From Court to Lab, Starbird an Inspiration

Kevin Pelton, | August 29, 2012

10 years ago, Kate Starbird called KeyArena home. Acquired by the Seattle Storm in a deal before the trade deadline, the Lakes High School product and former Seattle Reign star played a key role off the bench as the Storm finished the 2002 season strong and reached the WNBA Playoffs for the first time.

On Thursday night, Starbird will take the court at KeyArena in a new role. Starbird has been chosen as one of the Storm's 2012 Women of Inspiration, who will be honored at halftime of the team's game against the Phoenix Mercury (7:00 p.m., ).

"I think I'm going to turn bright red and be a little embarrassed," Starbird said by phone Wednesday. "It will be nice to say hello to the crowd again and have everybody scratching their heads: 'What's she doing out there again?'"

Kate Starbird played for the Storm in 2002.
Jeff Reinking/NBAE/Getty Images

A decade ago, Starbird earned cheers from the KeyArena crowd as she helped lead the Storm to its first playoff berth.

What Starbird is doing is inspiring others by reinventing herself. The former basketball standout, who ranks among the top players ever to come out of the state of Washington, is now making her mark in academia. Starbird recently defended her dissertation to complete her Ph. D at the University of Colorado at Boulder. This fall, she will start a new position as an assistant professor in the University of Washington's Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering.

Fittingly, Starbird's transition was inspired in part by attending the Storm's Women of Inspiration Night just after her playing career wrapped up.

"I saw the women honored down there on the court, all doing amazing things in the community, and thought to myself that I wanted to be down there one day," said Starbird. "I wanted to find a path after basketball where I could contribute positively to our community, to our world."

As she was finishing up as a player, Starbird faced the same question as many athletes: What comes next? She had the luxury of easing into retirement. Starbird played her last WNBA season for the Indiana Fever in 2004, then spent the next two winters playing in Spain. With the summer of 2005 free, she enrolled in classes at the University of Washington to see whether going back to school made sense.

A computer science major who was an Academic All-American at Stanford, where she also finished as the school's all-time leading scorer (Candice Wiggins has since surpassed her total), Starbird decided to continue her education at Colorado. That led her to Project EPIC, a collaboration between Colorado and UC Irvine funded by the US National Science Foundation to study communication, and specifically social media, during crisis situations.

Along with advisor Leysia Palen and her colleagues at Colorado, Starbird helped develop a format known as "Tweak the Tweet" to turn Twitter messages posted during crises into data that can be collected and used to help guide relief efforts. Project EPIC was in the midst of developing the syntax when the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti forced them to put it into use.

Some two years later, Starbird has developed the back-end software to automatically tabulate tweets formatted with the correct "Tweak the Tweet" hashtags. An online community of digital volunteers has also grown to support the project by reposting tweets by victims in the proper syntax. With their help, Starbird has been busy this week tracking the progress of Hurricane Isaac as it reached the coast of Louisiana in the early hours of Wednesday morning. As of Wednesday afternoon, her map of the area had more than 1,000 entries, including photos as well as tweets.

At Washington, Starbird will continue her research in addition to teaching classes and recruiting new students to help with the work and investigating the larger field of mass participation online. She's thrilled to be back in her native Pacific Northwest.

"I saw the women honored down there on the court, all doing amazing things in the community, and thought to myself that I wanted to be down there one day."
- Starbird

"I never thought it would work out quite so well where I'd have a great opportunity to be faculty at the University of Washington in a great department," she said. "My partner and I really wanted to be back in Seattle. I didn't even dream that I would be able to get the perfect job in Seattle as well, so I'm really counting my blessings."

After playing basketball professionally for nearly a decade, including two seasons in the ABL and five in the WNBA, Starbird has found another passion. She discovered midway through her time at the University of Colorado that the career path for her new field was much less frustrating than sports.

"As a basketball player, somewhere between 24 and 26, maybe 27, you reach your peak and after that you're just getting worse," she said. "It's kind of depressing. Even when you're getting better skill-wise, your physical capacity is going down.

"In academia, you just keep getting better. For me, it was so nice to find something I was going to improve at for the next 20-30 years after spending the last 10 years getting worse at the thing I loved and the thing I was doing. I like that about my new career - I learn every day and I feel I get better at what I do every day."

Starbird still has ties to the Storm organization. She played with Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson, and her relationship with Storm President & CEO Karen Bryant goes back to their days with the ABL's Reign. Starbird has admired the team's growth from afar, and with her return she and her partner have tickets to the Storm's remaining games during the 2012 season and hope to become Season Ticket Holders next year.

"The whole organization - the players as well as the coaching staff and people who have been in the administration for years and years, they're really doing the right thing," Starbird said. "I'm proud of what the Storm has done the last few years."

On Thursday night, the Storm and fans will have the opportunity to acknowledge their pride in Starbird's accomplishments - both during her playing career and now the way she's making a difference in her new role.

"It's a great honor to be recognized with so many other amazing women," she said. "It's also motivation to continue to work towards deserving to be among this group."

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