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Allen School’s Jeffrey Heer elected to CHI Academy

Allen School professor Jeffrey Heer has been honored by the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction (SIGCHI) with election to the CHI Academy. The Academy is composed of researchers who have made substantial, cumulative contributions to the field of human-computer interaction through the development of new explorative directions and innovations and have influenced the work of their peers. He is one of only eight new members elected to the CHI Academy this year. 

Heer, who holds the Jerre D. Noe Endowed Professorship at the Allen School, is a leading researcher in HCI, social computing and data visualization. He directs the Interactive Data Lab, where he and his team investigate the perceptual, cognitive, and social factors involved in making sense of large data collections. They then apply these insights to the development of novel interactive systems for visual analysis and communication, including tools to enhance interactive visualization on the web.  

As a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, Heer created Prefuse, one of the first software frameworks for information visualization and Flare, a version of Prefuse built for Adobe Flash that was partly informed by his work in animated transitions. As a faculty member at Stanford University, he worked with Ph.D. student Mike Bostock on Protovis, a graphical toolkit for visualization that combined the efficiency of high-level visualization systems and the expressiveness and accessibility of low-level graphical systems, and Data-Driven Documents (D3), which succeeded Protovis as the de facto standard for interactive visualizations on the web. Heer also contributed to Data Wrangler, an interactive tool for cleaning and transforming raw data that was developed by researchers at Stanford and Berkeley. Heer and colleagues co-founded a startup company, Trifacta, to commercialize that work. 

Since joining the Allen School faculty in 2013, Heer and his students have worked on a suite of complementary tools for data analysis and visualization design built on Vega, a declarative language for producing interactive visualizations. These tools include Lyra, an interactive environment for generating customized visualizations, and Voyager, a recommendation-powered visualization browser. Vega led to Vega-Lite, a high-level grammar for rapid and concise specification of interactive data visualizations.

“I am honored to be named to the CHI academy, with so many members that have been mentors and role models to me throughout my career,” Heer said. “And it’s a special treat to be included in this particular cohort, alongside my wonderful Ph.D. advisor Maneesh Agrawala and my inspiring colleague and former internship advisor Fernanda Viégas.”

Heer’s work has previously been recognized with a Sloan Research Fellowship, the ACM Grace Murray Hopper Award, the IEEE Visualization Technical Achievement Award, Best Paper Awards at ACM CHI, EuroVis and IEEE InfoVis conferences and an IEEE InfoVis 10-Year Test-of-Time Award.

Heer’s election to the CHI Academy follows that of Allen School professor Jennifer Mankoff and iSchool professors and Allen School adjunct faculty members Batya Friedman and Jacob Wobbrock in 2017.

Congratulations, Jeff! 

March 5, 2021

Allen School alumnus Ming Liu earns honorable mention in SIGCOMM Doctoral Dissertation Award competition

Allen School alumnus Ming Liu (Ph.D., ‘20) received the honorable mention for the 2021 ACM SIGCOMM Doctoral Dissertation Award for Outstanding Ph.D. Thesis in Computer Networking and Data Communication from the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Data Communications. The award committee recognized Liu for “identifying and enabling novel uses of programmable network devices in data centers, including an in-network computing solution for accelerating distributed applications, and a microservice execution platform running on Smart Network Interface Cards (NICs)-accelerated servers.”

Liu’s thesis, “Building Distributed Systems Using Programmable Networks,” addresses how to best leverage emerging data center network computational elements. His aim is to help overcome stagnating CPU performance, rapid growth in network bandwidth, and the increasing cost of data transfers. His thesis makes multiple contributions using a broad range of devices spanning programmable SmartNICs, programmable switches, and network-attached accelerators to improve the performance and energy profile of cloud-based applications.

“Ming’s research could have a long-term impact on how we use programmable networks inside data centers,” said his advisor, Allen School professor Arvind Krishnamurthy. “There has been a surge in the design of programmable networking hardware, but it isn’t clear as to what problems they can solve. Ming’s work has focused on identifying novel uses of these hardware devices and enabling the pervasive use of programmable network devices in data centers. Within five years, he has made outstanding progress on this front, with many projects at the intersection of distributed systems and networking.”

Three components of Liu’s thesis advanced improvements to the performance and energy profile of cloud-based applications. IncBricks is a hardware-software co-designed system that supports caching in the network using a programmable network middlebox. With this, Liu provides significant performance benefits such as reducing end-host costs, lowering latency, and improving throughput. His iPipe project is an actor-based framework for offloading distributed applications on SmartNICs. iPipe allows a SmartNIC to be safely multi-programmed, with a real-time scheduler, process migration, and resource isolation mechanisms providing security and portability across different hardware NIC designs. Liu also developed E3, a microservice execution platform that can opportunistically move computation onto a SmartNIC to yield massive energy savings — a valuable contribution given that data centers threaten to overwhelm the nation’s power grid in the near future.

Liu, who earned his Ph.D. while working with Krishnamurthy and professor Luis Ceze, is currently a postdoctoral researcher at VMware and will join the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the fall as a professor in the computer science department. 

Congratulations, Ming! 

March 2, 2021

Allen School student Samia Ibtasam earns AAUW International Fellowship for her work in technological inclusion for women in Pakistan

Samia Ibtasam

Samia Ibtasam, a Ph.D. student working with Allen School professor Richard Anderson in the Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICTD) Lab, has been named a 2021 American Association of University Women International Fellow for her work in creating training support tools for women to increase technological inclusion. Her research focuses on gender inequality in technological and financial services and building tools for women to use to narrow the gap. 

AAUW International Fellows are women studying or researching full-time in the United States that are not U.S. citizens. Ibtasam is from Pakistan and has been conducting ICTD research there for more than a decade. She explored the development of novel solutions to poverty as well as the impact of technology on marginalized populations there, before choosing to pursue her Ph.D. at the University of Washington. 

“My work focuses on the fact that the digital divide is more than binary descriptors of haves and have nots. It is a spectrum that goes all the way from novice users who don’t know how to use digital devices to experts,” Ibtasam said. “In my research, especially with low-income men and women, I have seen that during these many stages of technology engagement and adoption, training by someone who is mostly a human plays an integral role in helping users get ahead. This is especially true for low-income or low-literate populations as the fear of breaking devices, the fear of transacting and causing loss to themselves is higher for them. Thus, for low-income women, their family members in the form of children, brothers, and others come in as informal trainers.”

Through preliminary fieldwork in 2017 and 2018, Ibtasam found that Pakistani women business owners had advanced technological needs to communicate with clients, coordinate schedules with family members, remember materials or items purchased or sold and track the amount they received and sales on credit. Recalling business transactions while managing household activities is overwhelming for many of the women she spoke with — and they often have an added barrier of little to no literacy. Some of the women she observed are forced to rely on their own recall, their children’s note-taking, or dictating daily transactions to family members at the end of the day. To address these issues, Ibtasam is working to better support transactional recordkeeping for these business owners. 

Ibtasam aims to build a training framework to incorporate assistance for them into mobile applications. Device-provided training for the women will include various types of help to enable users to learn to use the system. The training would include demos, walkthroughs, screen level help, audio or text cues and videos. The program would be incorporated into an application and provided to participants in her study, which will enable her to gauge how it helps them to perform certain tasks and see how useful it will be to businesses. 

“Samia’s vast experience with development in Pakistan, as well as deep knowledge of financial service usage from prior research, makes her uniquely suited to explore solutions for financial empowerment of women,” said Allen School professor Kurtis Heimerl, who has worked with Ibtasam in the ICTD Lab. “Her research agenda, focused on providing voice interfaces to marginalized women entrepreneurs in Pakistan, is extremely novel and will produce both top-flight research into the HCI components of such systems as well as provide a meaningful impact on marginalized communities.”

Ibtasam pointed out that Pakistan is the fifth most populous country in the world, yet it has one of the world’s largest mobile phone ownership and technology gender gaps — despite the fact that the country is continuing to grow its digital infrastructure. She hopes that her project will make the digital divide smaller and she herself plans to continue offering guidance and mentorship to young girls who want to pursue a STEM education. 

Before coming to the Allen School, Ibtasam was a faculty member in the Department of Computer Science at the Information Technology University in Lahore, Pakistan, where she taught design thinking, human-centered design and technology for global development. She was also the co-director of the Innovations for Poverty Alleviation Lab. She previously was named an Acumen Fund Regional Fellow for Pakistan and earned a Marilyn Fries Regental Endowed Fellowship and a Google Women Techmaker Scholarship

Congratulations, Samia! 

February 19, 2021

Allen School faculty honored by the Association for Computing Machinery for advancing probabilistic robotics, internet-scale systems, and more

Association for Computing Machinery logo

Allen School professors Dieter Fox and Arvind Krishnamurthy recently attained the status of Fellows of the Association for Computing Machinery in honor of their influential contributions to robotics and computer vision and to systems and networking, respectively. Each year, the ACM bestows the designation of Fellow on a select group of members to recognize their impact through research and service based on nominations submitted by their peers in the computing community.

According to ACM President Gabriele Kotsis, in 2020 the organization received a record number of nominations from around the world aiming to highlight individuals who have made “pivotal contributions to technologies that are transforming whole industries, as well as our personal lives.” The ACM’s recognition of Krishnamurthy and Fox brings the number of Allen School faculty members elevated to Fellow to 26. Allen School affiliate professor Meredith Ringel Morris, an expert in human-computer interaction and accessibility at Microsoft Research, and former Allen School professor Steve Gribble, now a distinguished engineer focused on networked systems at Google, joined Fox and Krishnamurthy among the 95 researchers worldwide to be recognized for their achievements in the new class of Fellows.

Dieter Fox

Portrait of Dieter Fox

Dieter Fox was elevated to the status of ACM Fellow for “contributions to probabilistic state estimation, RGB-D perception, and learning for robotics and computer vision.” Fox’s work, which spans roughly 25 years, has had an influential impact across multiple areas, opened up new avenues of research, and helped establish the University of Washington as a leader in robotics and artificial intelligence research.

Fox currently serves as director of the Allen School’s Robotics and State Estimation Laboratory and senior director of robotics research at NVIDIA. He joined the UW faculty in 2000 after earning his Ph.D. from the University of Bonn in Germany and completing a postdoc at Carnegie Mellon University. Fox was among the pioneers of probabilistic robotics, for which he co-authored a textbook of the same name, which aims to address problems in perception and control to endow robots with the ability to interact with people and their environment in an intelligent way. 

Among Fox’s contributions is a series of novel techniques for Bayesian state estimation that have resulted in significant advancements across a variety of domains, including object manipulation, human activity recognition, and localization and mapping. For the latter — one of the fundamental problems in robotics — Fox’s early work on Markov localization in dynamic environments is considered to be a significant milestone. He and his colleagues built on that work with the introduction of Monte-Carlo Localization, a technique that broke new ground with its use of sampling-based methods that proved to be more accurate, more computationally efficient, and easier to implement than previous approaches. MCL subsequently became the preferred approach in the field, and today localization is widely regarded as a solved problem in robotics.

In another series of firsts, Fox contributed to new systems for achieving robust 3D-mapping capabilities using RGB-D cameras and advancing robot learning by incorporating model-based information into deep learning approaches. In a paper that combined insights from robotics and computer vision, Fox and colleagues in the Allen School’s Graphics & Imaging Laboratory (GRAIL) presented DynamicFusion, the first dense simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) system capable of producing detailed and complete reconstructions of subjects in motion, and in real time. Fox and collaborators subsequently leveraged that capability to automate the generation of robust visual training data from RGB-D video in order to take advantage of new deep learning techniques. The resulting framework enabled robots to learn rich visual features of objects and people in their environment in a self-supervised way. Self-supervised learning has since emerged as a highly active area of robotics research.

Over the course of his career, Fox has earned multiple Best Paper and Test of Time Awards at the preeminent research conferences in artificial intelligence, robotics, computer vision, and ubiquitous computing. Prior to his election as a Fellow of the ACM, Fox attained the status of Fellow of both the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) and the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Last year, Fox earned the IEEE Robotics & Automation Society’s RAS Pioneer Award in acknowledgment of his groundbreaking contributions to state estimation, robot perception and machine learning as well as his efforts to bridge academic and industrial research through his many collaborations with Intel, NVIDIA, and other partners.

Arvind Krishnamurthy

Portrait of Arvind Krishnamurthy

Arvind Krishnamurthy was named a Fellow of the ACM for “contributions to networks and distributed computer systems.” Krishnamurthy’s research advances state-of-the-art approaches for building robust and efficient computer systems to support data center operations and internet-scale computing. His work encompasses topics such as internet measurement and reliability, peer-to-peer data sharing, data center performance, network routing, and systems for bridging the gap between machine learning and hardware innovation. 

After earning his Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley in 1999, Krishnamurthy began his career as a faculty member at Yale University. Since joining the Allen School faculty in 2005, Krishnamurthy has focused on advancing new network primitives, protocols and services to make the internet more reliable and resilient and to optimize distributed and networked systems inside data centers. Krishnamurthy ‘s work has earned multiple awards at the preeminent conferences in operating and networked systems, including five Best Paper or Best Student Paper designations at the Symposium on Networked Systems Design and Implementation (NSDI). 

One of Krishnamurthy’s contributions to be singled out by NSDI was Reverse Traceroute, the first tool for diagnosing internet performance issues that expanded upon existing capabilities for tracing packets from source to destination to include their asymmetric return paths. The tool gained popularity for troubleshooting performance problems within corporate internal networks as well as on the internet. Three years later, Krishnamurthy and his collaborators presented their award-winning paper describing F10, a fault-tolerant network designed explicitly for the data-center setting to improve the reliability and performance of applications in the cloud. Consisting of a novel network topology and failover protocols designed to cascade and complement each other, F10 proved capable of reestablishing connectivity and load balance almost instantaneously, even in the presence of multiple failures.

Krishnamurthy was also a member of the team behind a novel operating system designed to address recent application and hardware trends that are hampered by the traditional operating-system model. In proposing Arrakis, which earned the Best Paper Award at the 2014 conference on Operating Systems Design and Implementation (OSDI), Krishnamurthy and his collaborators re-engineered the OS kernel to provide network and disk protection without requiring mediation of every operation. As a result, most applications are able to bypass the kernel entirely in favor of direct access to virtualized input/output (I/O) devices. By reimagining the traditional role of the OS kernel, the researchers demonstrated that high performance and protection could go hand in hand.

More recently, Krishnamurthy co-led a team of researchers that created TVM, a framework that enabled researchers and practitioners to take advantage of emerging machine learning capabilities — and their attendant productivity gains — by making it easy to deploy the latest deep learning applications on a range of devices without sacrificing battery power or speed. Krishnamurthy and colleagues subsequently earned a Best Paper from IEEE Micro for introducing an extension to TVM, the Versatile Tensor Accelerator (VTA), that offered a customizable deep learning architecture designed to be extensible in the face of evolving workloads while preserving the efficiency gains achieved by hardware specialization. Together, TVM and VTA provided the blueprint for an end-to-end deep learning system for supporting experimentation, optimization, and hardware-software co-design. The team later transitioned TVM to Apache and launched a related startup company, OctoML, for which Krishnamurthy serves as an advisor.

Meredith Ringel Morris

Portrait of Meredith Ringel-Morris

Allen School affiliate professor Meredith “Merrie” Ringel Morris is a senior principal researcher and the research area manager for Interaction, Accessibility and Mixed Reality at Microsoft Research, where she founded the Ability Research Group. An internationally renowned researcher with expertise spanning collaborative technologies, gesture interfaces, social media, crowdsourcing, accessible technologies, universal design, human-centered AI, and more, Morris was named a Fellow of the ACM for “contributions to human-computer interaction, information retrieval, computer-supported cooperative work and accessibility.”

Morris first joined Microsoft Research in 2006 after earning her Ph.D. from Stanford University. She holds more than 20 U.S. patents, and her work has influenced many of Microsoft’s products and services in her 15 years with the company. Morris has authored or co-authored more than 100 research publications, including multiple papers that have been recognized with Best Paper Awards or Lasting Impact Awards at major conferences in the field. Last year, Morris was elected to the CHI Academy by the ACM Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction (SIGCHI) in recognition of her many and varied contributions to HCI research, including establishing the field of collaborative web search, initiating the study of friendsourced information seeking, advancing surface computing and gesture design, and furthering research into accessible social media and communications technologies. Previously, she was recognized as one of Technology Review’s “Innovators under 35” for her work on SearchTogether, a browser plugin that enables collaborative web search. 

Steve Gribble

Portrait of Steve Gribble

Former professor Steve Gribble, who spent 13 years on the Allen School faculty before leaving for industry, was named a Fellow of the ACM for “contributions to virtualization technology across clusters, servers, and networks.” Now a distinguished engineer at Google, Gribble’s current work involves designing, building, and deploying host-side networking systems, I/O offload hardware infrastructure for Google’s cloud, and software-defined networking (SDN) systems that make the company’s planetary-scale networks available, debuggable, and safe to operate.

Gribble joined the UW faculty in 2000 after earning his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. Together with Allen School colleagues, in 2006 he co-founded Skytap, a venture-backed startup company that provides cloud-based software development, test and deployment platforms. Gribble has authored or co-authored more than 70 research publications, including seven that earned Best Paper or Best Student Paper Awards at major systems conferences. During his time at the Allen School, Gribble received an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship and a National Science Foundation CAREER Award for his work on the design and operation of robust, scalable internet infrastructure and services, mobile computing, virtual machine monitors, operating systems, and networks.

The new Fellows will be formally inducted at the ACM awards banquet in June. Learn more about the 2020 class of ACM Fellows here.

Congratulations to Dieter, Arvind, Merrie and Steve!

February 17, 2021

Allen School student Isabella Nguyen uses her FLAS Fellowship to learn more about her family’s homeland

Isabella Nguyen

Our latest undergraduate student spotlight features Bellevue, Washington native Isabella Nguyen, a second year computer science major who is also pursuing a minor in Vietnamese language and culture. Nguyen was recently awarded a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowship through the University of Washington’s Southeast Asia Center, part of the Jackson School of International Studies. FLAS Fellowships support students in strengthening their foreign language proficiency and building their knowledge of international studies to increase global engagement. Already planning on minoring in Vietnamese, Nguyen knew the FLAS Fellowship was the perfect opportunity for her to build her language and cultural competency while continuing on her path in computer science.

Allen School: How did you find out about the FLAS Fellowship?

Isabella Nguyen: I learned about it in my Vietnamese language class last year. Since I was already planning to continue taking Vietnamese classes, I thought it would be a great opportunity. To apply, I just proposed a class schedule for this year and explained how the Fellowship would help me.

Allen School: Why did you choose to study Vietnamese? 

IN: Both of my parents are from Vietnam, but I’ve never been there. I am minoring in Vietnamese because I want to learn more about my family’s homeland since I’ve realized that I never knew very much about it before. I’m also learning Vietnamese to be able to talk to my relatives who can’t speak English.

Allen School: In addition to learning a language, how else is the Fellowship helping you to expand your horizons?

IN: For the Fellowship, I take one language class and one area studies class each quarter this year. Since I applied to study Vietnamese through UW’s Southeast Asia Center, I’m studying Southeast Asia’s history and culture. Last quarter I took a class on Southeast Asian American history, and this quarter I’m taking a class on the Vietnam War.

Allen School: Will you have an opportunity to study in Vietnam?

IN: The academic year FLAS Fellowship is actually intended for students taking classes here at UW. So I won’t be studying abroad this year, although I plan to in the future.

Allen School: What inspired you to pursue a computer science major at UW?

IN: I had never written a line of code before I started studying here, but I was interested in the potential of the computer science field. My family encouraged me to take a chance and apply —  and I’m really glad they did!

Allen School: What do you enjoy most about being a student in the Allen School?

IN: I appreciate the welcoming community and the many opportunities and resources that are available. Even though I came in knowing very little, I’ve been able to find help whenever I need it.

Allen School: What are some of your interests and activities outside of your studies?

IN: I’m part of the Underwater Remotely Operated Vehicles Team, a club that designs, builds and operates underwater robots. Aside from UW ROV, I founded a registered student organization called the Sticks and Strings Society for people to learn and practice fiber crafts like sewing and knitting.

Xin chúc mừng, Isabella — we’re glad you took a chance and applied to the Allen School, too!

February 11, 2021

As Civic Digital Fellows, Allen School students “code it forward” by combining work experience with public service

Mayanja and her cohort of Fellows in 2018

In the summer of 2018, Allen School senior Mariam Mayanja wanted to try something new. Instead of pursuing a computer science internship at a big tech company as she had in the past, she headed to Washington D.C. to become a Civic Digital Fellow. The Bothell, Washington native, who will continue her studies as part of the Allen School’s B.S./M.S. program, worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs, with the United States Digital Services Team

“I found out about the Fellowship on the UW Society of Women Engineers Facebook page. I was looking for internships and was really intrigued to see a tech internship in a space where I had never thought I’d see tech,” Mayanja said. “Right off the bat, they had me glued by how cool all of the 2017 fellows’ projects sounded.”

The Civic Digital Fellowship program was created by a non-profit organization called Coding it Forward, whose mission is to create opportunities for young people working in technology to experience serving in a socially-minded and civically-engaged field. They developed the Fellowship program to offer government internships to college students interested in being employed by the federal government.

“Less than 3% of the federal technology workforce is under the age of 30, and over a third of federal technology employees will be eligible to retire in the next five years, making talent programs like the Fellowship all the more important,” said Rachel Dodell, co-founder and executive director of Coding it Forward. Not only does the Fellowship provide an opportunity for the federal government to build new talent pipelines, but it also exposes students to the incredible impact that one can make in public service.”

Mayanja was one of only 36 Fellows chosen in 2018 out of a pool of more than 850 applicants. She and another Fellow spent their internship building the GI Bill School Feedback Tool, which gives members of the military the chance to report an issue or complaint about a school or training facility that’s eligible to receive benefits directly to Veterans Affairs. 

“I led the design, project management, and user research for the tool. It was an amazing experience because I was able to try out all of these different roles and I really loved being a design researcher and project manager,” she said. “Focusing on the GI Bill School Feedback Tool enabled me to do my first project that centered around equity and inclusion. The entire goal of it was to help veterans attain higher education in a way where they knew they would have someone to advocate for them if they needed it.”

Mayanja said that the experience was kindling for a fire that started in her to build upon Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives in the Allen School. It was one of her inspirations to start Minorities in Tech at the University of Washington, which develops and fosters a diverse community that increases solidarity, allyship, and support to promote higher retention rates of minorities within the technology industry and academia. She also helped start Student Leaders for Inclusion, Diversity and Equity to gain more perspective in helping the Allen School administration focus on each in its strategic plan. 

In addition to sparking her interest in working for social justice, the Fellowship built upon Mayanja’s previous experience with user research over her three internships at MicrosoftLiving in D.C., she was able to take advantage of the free museums and opportunities to bond with the other Fellows. According to Mayanja, the only negative experience was dealing with all of the mosquitos that call D.C. home — her experience was such a positive one, in fact, that she encouraged fellow Allen School senior Geovani Castro to apply for a Fellowship in 2020.

Castro, who grew up in Lynnwood, Washington, said the application process was challenging, but he took time to reflect on his past volunteering and civic duty experiences and explained how meaningful those had been to him. He spent his time as a Fellow working for the National Institutes of Health, working on the Common Data Elements group at the National Library of Medicine. 

“Working in government is extremely different from anything I’ve done before,” he said. “Even though I’m planning to go back to industry, it’s very interesting experiencing a more democratic process. I’ve found working in industry to be a different process, so I wanted to give something more gratifying a chance. My software design classes came in handy as I got the opportunity to work at the NIH on a website for groundbreaking COVID-19 research.”

Castro, who learned how to work completely on his own project during his Fellowship, said the ability to design its limits was extremely refreshing — as was receiving clear directions and a concrete task to accomplish. However, because of the pandemic, he wasn’t able to go to D.C. and was thus disappointed to miss out on seeing the Capitol and meeting the other Fellows in person.

While Castro prefers to build a career in industry over government, he plans to volunteer and leverage his resources to help the less fortunate throughout his career. He also recommends that other Allen Students consider applying to the program. 

According to Dodell, the UW has had five students complete a Fellowship through the program.

The first time Coding it Forward had a University of Washington student was in our inaugural cohort in 2017 — Andrea Chen (2017), Mariam (2018), Justin Bao (summer 2020), and Geovani (fall 2020) have worked across three agencies, including the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and the National Institutes of Health.”

“There isn’t a lot of guidance in how to do the process itself, which can be intimidating, but the supervisors are extremely kind and more than willing to drop what they’re doing to assist you,” he said. “Any sort of civic fellowship can be a career altering experience considering how different they are from other internships.” 

For more information on the Civic Digital Fellowship and when to apply, visit Coding it Forward

February 10, 2021

Undergraduates in the Allen School’s UW Reality Lab have a whale of a time building virtual field experience for geology students

John Akers, director of research and education (left to right) Needle, Mooc and Wang meet in the UW Reality Lab incubator (Photo taken January 2020 by David Kessler).

In the coal region of Shamokin, Pennsylvania, an impressive geological structure called the Whaleback Anticline has become a natural classroom for geology students. The former strip mine is a geological formation that looks like the back of a whale. Max Needle, a Pennsylvania native and geology graduate student in the University of Washington’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences (ESS), knows the site well. With a camera, a drone and support from his faculty advisor Juliet Crider and fellow graduate student Keith Hodson, Needle built a 3D digital replica of the site with the intention of giving more students access to this geological wonder. 

The anticline, which is on private land, requires special permission to visit and is not easy to navigate due to its enormity. The project began with the idea of making the site inclusive, accessible and available to students that could not get to it in person but turned out to be a vital experience for undergraduate geology students forced to cancel site visits because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When Needle took his digital replica to the UW’s Reality Lab last January to get help with the program,  the Allen School students would take the project in an exciting new direction by turning his mobile 3D tour of the Whaleback into an online classroom — and eventually, a virtual reality experience. 

“The CS students that worked on the project with me went above and beyond my expectations,” Needle said. “They finished the initial project pretty quickly and asked what my dream for this project might be and took it to the next level.”

Allen School senior Jacky Mooc and sophomore Andrew Wang worked with Needle on his project as undergraduate researchers in the Reality Lab. Tasked with creating a virtual tour of the Whaleback, with stops for users to learn more about its history and geological features, Mooc and Wang got to work. But as they neared completion, the pandemic hit and classes moved online. Because geography students wouldn’t be able to travel to do field work over the summer, Needle, Mooc and Wang pivoted away from moving the application into virtual reality and focused instead on adding more functionality to it. In addition to enabling students to explore the Whaleback site on the ground or through the air, the team moved the program to WebGL and added a robust measuring system that simulates the types of measurements geologists take when physically visiting sites. The programming language renders interactive 2D and 3D graphics allowing for greater accessibility. The group also added an extensive tutorial and traceable tour stops featuring puzzles and quizzes, essentially turning it into a game. After the initial summer course, the team can now implement the program in VR.

An image of the Whaleback program

“Even though we only recently began to implement the Whaleback project into VR, mainly because the scope for the WebGL version grew, developing for it has been very promising so far,” said Mooc. “There are lots of outside tools to use in Unity that make developing for VR faster. And luckily, since I joined this project, I have taken two courses in storytelling in VR at the Allen School, which gave me experience with Unity, and maybe more importantly, taught a lot about VR design considerations. However, this project still warranted a lot of self-learning in order to use Unity and SteamVR.”

Last summer, the first iteration of the virtual geology experience based on Needle’s work was used as part of an online version of an ESS summer field course. Jacob Childers, who completed his B.S. in geoscience last summer, enjoyed the opportunity to tour the geographic formation virtually since traveling was not an option.

“I was initially excited that there was a chance to study the Whaleback remotely. We had been using tools like Google Earth and ARCgis for the bulk of our remote field experience, so it was exciting to try something new, but I was a little nervous that it wouldn’t be very useful,” he said. “I really enjoyed the Whaleback experience more than I thought I would. The program was pretty user friendly and the controls were pretty smooth and intuitive to use.”

Childers said that the game did a good job showing the scale of the Whaleback and had a lot more detail than he expected—but he had some feedback for the developers. 

“As a geologist, I enjoyed the game but I wish that we could make more observations aside from determining the axes of folds and taking strike and dip measurements,” he said. “In terms of strike and dip measurements and taking stereonets, this program had a large advantage over programs like Google Earth, so this was a really nice supplement.”

Max Needle
Needle working on the Whaleback program

After hearing Childers’ feedback, Mooc went back and designed a prefab in Unity 3D for designers to create a greater level of detail for future models or games, if they think it’s necessary. 

“Rather than using a higher-res version of a 3D model and really bogging down the machine of the user, there’s now a way to click on objects and read about features in greater detail and see pictures at a higher-res or even microscopic scale,” Needle explained. “This new prefab is in the works for a new game that we’ll release as part of an ESS 212 course in three weeks.”

Needle and the team are open to feedback and he has continued to use the program the team built in additional ESS classes. A demonstration of the Whaleback Anticline Field Adventure is available to watch, and anyone interested in trying it out can do so at It will be available for Oculus VR, and also in Unity so it can be adapted later for iOS or XBox, in the spring.

February 8, 2021

Allen School student Lianhui Qin earns Microsoft Research Ph.D. Fellowship to develop AI agents with human-like common-sense reasoning capabilities

Lianhui Qin

Lianhui Qin, a Ph.D. student working with Allen School professor Yejin Choi, has been named a 2021 Microsoft Research Ph.D. Fellow for her work in developing language models in counterfactual and abductive reasoning. Her research focuses on natural language processing and machine learning, specifically in common-sense rationale in natural language generation. 

Qin is one of 10 Fellows selected this year and aims to use her Fellowship to create artificial intelligence (AI) agents with human-like common-sense reasoning capabilities to communicate with and assist humans in a reasonable, effective and scalable way. 

“I am developing principled methodologies of combining the power of deep networks trained on massive corpus, symbolic and distributed knowledge in various forms, and contextual causal reasoning for understanding, generation, and imagination,” Qin said. “I believe common-sense reasoning with natural language is a necessary component towards robust, safe, explainable and controllable AI. This would make a huge impact on the large-scale use of AI in society.” 

By endowing machines with common sense reasoning capabilities, Qin will build AI entities that can observe and imagine future alternatives. While machine learning systems of today are starting to understand text and generate plausible-sounding language, they are far from having human-level capabilities. Her work focuses on methodology, evaluation and application to bridge the gap between humans and machines. 

Qin has developed a general language decoding framework to address fundamental limitations of neural language models. It can perform complex common-sense reasoning activities by considering future constraints. She has analyzed the counterfactual reasoning problem that is in language generation and conducted the first large-scale test to measure and understand neural models in counterfactual reasoning. These steps allowed her to enhance neural models with common-sense knowledge and rationale. 

“Lianhui’s research is original, ambitious, and daring,” said Choi. “Lianhui is on a mission to tackle one of the hardest challenges in AI — advanced reasoning capabilities in natural language, spanning across common-sense reasoning and nonmonotonic reasoning such as counterfactual reasoning and abductive inference. Pursuing research in this space requires an exceptional level of intellectual independence, technical creativity, and courage, as there is little prior work to extend or model after.”

Choi said that obvious applications of existing methods and frameworks do not suffice. This is why most existing research to date, especially recent deep learning methods, have focused primarily on climbing leaderboards of more familiar tasks and datasets, instead of creating a new path forward in the fundamental limitations in AI as commonsense and nonmonotonic reasoning. All of this presents major challenges in current frameworks of AI and deep learning.  

So far, Qin’s research has contributed to a greater understanding of the core aspects of human-like, complex common-sense thinking as well as the development of generative neural reasoning approaches and applications with large-scale evaluations. She has published nine papers at top NLP and ML conferences, including the Association for Computational Linguistics, Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems and Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing.

The Microsoft Research Ph.D. Fellowship has supported hundreds of fellows over the last two decades. Previous Allen School recipients include Vikram Iyer (2018), Kira Goldner (2017), Lilian de Greef and Irene Zhang (2015) and Yoav Artzi (2014). Learn more about the 2021 Microsoft Research Ph.D. Fellow here

Congratulations, Lianhui! 

February 3, 2021

Allen School faculty and alumni honored by IEEE for enduring contributions to software engineering, internet-scale computing and artificial intelligence

IEEE logo

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) recently honored three members of the Allen School community for advancing the field of computing: professor and alumnus Michael Ernst (Ph.D., ‘00), affiliate professor Thomas Zimmermann of Microsoft Research, and alumnus Jeffrey Dean (Ph.D., ‘96) of Google. Ernst and Zimmerman were elevated to IEEE Fellows in recognition of their career contributions in software engineering, while Dean earned the organization’s prestigious John von Neumann Medal for advancing internet-scale computing and artificial intelligence. 

Each year, the IEEE Fellows Program recognizes members with extraordinary records of accomplishment in computing, aerospace systems, biomedical engineering, energy, and more. With 420,000 members in 160 countries, a maximum of only one-tenth of one percent of the total voting membership can be elevated to Fellow status in a given year. The John von Neumann Medal, which is among the highest honors IEEE bestows upon members of the engineering community, recognizes individuals who have made outstanding contributions in computer hardware, software or systems that have had a lasting impact on technology, society, and the engineering profession.

Michael Ernst, IEEE Fellow

Michael Ernst

After earning his Ph.D. from the Allen School working with the late professor David Notkin, Michael Ernst spent eight years on the faculty of MIT. He returned to the Pacific Northwest in 2009 to take up a faculty position in the Allen School, where he is part of the Programming Languages and Software Engineering (PLSE) group. Since rejoining his alma mater, Ernst has continued to make significant contributions through research and mentorship that have had an enduring impact on the field. IEEE recognized that impact by electing him Fellow for “contributions to software analysis, testing, and verification.”

One of Ernst’s earliest contributions, which he made while a Ph.D. student at UW, was Daikon, a tool that enables programmers to easily identify program properties that must be preserved when modifying code. The novel techniques he developed with his collaborators — Notkin, Jake Cockrell (M.S., ’99), and Allen School alumnus William G. Griswold (Ph.D., ’91), now a professor at University of California, San Diego — offered a revolutionary solution that went on to impact the research community in testing, verification and programming languages. The team’s 1999 paper presenting Daikon, “Dynamically discovering likely program invariants to support program evolution,” went on to earn the 2013 Impact Paper Award from the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Software Engineering (ACM SIGSOFT). 

Ernst later created Randoop, an instrumental tool for generating tests for programs written in object-oriented languages such as Java and .NET, with Carlos Pacheco of Google and Shuvendu Lahiri and Thomas Ball of Microsoft Research while he was on the faculty of MIT. Randoop generates and executes one test at a time and classifies it as a normal execution, a failure, or an illegal input; it then uses that information to find biases in the subsequent generation process to extend good tests and avoid bad tests. A decade later, Ernst and the team earned the Most Influential Paper Award from the International Conference on Software Engineering (ICSE) for their work. Even today, Randoop remains the standard benchmark against which other test generation tools are measured.

For programmers working in Java, Ernst and his colleagues developed the Checker Framework, a system for easily and effectively developing special-purpose type systems that can prevent software bugs. The team presented its work in a 2008 paper that later earned a 2018 Impact Paper Award from the International Symposium on Software Testing and Analysis (ISSTA). The following year, Ernst earned his second ISSTA Impact Paper Award for “HAMPI: a solver for string constraints.” HAMPI is designed for constraints generated by program analysis tools and automated bug finders. Given a set of constraints, HAMPI outputs a string that satisfies all the constraints, or reports that the constraints are unsatisfiable, at a faster pace than similar tools. 

During his career, Ernst has received a total of nine ACM Distinguished Paper Awards in addition to a Best Paper Award from the European Conference on Object-Oriented Programming (ECOOP). Last year, Ernst’s extraordinary career contributions to the field of software engineering earned him the ACM SIGSOFT Outstanding Research Award. He previously received the CRA-E Undergraduate Research Faculty Mentoring Award in 2018, in recognition of his exceptional support for student researchers, and the inaugural John Backus Award — created by IBM to honor mid-career university faculty members — in 2009. Ernst was elected a Fellow of the ACM in 2014. 

Ernst’s election as an IEEE Fellow brings the total number of current or former Allen School faculty members who have earned this distinction to 17.

Thomas Zimmermann, IEEE Fellow

Thomas Zimmermann

Thomas Zimmermann, who has been an affiliate faculty member in the Allen School since 2011, is a member of the Software Analysis and Intelligence (SAINTES) group at Microsoft Research. He focuses on the development of solutions that increase programmer productivity, including tools for the systematic mining of version archives and bug databases. His goal is to help developers and managers learn from past successes and failures to create better software. IEEE named Zimmerman a Fellow based on his “contributions to data science in software engineering, research and practice.”

Zimmermann earned his Ph.D. from Saarland University in Saarbrücken, Germany and joined Microsoft Research in 2008. During his career, he has earned a total of seven Most Influential Paper or Test of Time Awards and five ACM SIGSOFT Distinguished Paper Awards for his work. Last year, Zimmermann shared the IEEE CS TCSE New Direction Award with Ahmed Hassan of Queen’s University for their leadership in establishing the field of mining software repositories (MSR) and a successful conference series with the same name, which advanced the use of analytics and data science in software engineering and led the field in new directions. In addition to his research, Zimmermann serves as co-editor in chief for the journal Empirical Software Engineering and current chair of ACM SIGSOFT.

Jeffrey Dean, John von Neumann Medal

Jeff Dean

Allen School alumnus Jeffrey Dean was honored with the 2021 John von Neumann Medal in recognition of his “contributions to the science and engineering of large-scale distributed computer systems and artificial intelligence systems.” Dean, who completed his Ph.D. working with then-professor Craig Chambers on the development of whole-program optimization techniques for object-oriented languages, is currently a Google Senior Fellow and senior vice president of Google Research and Google Health.

Dean joined Google in 1999, roughly a year after its founding — making him one of the company’s longest-serving employees. During his tenure, Dean led the conception, design and implementation of core elements of Google’s search, advertising and cloud infrastructure that would transform the internet and computing as we know it. His contributions included five generations of the company’s crawling, indexing, and query serving systems. Dean was also responsible for the initial development of Google’s AdSense for Content, which revolutionized online advertising by enabling content creators to monetize their websites.

Dean’s subsequent contributions to internet-scale data storage and processing, in collaboration with Google colleague Sanjay Ghemawat, helped propel the company to the forefront of cloud computing. He played a leading role in the design and implementation of MapReduce, a system for simplifying the development of large-scale data processing applications. To date, the paper presenting MapReduce has garnered more than 30,000 citations and inspired future advances in distributed computing. Dean and Ghemawat were also central figures in the development of BigTable, a semi-structured data storage system designed for flexibility and high performance while scaling to petabytes of data across thousands of commodity servers. BigTable underpins a variety of Google products and services, including web indexing, Google Earth, and Google Finance. Along the way, Dean also contributed to the development and implementation of Google News, Google Translate, and a variety of other projects that enhanced Google’s data management, job scheduling, and code search infrastructure.

More recently, Dean has accelerated Google’s leadership in artificial intelligence as co-founder of the Google Brain team focused on the fundamental science of machine learning as well as projects aimed at infusing the company’s products with the latest developments in the field. The team has been responsible for advancing the technology of deep learning and its impact on computer vision, speech, machine translation, natural language processing, and a variety of other applications. One of Dean’s crowning achievements in this area is TensorFlow, an open-source platform for the large-scale training and deployment of deep learning models. TensorFlow offered unprecedented flexibility to application developers and to support experimentation with novel training algorithms and optimizations. 

Dean is a Member of the National Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of both the ACM and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Together with his collaborator, Ghemawat, he earned the ACM SIGOPS Mark Weiser Award from the ACM’s Special Interest Group on Operating Systems in 2011 and the ACM–Infosys Foundation Award — now known as the ACM Prize in Computing, one of the highest honors bestowed by the organization — in 2012 for introducing revolutionary software infrastructure that advanced internet-scale computing.

Congratulations to Michael, Thomas and Jeff! 

January 25, 2021

Allen School student Tal August earns Twitch Fellowship to make conversation in online communities more supportive and vibrant

Tal August, a Ph.D. student working with Allen School professors Katharina Reinecke and Noah Smith, has been named a 2021 Twitch Research Fellow for his work in creating writing tools to accommodate different online audiences. His current research focuses on strategies used to help moderate these communities in order to shape them into vibrant, supportive, online spaces.

August is one of five Twitch Fellows selected and aims to use his Fellowship to automate tools that support conversations in domains like science communication and in online communities like Twitch and Reddit. 

“Online communities can be such vibrant places, and that is often reflected in their language,” he said. “The goal of this work is to build tools that tap into the language of a community, guiding newcomers and moderators to communicate more effectively.” 

Using LabintheWild, a site that tests people’s abilities and preferences so that researchers can improve users’ experience when interacting with technology, August studied the effects of language styles that influence user behavior. This led to his work on building writing tools tailoring language to better engage different audiences.

Currently, most tools for online moderation are used for policing posts to eliminate profanity and toxic behavior. August aims to make moderation tools more welcoming. Working at the intersection of human computer interaction (HCI) and natural language processing (NLP), he has found that newcomers in online communities face barriers by not understanding the norms of the community. Based on his research, he will create tools to identify ways for moderators to encourage positive contributions for more inclusive engagement and discourse. 

With the help of machine learning, August’s tool will analyze newcomer remarks and moderator responses in order to suggest responses that are more likely to encourage future positive contributions by the newcomer. Many online forums list rules or frequently asked questions for new users to read before engaging in the conversation. August would build a separate tool to arm newcomers with more information by giving them just-in-time recommendations for making positive posts.

“Tal’s research at the intersection of HCI and NLP will help encourage more positive and thoughtful conversations in online communities such as Twitch,” Reinecke said.

August’s tools will be open-sourced for moderators to use in their online communities. They will help them respond to newcomers in a more meaningful way and foster a more welcoming online space for everyone. 

In addition to his Twitch Fellowship, August received a University of Washington Endowed Fellowship in Computer Science and Engineering in 2018 and has published nine refereed conference papers, including the Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing and the Association of Computing Machinery’s Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. In addition to being a student and researcher, he is a teaching assistant for NLP and HCI capstone classes. 

Congratulations, Tal! 

January 21, 2021

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