Leak, Vashistha recognized for excellence in promoting diversity

Two faculty members have been awarded the university’s highest honor for excellence in research, teaching and service through diversity.

Tashara M. Leak, associate professor in the Division of Nutritional Sciences in the College of Human Ecology and associate dean of Cornell Human Ecology in New York City, and Aditya Vashistha, assistant professor of information science in the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science, are this year’s recipients of the Faculty Award for Excellence in Research, Teaching and Service through Diversity. Launched in 2019, the award recognizes faculty for their sustained and transformational work promoting diversity through research, teaching and service.

Tashara M. Leak

Former President Martha E. Pollack and Interim President Michael I. Kotlikoff announced the awards based on nominations from students, faculty and staff and recommendations of a selection committee. The recognition comes with a $15,000 prize.

Aditya Vashistha

“We’re pleased to honor Professor Leak and Professor Vashistha for their outstanding contributions to diversity through their dedication, creativity and commitment to research, teaching and service. Their work is making a significant difference in the lives of our students, and to underserved communities at home and abroad,” Kotlikoff said.

Though they work in different parts of the world – Vashistha in South Asia and Leak in urban areas, primarily in New York City – both design systems and programs that are culturally relevant to the people they benefit.

Leak designs culturally relevant interventions to improve the diet and health of adolescents in urban communities. She is using a $1 million award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to run the Advanced Cooking Education Urban 4-H After School Club to reduce obesity in seventh and eighth graders in low-income schools in New York City – a program she believes can be replicated in urban areas across the country.

Meeting weekly for 12 weeks, the students are exposed to career opportunities in food and agriculture, such as food science, urban agriculture, food photography and computer coding for food applications. They also receive groceries to complete a cooking lab at home where they prepare plant-based ethnic meals, such as Caribbean rasta pasta and “habichuelas guisadas,” a rice and bean dish popular in Puerto Rico.

Students learn that “you don’t have to abandon your cultural food norms in order to be healthy,” Leak said.

She has received more than $15 million in grants since joining Cornell in 2017. She also holds an appointment as an associate professor of nutrition research in medicine at Cornell Weill Medicine where she is principal investigator on an intervention for Black adolescent girls at risk for Type 2 diabetes.

“In the U.S, Black women are more than twice as likely to die from Type 2 diabetes complications compared to white women,” said Leak, noting the importance of early education.

Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the 12-week-long telehealth and in-person study exposes Black adolescent girls and their caregivers to mindfulness activities, Afrocentric dance classes and nutrition information. The program sends groceries to the girls’ homes each week for meal preparation.

Leak also co-directs the Action Research Collaborative, an initiative fostering cross-sector collaborations among faculty, policy makers and community organizations interested in addressing societal issues such as food insecurity and youth development.

Last year Leak was named the inaugural associate dean of the College of Human Ecology in New York City where she is based. She is expanding Cornell’s footprint in New York City by facilitating new research, experiential leaning and outreach opportunities for faculty, staff and students interested in working in the city.

Vashistha creates culturally aware artificial intelligence technologies to improve social and economic outcomes for underserved communities, including more than 250,000 community health workers, low-literate people and blind users of social media.

“I design technologies for the left behind – the 85% of the world limited to a low income, who are working in oppressive conditions and living in societies with deep social, digital and health inequities,” he said.

Computing technologies to date are typically created for people living in wealthy, educated and industrialized nations instead of the global south, where most of the world’s population lives and the arena in which Vashistha works. He has developed novel ways to examine and combat misinformation and hate speech propagating in low-income communities.

Vashistha is also designing culturally appropriate AI technologies for community health workers in India with a high school education and 42 days of training who provide family planning advice, deliver immunizations, and discuss maternal and neonatal health in underdeveloped communities.

In Ithaca, Vashistha is faculty director of Hack4Impact, a project team giving undergraduates opportunities to develop technical solutions to local organizations’ concerns, such as templates for legal forms used by the Earth Law Center. More than 550 students have taken his courses, Computing and Global Development, and Technology for Underserved Communities, which aim to educate and train students to become leaders in designing technologies for diverse communities in the U.S. and beyond. He also co-organizes a popular job market series to assist Ph.D. students in preparing for interviews and crafting research statements.

Nominations for recipients of the 2025 award will be solicited in February 2025.

Lori Sonken is the communication and program manager in the Provost’s Office of Faculty Development and Diversity.

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