Outside of IST: Faculty and staff impact the community and the world

Jessica Hallman
August 22, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — During the day, many faculty and staff work together to help shape the future of students in the College of Information Sciences and Technology. Once the work day ends, a number of them head off to pursue their passions through which they are impacting the community and the world.

Associate dean for research takes the stage as improv and community theater actor

It may come as a surprise to some that Prasenjit Mitra, professor and associate dean for research in the College of Information Sciences and Technology, regularly speaks in front of crowds that aren’t comprised of his students or colleagues.

In his free time, Mitra performs in various acting capacities and roles in the State College community, including local theater organizations The Next Stage and Happy Valley Improv.

“I have done this forever, in school and in college,” he said. “It feels nice in a sense that I’m doing something on stage, creating a reality, and entertaining people.”

Mitra’s most recent role was in early August, when he portrayed Sir John Middleton, a British nobleman, and some smaller roles in The Next Stage’s production of “Sense & Sensibility” at The State Theatre.

He added, “I like to use my left brain and my right brain. I’ve always done that since childhood. When I act, it gives the other part of my brain [that I use in my day job] a rest.”

He has also been involved with Happy Valley Improv, a group that delivers improvisation — the art of composing and performing without previous preparation — to audiences in State College. Mitra has taken two classes with the group.

“You are not necessarily trying to get laughter [from the audience],” he said. “The main thing is to do the scene and deliver some meaning so that people will be interested. It’s about creating a relationship between the actors.”

Even with this experience, Mitra admits that he gets nervous to perform.

“It’s always nerve wracking before I go up,” he said. “Especially with improv, because you don’t have scripted lines. You just make things up, so the quality may be slightly good or slightly bad in the audience’s eyes.”

To help build confidence on stage, Mitra has also taken part in a local chapter of the international organization Toastmasters, which helps its members build public speaking and leadership skills. There are several local chapters, each meeting regularly in the evenings or over lunch hours.

“You go up and make a seven-minute speech about anything,” said Mitra. “The clubs are quite supportive. After each speech, they give formal evaluations that praise what worked and identify and suggest things to improve.”

Mitra has participated in several of the group’s contests, advancing to the division level where he took second place for a humorous speech.

“[In Toastmasters] you try to create something interesting as well as realistic, such as relationships or conflict,” he said. “In doing this, people naturally say or do things that are funny. You have the license to do wild things.”

Prasenjit Mitra

Prasenjit Mitra, associate dean for research in the College of Information Sciences and Technology, portrays Sir John Middleton, a British nobleman, at The Next Stage's recent production of "Sense & Sensibility" at The State Theatre. Mitra participates in local improv groups and community theater productions in his free time. He said, "I like to use my left brain and my right brain. When I act, it gives the other part of my brain [that I use in my day job] a rest."

IMAGE: Laura Waldhier / photo provided

Humor is something that Mitra likes to sometimes bring into his classroom, which he hopes to do more of in the future.

“It livens things up and breaks the monotony of lectures, especially the longer ones,” he said. “You have to know how to deliver a message so that the audience will remember it.”

He also recognizes the similarities of what he’s learned as an actor and the lessons he delivers to his students.

“Acting has a team-building part. Improv has a public speaking part,” he said. “Communication is one of the most important soft skills that our students should pay attention to.”

IST’s academic services coordinator “lives for” serving others

Sharon Lazarow’s service to students doesn’t stop at the end of her work day.

As adviser for the Penn State chapter of Alpha Phi Omega, the country’s largest co-educational service fraternity, Lazarow continues making an impact on students long after her workday ends as undergraduate academic services coordinator in the College of Information Sciences and Technology.

The volunteer adviser role is one she shares with her husband, Lew, whom she met at Penn State when both were undergraduate members of APO. Today the couple, along with three other advisers, are helping to shape the spirit of service within the organization’s members.

“I enjoy the sense of giving back and recognizing [Alpha Phi Omega’s cardinal principles of] leadership, friendship and service,” said Lazarow. “These are three legs to the table that we take really seriously.”

Alpha Phi Omega, with its values and objectives intertwined with those of the Boy Scouts of America, gives its members a platform to perform a variety of service projects on campus and in the community. Members of the Alpha Beta Chapter at Penn State have held food drives and book drives, raised money for THON, helped organize a knit-a-thon, and supported local animal shelters and charities.

“These kids give back to the community in a way that gives Penn State and IST a good name,” said Lazarow.


Sharon Lazarow (right) with her husband Lew (left) in the 1990s as undergraduate brothers of Alpha Phi Omega, the country's largest co-educational service fraternity. Today, the couple is still active with the organization, serving as advisers for the Penn State chapter.

IMAGE: Provided

In her adviser role, Lazarow works with students from all across campus. However, she is proud to work with several from the College of IST — students she also regularly sees in her day job.

“It allows us to have a much more personal relationship,” she said. “It blends the two worlds together, and I’m able to assist them on both sides. I’m a familiar face; they’re more likely to approach me.”

Bryan Costanzo, a junior majoring in political science and information sciences and technology, is one of those students. Lazarow worked in the college’s undergraduate advising office when Costanzo first met her, and he said that he is inspired by her continued involvement with APO.

“Sharon was a brother [of APO] and heavily involved in the scouting program when she was in school,” said Costanzo. “Now that she has returned to the brotherhood as an adviser, she has jumped back into scouting. She has experience with the inner workings of Boy Scouts, and that experience has proven invaluable in the past year.”

Lazarow explained that she chooses to volunteer because she herself had really good APO mentors when she was an undergraduate. One in particular, Annmarie Daniels, continues to serve as an adviser beside her today. Together, they’re working to make an impact for the next generation.

“We recognize that students may want to do the right thing, but may not have the life lessons behind them to figure out how to do it,” said Lazarow. “That’s where we come in.”

While she credits APO as the source for much of her spirit of service, Lazarow’s drive to make a difference is rooted much deeper. She says that her special education degree and early career experience trained her to look at life differently.

“I worked with nonverbal students and was trying to find creative ways to communicate,” she said. “I took those skills and moved them along wherever I went. I look at a situation, evaluate it for face value, and see where to adjust and grow.”

But, perhaps the greatest impact that Lazarow has made is for her own daughter, Anya, whom the family adopted from Russia in 2001. Today Anya lives at Strawberry Fields, a State College organization that specializes in residential programs to meet the needs of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities to achieve greater independence and opportunity in their lives.

The Lazarows have also instilled a spirit of service in their son Jake, a student at Penn State, who is an Eagle Scout — the highest rank attainable in the Boy Scout program. Lazarow says that one of her proudest achievements of her son is from when the family lived in New Jersey. Jake worked with the local police department to develop a tool they could use to locate missing children. The tool consisted of Jake’s design, a wrist band containing a flash drive which could be loaded with photographs, videos, and audio of a family’s children to be given to police in the event they should ever go missing.

“We don’t know how not to do this,” Lazarow said of her family’s ambition to give back. “This is what we live for.”

Writing allows professor to “create own world” outside the classroom

For many, the combination of computer science and Chinese literature as fields of study don’t seem to have much in common.

But for College of Information Sciences and Technology assistant professor Ting-Hao "Kenneth" Huang, both are passions that he actively puts into practice.

Having earned those two bachelor’s degrees from National Taiwan University and recently earning his doctorate in language and information technologies from Carnegie Mellon University, Huang will spend his days teaching topics such as crowdsourcing and crowd-powered systems.

And at night, he’ll continue to pursue his passion as a writer of Mandarin fiction, short stories, essays, plays, and poems — many of which he writes under a pen name, Feng-Shen.

“Writing short stories is very interesting to me,” said Huang. “You create your own world. You can have characters doing interesting things. That part really attracted me.”

Kenneth Huang

Ting-Hao (Kenneth) Huang, assistant professor in the College of Information Sciences and Technology, is also pursuing his passion as a writer of fiction, short stories, essays, plays and poems. He self-published his first book at the age of 17 and won the Award of Mystery Writers of Taiwan writing contest in 2010. He said, "Writing short stories is very interesting to me. You create your own world."

IMAGE: Jessica Hallman

Huang began writing while he was in elementary school, handwriting his scripts and stories in notebooks for his friends to read and review.

“That kind of [peer] feedback was important,” he said. “It made me think the question about readers and writers in this early age.”

When he was 17, Huang self-published his first book. He was then accepted to college as a double major student — a feat of which he is extremely proud.

“I wanted to do these two things that have very little overlap between them,” he said. “I needed to allocate my time and effort in both. These two things cannot share some part of me.”

As he pursued his dual degrees [which he earned] in just four years, he wrote scripts for two drama plays, and after graduation he won the Award of Mystery Writers of Taiwan writing contest in 2010. However, he ultimately chose to pursue a higher degree and career in technology.

But he still loves books and finds time to read every day.

“When I moved [to State College] from Pittsburgh, I moved 75 boxes,” he said. “Thirty of those were filled with books.”

He noted that he especially likes to read after a long or stressful day, and said that he did a lot of reading while he pursued his master’s and doctoral degrees.

“When you go home, you just want to do nothing,” he said. “In that text you read, you get some inspiration. That small inspiration is very important to me.”

Writing isn’t the only way that Huang applies this inspiration in a creative way. He also practices photography as a hobby, and has thousands of photos on his Flickr page.

“I like to capture people’s important moments,” he said.

He shared an example of a picture he took of a friend awaiting the committee’s deliberation of his dissertation defense.

“It was a picture of his last time as a mister before he became a doctor,” said Huang. “Those are the photos I want to take, the turning point of people’s lives. I want to capture those moments, the big ones or the seemingly boring ones.”

While he limits his photography interests to his friends and his travels, he tries to apply some things he’s that he’s learned as a writer in his classroom.

“When you write, you think about how you set things up to get to the punchline,” he said. “But the thing you actually want to say is the punchline. The same goes for teaching. You have to send a message and want the audience to get that message.”

Last Updated August 22, 2018