined with the right economic principles and interpretation. He says it may usher in the next generation of robo-advising.

He also has developed efficient analytics for texts and examined new media (e.g., short videos on TikTok and YouTube) that are reshaping marketing and e-commerce.

“I follow my interests to conduct early research on topics that may not have any established framework for analysis,” Cong said, “and often move into uncharted waters with high uncertainty, steep learning curves and requirements for interdisciplinary knowledge.”

Cong also has been studying the economics of cryptocurrencies, including token pricing, allocation design and regulation. His other ongoing studies add to the first pieces of empirical evidence on how digital platforms affect entrepreneurship, gender gap and the real economy, which he believes are much needed in the industry, as well as in academia.

“What I really admire about Will is his boldness as a young scholar to pursue new lines of inquiry in economics and finance,” said Andrew Karolyi, deputy dean of academic affairs at the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business. “He goes after tough questions about the digital economy, the use of natural language processing and artificial intelligence for investment, and the economics of blockchains and digital currencies, among other very timely topics where there is little existing research.”

As a result of Cong’s cutting-edge research and leadership in the field, he is a key contributor and collaborator in the FinTech at Cornell initiative recently launched at the SC Johnson College. The initiative aims to build a global open nexus for rigorous and impactful academic exploration on the principles, applications and socioeconomic implications of financial technology, digitization and data science in economics, finance and business.

“Rather than creating a center just for Cornell,” Cong said, “we want to involve leading scholars across the globe, pioneering business partners, policymakers and entrepreneurs, in order to promote top-quality research, better understanding and innovative collaborations in fintech.”

Sarah Magnus-Sharpe


Sriramya Nair: Sustainable cement-derived materials

Concrete is the most widely used human-made product in the world, so it’s no surprise that improving its cementitious ingredients is an effort as old as concrete itself. Most modern-day concrete uses manufactured Portland cement, but Sriramya Nair, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, is researching novel ways to change how cement is engineered through the use of high-energy X-rays and magneto-rheology.

Rather than focusing solely on the chemical additives that can change the properties of concrete, Nair’s research incorporates magnetic particles into cement paste so that a magnetic field can be applied to control its rheological properties in real time. Rheology is the study of the flow of matter.

It’s a concept borrowed from physics, in which the flow and deformation of liquids, such as oils, can be controlled using stress applied by a magnetic field.

“By varying the intensity and the direction of the magnetic field, as well as the dosage of magnetic particles in the cement, you can go from a softer material to a peanut butter-like material, and you can keep going back and forth,” said Nair. “There are different applications where you want to be able to change your rheology and so it’s about real-time control.”

One of the applications Nair is researching is for well casings and plugs used in deep boreholes, such as those used for fossil fuel exploration or deep geothermal systems.

“Within the well, you’re trying to place cement slurry behind the casing where you don’t have much control,” said Nair. “But using an electromagnetic field and incorporating magnetic particles in the slurry, you can make sure you are cementing the entire cross section of the well and not just one part.”

Nair is working with WellSet, a Norwegian startup that will soon be testing a prototype electromagnet to create cement slurries that could help adequately plug abandoned oil and gas wells. She is also researching how the magnetic approach can be used to create a better bond between 3D-printed layers of concrete.

In addition, Nair is researching another physics concept: far-field high-energy diffraction microscopy, in which high-intensity X-rays produce extraordinary views of concrete at the microscale.

Stress tests are a common way structural engineers can gauge the strength of construction materials, but they don’t offer a detailed analysis of how a product may deform, fracture or perform in any given environment. The microscopy performed by Nair can yield valuable data for optimizing the composition of traditional cement or other alternate cementitious materials and for predicting their mechanical behavior.

“There are a lot of models out there trying to predict how a material would deform, and they all start on the micron scale because that’s where they are meshing their material, but they don’t have input data,” said Nair. “We can provide important information to feed into those models.”

The unique microscopy Nair is employing is enabled by the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source, where she was a postdoctoral researcher. CHESS is a half-mile ring buried beneath the south campus athletic fields, where electrons traveling at nearly the speed of light are directed toward materials in order to emit extraordinarily strong X-rays.

“The work we’re doing at the synchrotron is going to be very powerful in improving prediction models of alternate materials,” said Nair.

– Syl Kacapyr


Roger Figueroa: Putting a social and behavioral lens on food insecurity, nutrition, childhood obesity prevention

Roger Figueroa examines the social and behavioral factors that can determine health outcomes, from child obesity prevention within communities to food insecurity and nutritional needs among populations in Puerto Rico, Brooklyn and upstate New York.

Figueroa came to Cornell in 2019 as a provost’s New Faculty Fellow and, as of July 1, is now an assistant professor of social and behavioral science in nutrition in the Division of Nutritional Sciences, which is jointly administered by the College of Human Ecology and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Figueroa said he was drawn to the College of Human Ecology because of its “interesting history of progressive thinking and progressive notions of inquiry about how the world works, how different contexts shape human health and human life. That’s important for me because that’s the lens through which I view my work: looking at environments and contexts and communities, at neighborhoods and homes, where people live and how they behave.”

He earned his undergraduate degree in physical education from Bayamon Central University in Puerto Rico; a master’s in health and kinesiology from the University of Texas, San Antonio; and his Master of Public Health and Ph.D. in human development and family studies from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Before arriving at Cornell, he spent two years as a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

At Cornell, he already is taking advantage of cross-college collaborations and multidisciplinary partnerships, pursuing projects with the Cornell Center for Social Sciences and Cornell Cooperative Extension (through the support of the Office of Engagement Initiatives).

Figueroa said he has found gaps in the research literature: While much research and outreach has aimed to give people facing food insecurity ways to alleviate hunger by improving their access to all foods, he said, those efforts don’t usually include strategies to maximize participation and reach in food assistance programs for those who are most vulnerable, to optimize their diets or to determine whether they have greater nutritional needs or are facing nutritional deficiencies. He hopes new partnerships he is forging at Cornell can target these populations and ultimately help improve people’s health.

He already is working with Marlen Gonzalez, a neuroscientist and assistant professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology. “She’s doing some really interesting work in understanding the neuroscience of environmental and behavioral influences, and the developmental science aspect of health outcomes,” Figueroa said.

He also is developing a study with the Cornell Center for Health Equity, hoping to work with an existing dataset to assess the food environment in Brooklyn. For that project, he will be collaborating with two physician-scientists at Weill Cornell Medicine as part of a larger study.

Figueroa was born to Dominican parents but raised in Puerto Rico from the age of 3, “so I share both heritages,” he said.

Much of his passion comes from his background, which also informs his research interests, including engagement with populations in Puerto Rico.

“There’s definitely a bit of giving back to a community that I belong in,” he said, “and trying to be an advocate for populations who not only share a set of characteristics with me, but who might be experiencing disparate outcomes when it comes to health and nutrition compared to their counterparts in more privileged stances.”

– Joe Wilensky


This story originally appeared in the fall 2020 issue of Ezra magazine.

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