The third annual Communicator of the Year Awards on Jan. 31 highlighted the importance of sharing scholarship and expertise with the public. (Photo: Iliana Garcia Photography.)

5 scholars honored with USC Dornsife Communicator of the Year Awards

The annual awards recognize individuals who excel as “public scholars,” sharing their expertise to benefit society.
ByCrisann Begley-Smith

At a recent reception hosted by Amber D. Miller, dean of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, five USC Dornsife scholars were honored with the prestigious Communicator of the Year Award.

Celebrating remarkable achievements of individuals who excel as public scholars, the award honors USC Dornsife faculty and graduate students who have significantly enhanced the public’s understanding of complex issues, influenced policy development and enriched public discourse.

After Miller welcomed attendees, Senior Associate Dean for Communication and Marketing Jim Key presented the awards.


Communicator of the Year, Natural Sciences & Mathematics — John Vidale

Against a black, gold and white graphic backdrop, John Vidale smiles and holds his Communicator of the Year Award trophyJohn Vidale, Dean’s Professor of Earth Sciences, was honored for his unwavering commitment to public communication and his contributions to making the complex topic of Earth sciences accessible.

Calling him a “seismic force” in his academic field, Key said Vidale has a talent for clearly explaining highly complex seismology topics to a lay audience.

Vidale was frequently tapped by reporters in 2023 to discuss his research on the Earth’s core as well as topics such as the impact of solar storms. Media outlets covering his work and featuring his expertise included The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times.

Noting that Vidale’s appeal to reporters goes beyond his expertise, Key quipped, “His down-to-earth demeanor and ability to demystify earth-shattering concepts make him a magnet for media attention.” Vidale is often the voice of reason during seismic events, Key said, offering clear, expert insights on events from local tremors to major quakes such as those in Turkey and Syria last year.

“And if you’re on social media,” Key added, “you may know [Vidale] through his frequent Facebook posts or as the man behind the ‘seismoguy’ Twitter account,” which add to his efforts to make Earth science accessible to a broad audience.


Communicator of the Year, Social Sciences — Hajar Yazdiha

Hajar Yazdiha, assistant professor of sociology, was honored for her work to illuminate the path toward a more informed, inclusive and empathetic society by sharing her expertise and research on politics and social change.

Yazdiha shared her expertise widely last year through numerous interviews with major outlets such ABC News, Axios and The Hill, and through insightful op-eds in publications ranging from The Los Angeles Times to The Grio.

Yazdiha demonstrated an exceptional ability to bridge the gap between scholarly research and public discourse, Key said. He pointed to Yazdiha’s 2023 book, The Struggle for the People’s King: How Politics Transforms the Memory of the Civil Rights Movement (Princeton University Press) as a notable example. The book explores how certain, powerful groups sometimes distort history and even threaten democracy by portraying themselves as newly oppressed minorities.

Key also said Yazdiha’s many interviews on numerous podcasts as well as her book talks “reflect her mission to make complex social issues, such as race and identity in modern politics, accessible and relatable.”


Communicator of the Year, Humanities — Karen Tongson

Karen Tongson, professor of gender and sexuality studies, English and American studies and ethnicity, was recognized for her contributions to public understanding and policy influence.

Saying Tongson’s expertise and insights cut to the core of the cultural zeitgeist in a year when the LGBTQ community faced renewed challenges and threats, Key said Tongson emerged “not just as an academic but as a beacon of enlightenment and courage.” He noted that she became a go-to source for reporters and producers grappling with complex issues, offering much-needed perspective to enrich stories in prestigious outlets including the Los Angeles Times, KPCC, KCRW, LAist, and CBS.

Tongson’s presence on social media, particularly on Twitter, where her followers number nearly 9,000, extends her influence beyond traditional media. Journalists have turned to her tweets as sources, reflecting Tongson’s ability to distill complex thoughts into bite-sized insights.

As co-host of the popular podcasts “Waiting to X-Hale” and “Gaymazing Race,” Tongson’s engaging narratives continue to draw and educate a diverse listenership.

Recently, Tongson also published a book, NormPorn: Queer Viewers and the TV that Soothes Us (NYU Press, 2023), that offers insight into the love-hate relationship between queer viewers and mainstream family TV shows such as Gilmore Girls and This Is Us. The book sparked conversations and challenged perceptions, further solidifying her role as a pivotal figure in cultural discourse, said Key.

“[Tongson’s] commitment to fostering dialogue is so strong that not even a virus could stop her,” added Key, explaining that even a bad cold couldn’t deter Tongson from moderating a Halloween-themed Dornsife Dialogues event that explored the nature of horror films.


Communicator of the Year, Center or Institute Leader — William Deverell

William Deverell, professor of history, spatial sciences and environmental studies and director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West (ICW), was recognized for his dedication to conveying historical scholarship to the public.

Deverell’s storytelling “echoes through the airwaves of local radio and television, leaps off the pages of prestigious publications like the L.A. Times, New York Times, and Alta, and even ventures into the innovative realms of augmented reality,” Key said. The AR project Deverell leads will enable the public to see what life was like in L.A.’s original Chinatown a century ago.

Key also noted how Deverell’s leadership of the “Western Edition” podcast, articles and engaging public webinars reflect “a communicator who captivates and educates simultaneously.”

Citing Deverell’s decade-long tenure as founding director of the Los Angeles Service Academy, which aims to help high school juniors become community leaders, Key highlighted Deverell’s dedication to community engagement as another reason he deserves the award.

“In recognizing Bill, we’re not just honoring a historian; we’re celebrating a narrative architect who constructs bridges between the past and present, inviting us all to be part of a fascinating journey of understanding,” said Key.

Late last year, Deverell was appointed to the additional role of divisional dean for the social sciences at USC Dornsife.


Communicator of the Year, PhD Student — Ian Anderson

Ian Anderson, who recently earned his doctorate in psychology, was recognized for his commitment to bringing his research into the public sphere, setting a high standard for public engagement as a student.

“Ian’s time at USC Dornsife has been marked not just by academic rigor but by a profound commitment to bringing his research into the public sphere,” said Key. “His insightful explorations regarding how people are influenced by the use of media and computers are more than academic papers; they’re blueprints for understanding and navigating our digital existence.”

Key explained how an article Anderson co-wrote for The Conversation was republished by more than 30 news outlets. The article, based on Anderson’s research, described how social media could be made better and established him as a scholar who “understands the pulse of the public,” Key said. “It’s no surprise that reporters with Yahoo News, Forbes, Business Insider and others, have sought his expertise for their stories.”

Anderson also contributed to global dialogues through a presentation at last year’s Nobel Prize Summit on misinformation, said Key, a further example of Anderson’s strong showing as a scholar who makes his research resonate within and beyond academia.