Rising Stars 2020:

Justine Zhang

PhD Candidate

Cornell University

Areas of Interest

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Natural Language Processing
  • Computational Social Science


Modeling the Balance of Conversational Objectives


Throughout a conversation, participants make choices that can orient the flow of the interaction. Such choices are particularly salient in the consequential domain of crisis counseling, where a difficulty for counselors is balancing between two key objectives: advancing the conversation towards a resolution, and empathetically addressing the crisis situation.

We develop an unsupervised methodology to quantify how counselors manage this balance. Our main intuition is that if an utterance can only receive a narrow range of appropriate replies, then its likely aim is to advance the conversation forwards, towards a target within that range. Likewise, an utterance that can only appropriately follow a narrow range of possible utterances is likely aimed backwards at addressing a specific situation within that range. By applying this intuition, we can map each utterance to a continuous orientation axis that captures the degree to which it is intended to direct the flow of the conversation forwards or backwards.

This unsupervised method allows us to characterize counselor behaviors in a large dataset of crisis counseling conversations, where we show that known counseling strategies intuitively align with this axis. We also illustrate how our measure can be indicative of a conversation's progress, as well as its effectiveness.


Justine is a final-year PhD student in the Information Science department at Cornell University. She is interested in developing frameworks for examining how people have conversations. In particular, she is working on developing computational methods for analyzing large-scale datasets of conversations, drawing on techniques from natural language processing and computational social science. She has received a Microsoft Research PhD Fellowship. Previously, she received her BSc. in computer science from Stanford University.

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