Interdisciplinary journey of Dr. Fay Cobb Payton

by Bushra Anjum (FCA member)

Dr. Fay Cobb Payton is a Program Director at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the Division of Computer and Network Systems. At the NSF, she is working with a group of leaders on programs involving Computer Science for All, Computer Science Education, Broadening Participation and others. She is also a Full Professor (with Tenure) of Information Technology/Systems at North Carolina State University and is a named University Faculty Scholar for her leadership in turning research into solutions to society’s most pressing issues.

Her research is interdisciplinary and includes healthcare IT/informatics and disparities; data management, social media use, identities in online communities; broadening participation in computing, STEM and workforce participation; and UX/content creation.

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You have both an MBA and a PhD degree. Please tell us more about your specializations and how your interdisciplinary degrees helped and shaped your career choices?

[Payton] My specializations are Decision Sciences at the MBA level. During which time, I did research with one of my professors on forecasting models and data quality. At the PhD level, I specialized in information technology/computing with foci on health informatics and data quality/data management. The PhD research was rooted in information and decision systems – with an emphasis on “systems”.

With this intra- and inter-discipline diversity, I am able to work best in interdisciplinary environments and better understand frameworks that work (or not) in a given context. I am also able to leverage what I learned from my industry experiences prior to entering academe. In industry, I worked as a programmer, logistics planner and consultant. It is this diversity of experiences that strengthens my conversations with industry and academia for research practice partnerships or public private partnerships.

These experiences have influenced my career choices with a keen focus to “stay close to and remain in tech” but find ways to influence social impacts to address questions of participation, disparities and underrepresentation in the space.


Your current work and research lies at the interesting interdisciplinary cross section of HealthCare, UX Design, Social Media and Data Analytics. How did THAT happen!?

[Payton] My healthcare work evolved from research with systems engineering and information technology scholars who were exploring issues of designing and implementing home-care platforms to address diseases (e.g., Alzheimer’s, HIV) often associated with social isolation. This leads to major inquiries: “What is effective design”? “How are the systems used?” “Who are the intended users, and what are their needs?” “How can use patterns inform the system and vice versa, and “what data are needed to improve the design and thereby, improve the patient/user experience?”.

As the field adopted more user-centered or participatory design frameworks, communication channels shifted as did my research to better understand the interdisciplinary nature of the cross section that you mention (as well as the intersectionality that exists yet is often ignored).

I should note that this should not be taken solely as “health care” but rather holistic thinking, problem-solving to any domain. This is why you will see similar patterns in my research regarding underrepresentation, disparities and the social impacts of tech.


Payton, F.C., Leveraging Intersectionality: Seeing and Not Seeing, 2014, Richer Press; See details at


You are currently serving as a Program Director in Computer & Information Science Engineering (CISE) for the NSF. What are some of the interdisciplinary initiatives that CISE is (or intends to) supporting.

[Payton] I am a Program Director in the Computer Network Systems division, and also collaborate with other NSF programs as a CISE representative. Specific to CISE, the interdisciplinary initiatives include Computer Science For All (CSForAll), Big Data, Smart Cities, Cybersecurity, Wireless Research, Robotics, Brain Research, just to name a few. While many of these initiatives are considered core research programs, they are cross-cutting research to foster collaboration and new research directions while sustaining a commitment to the fundamental work which CISE supports.


Would you say that supporting interdisciplinary work and research is a priority for the government research bodies in general and NSF in particular?

[Payton] I do not want to speak for NSF or government research bodies. However, the “big ideas” or “grand challenges” cannot be solved or resolved in a solo or by a single discipline. For instances, issues of big data, algorithm use and development, workforce participation, disruptive technologies, innovation and entrepreneurship (to name a few) are layered concepts which have technical, organizational and social impacts and implications. Some of which are intentional impacts, but the unintentional often leads questions that we have yet to address or even conceptualized.


What is the current work that you are involved with in the areas of CSForAll and Broadening Participation?

[Payton] My own research examines (in this space):

  • Under-represented minority faculty experiences in computing and IT;
  • STEM collegians who engage the arts; See this publication: Payton, et al. STEM Majors, Art Thinkers, Journal of STEM Education, 2017
  • Examining high school teachers perceptions of CS K-12 pathways (forthcoming initiative);
  • Digital divides
  • Tech workforce experiences among Black women and underrepresented groups

With the CSForAll and Broadening Participation, we (at the NSF) are working to get more underrepresented groups interested in, exposed to and pursuing CS degrees. This work means partnering with K-12 school systems, service providers, industry, higher education and others.

The challenge is to expand our definition of how we broaden participation. To me, this means examining the continuum (not a pipeline metaphor) and the players/stakeholders that can add to the discourse. This even means expanding the places and spaces where broadening participation can and does happen, but does not “fit” into current definitions. Further, this means exploring how broadening participation can be multi-tiered: 1) K-12, 2) IT/computing workforce experiences, 3) higher education (including HBCUs, Tribal College, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, community colleges), 4) diverse service providers for research practice partnerships, and 5) higher education faculty and leadership.


What are some of the academic communities that you have engaged with while studying “healthcare and digital equity”? What are some of the interesting commonalities and discrepancies in the language, values and world-views between these communities?

[Payton] I have engaged with a number of health care academic communities, including ACM, IEEE, Decision Sciences Institute, American Medical Informatics Association, INFORMS, American Public Health Association and Healthcare Information & Management Systems Society.

There are language discrepancies. While the focus may share the commonality of health are, the differences about language and mission continue to be challenging. Other challenges remain in the lenses of how problems are or not contextualized, and including:

  • ROI
  • Evidence-based
  • Patient-Centered
  • Culturally Competent
  • Social Justice

Technology innovation/design absent of the health care (or any domain) intricacies (context) often results in additional layers of inequity – particularly among underrepresented often overlooked groups. This does not broaden participation.


There is a perception that there is neither enough respect nor recognition for those who work interdisciplinary and that the research community does not consider it as ‘true research’. What has been your experience? And how would you counter this point of view?

[Payton] I have experienced this difficulty both on the lack of respect and recognition. Though some may say “not true research”, I have experience the constant thinking of this is “not top tier journal publication” in the computing/IT discipline” or “this is niche work”. These perceptions create distinctions in how departments and institutions value and evaluate ID research. This is the case even when the work has been supported by external funding agencies, and this demonstrates that higher education is not often aligned with funders. You know that grant writing is typically more extensive than journal writing and requires researchers to act on both internal (sponsored research, budgeting, etc.) and external procedures.

I often counter this view when the external community and other disciplines requests, values and cites my publications; forms collaborations with industry or provides some consulting expertise or providing invited talks, or am successful in securing a grant.


What has been some of the barriers that you have faced when engaging in interdisciplinary (ID) research? Looking back, what do you think would have helped?

[Payton] Academic institutions were (and still are) challenged by how to evaluate interdisciplinary research. Faculty are in discipline silos. You have heard the phrase: “everyone needs an academic home”.

Academic journals find it difficult to evaluate publications ID manuscript submissions.

Hence, promotion and tenure guidelines do not fit the dynamics of ID research.

Funding agencies must find ID reviewers with the blend of ID knowledge (think: tech transfer, innovation, workforce development, economic impact for a given project.).

Deciding who appears on a manuscript and in what order counts differently across different departments.


Your advice to young researchers and practitioners who would like to start a career between fields.

[Payton] Document…document…document. Learn to (at a minimal) respect the frameworks and promising practices of other disciplines. Think T-shape skill sets (e.g., get some domain insights beyond the tech).


More Information

For those interested in learning more about Dr. Payton’s interdisciplinary user experience (UX) design research initiative focused on health, technology & STEM education and issues, information can be found here.

Kvasny, L. and Payton, F.C. What About Our Daughters: Learning About Health Information Seeking from Students at Predominantly White Institutions, Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology (JASIST), 2018.

Payton, F.C. and Kvasny, L. Technology Affordance – Maybe Not: The Case of Stigmatized Health Conditions, Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, 2016, 1-6. DOI:

Payton, F.C., Cultures of Participation & Design – @myhealthimpact: For Students, By Students, Information Systems Journal, 2015, doi:10.1111/isj.12086.

Payton, F. C., Workplace Design – The Millennials Are Not Coming, They Are Here, Design Management Institute, Spring 2015, 54-63.

Payton, F.C. and Galloway, K. Here Comes the #Engagement: A Serious Health Initiative Made Trendy, XRDS ACM Magazine, 2015 (21:2), 28-31.