An Unexpected Path to Provo

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Katherine Payne’s life has taken some dramatic turns in the last few years.

“I never dreamed I would live in Utah,” Payne admits.

BYU’s newest information systems professor took a circuitous path to Provo. Payne grew up in a small town outside of Chicago, and recently converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after meeting her husband as a PhD student at the University of Arizona. Theirs is a love story especially fitting for information systems scholars.

“We met in a graph theory class,’” Payne smiles. “I still have the textbook right here.”

Payne visited BYU for the first time last year for an information systems symposium, where she met faculty and presented research. The visit led to her being offered a position and, subsequently, making the jump to an academic career as a BYU cougar.  Payne felt at home as soon as she stepped on campus.

“At the other places I interviewed, they were interested in my research and teaching, but I felt like I was presenting this disconnected part of myself to them,” Payne says. “When I interviewed here, they really wanted to know who I was as a person.”

And her background is unique. Prior to pursuing a PhD, Payne received her undergraduate degree from Illinois Wesleyan University in English literature with minors in computer science and Russian literature—no information systems on her résumé.

“The chair of Arizona’s information systems department basically told me that they accepted me into the program because of my music background,” Payne says, “Which was a risk since I didn’t have a lot of information systems experience—he just said they’d had a lot of luck with music students. Music has been that thread throughout my whole life.”euph edit2 cropped2

Payne plays the piano, guitar, and trombone, but the euphonium is her specialty. During her college career, she was principal euphonium in orchestras at both Illinois Wesleyan University and the University of Arizona. She still finds time to hone her musical talents and even posts videos of herself singing and playing instruments on YouTube.

But she hasn’t had much free time lately.
She’s currently involved in a plethora of research projects, including some follow-up work on her dissertation, which was an extensive data-mining project. It laid out a system for avid cyclists to plan a cross-country bicycle trip with minimal physical exertion by mapping the country’s changes in elevation. Payne says her research looked at the problem from an optimization perspective—you wouldn’t want to take the shortest path from point A to point B if it’s all uphill, right? After pulling 22 million data points for the entire state of California, Payne and her team applied graph theory to turn the roads into a “topographical graph” that is currently awaiting a patent.

“We’re looking for a licensee for the graph because there are fitness companies out there with exercise bikes that allow people to choose a route, like the Tour de France, based on how hard they want their workout to be,” Payne says. “The system could be incorporated into something like that. It’s a specialized section of my field called geographical information systems.”

Payne’s list of interests doesn’t end there. She’s also leading a project examining twitch.tv, a site where people stream themselves playing video games, to see if its interactive learning principles could be used to improve online education platforms. Despite having so many projects in the works, Payne is thrilled to begin teaching next semester.

“I’ve always prided myself on trying to maintain that childlike idealism you have when you’re first starting out on something,” Payne says. “This is part of my teaching philosophy: if you can combine that optimism with sheer force of will, you can learn anything.