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At the Allen School’s 2019 graduation, a celebration of academic achievement, inspirational leadership, and real-world impact

Group shot of Ph.D. graduates in purple robes with gold trim
The Allen School’s largest-ever hooding of Ph.D.s

On Friday, the Paul G. Allen School celebrated the Class of 2019 as the graduates embarked on the next stage in their academic or professional journeys. In addition to granting roughly 575 total degrees this year — including around 400 bachelor’s degrees — the Allen School celebrated the contributions of two outstanding alumni, Joe Heitzeberg and Tessa Lau, and welcomed speaker Maria Klawe, President of Harvey Mudd College, who sent the new graduates on their way with words of wisdom and inspiration.

As is tradition, Allen School Director Hank Levy opened the proceedings by welcoming the nearly 2,500 family and friends in attendance at the University of Washington’s Hec Edmundson Pavilion in the Alaska Airlines Arena. This year was especially poignant since it was Levy’s last at the helm of the program he has led for the past 13 years. When he turned the podium over to professor Ed Lazowska, Levy was asked to remain on stage while the latter paid tribute to what he has accomplished during his tenure — first as chair of the department, and then as the first-ever director of the school. Along the way, Levy presided over a tripling of the undergraduate student body and a doubling of our graduate program while overseeing the design and construction of a second building, the Bill & Melinda Gates Center, to enable the school’s continued expansion.

“Hank took us from being an excellent computer science program to an elite one,” Lazowska said, as Levy received a standing ovation from the assembled graduates, faculty, and guests.

Laughing man in suit standing next to man in red and black robe smiling at podium
Hank Levy (left) is honored by Ed Lazowska for his 13 years of leadership

Special guest Maria Klawe — the first woman President of Harvey Mudd College and previously, first woman Dean of Engineering at Princeton University — continued on that theme as she reminded the assembled graduates that “you are graduating from one of the very, very, very best computer science departments in the world.”

Klawe, who has made increasing diversity in science and engineering disciplines one of the hallmarks of her career, urged the graduates to speak up when it comes to supporting diversity in their field. When it comes to gender, race, sexual orientation, and income status, “These things should have absolutely nothing to do with whether you become a computer scientist,” she said. Noting that the field will never meet the demand for talent unless it recruits women and underrepresented minorities, she suggested there was an even more compelling reason for it to do so. “Diverse teams find better solutions,” she said, crediting the Allen School for being ahead of its peers when it comes to diversity.

Woman speaking at podium
Maria Klawe, President of Harvey Mudd College, tells graduates to believe that they can have impact in the world

Klawe also touched upon another topic that often comes up in conversations about diversity and belonging: imposter syndrome. Although she did not explicitly use the phrase, Klawe acknowledged that even she sometimes awoke with a “voice of failure” in her head. Her advice to graduates who experienced the same? “Don’t listen,” Klawe said. “Believe that you can have impact in the world. Believe that you can take on major challenges.”

“You are going to be amazing,” she concluded, “and I am so proud to be here at your commencement ceremony.”

To drive home the point, Lazowska retook the stage to announce the 2019 recipients of the Allen School Alumni Impact Awards. The award recognizes two alumni annually who are building on their Allen School education to change the world. The first honoree, Tessa Lau (Ph.D., ‘01), earned her degree working with professor Daniel Weld on machine learning with an emphasis on human-computer interaction and intelligent systems “before machine learning became cool and everybody started doing it,” as Lazowska put it. Lau spent 11 years at IBM Research before joining Willow Garage, where she developed simple interfaces for personal robots. Having once held the title of “Chief Robot Whisperer” at a company she co-founded, Savioke, that produced the world’s first hotel delivery robot, Lau is currently founder and CEO of Dusty Robotics. Her goal, as Lazowska put it, is to enable robots to do “real work, in the real world, alongside real people.”

Three smiling men and one smiling woman. The man and woman in the center are holding glass award plaques.
Honoring our alumni (left to right): Ed Lazowska, Joe Heitzeberg (B.S., ’95), Tessa Lau (Ph.D., ’01), and Hank Levy

The second honoree, Joe Heitzeberg (B.S., ‘95), has had a varied and successful career in the startup world. Following his graduation from UW, Heitzeberg began his career as a software engineer at Paul Allen-backed StarWave. After returning to school to earn his MBA at MIT’s Sloan School of Business, he built a string of successful startups beginning with SnapVine, which was acquired by WhitePages, and MediaPiston, which was acquired by oDesk, before taking the helm at Madrona Venture Labs, a “startup studio” that builds startups from scratch and spins them out as independent companies. Heitzeberg’s latest venture is Crowd Cow, a company that he co-founded to connect farmers and consumers to help people access high-quality craft meat.

In addition to awarding degrees, the Allen School honored a number of students and faculty for academic excellence, mentorship, research, and service. Allen School advisers Crystal Eney and Raven Avery kicked off the proceedings by recognizing two graduating seniors with Service Awards: Aishwarya Mandyam and Alex Banh. Mandyam, who earned bachelor’s degrees in Computer Science and Philosophy with a minor in Neural Computation & Engineering, served as a member of the Allen School’s Diversity Committee and President of the UW chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery (UW ACM). Her passion for building an inclusive community for her peers previously earned her a place among the Husky 100. Banh, a Computer Science major, served as lead ambassador for the CSE Ambassadors program that engages thousands of pre-college students each year in computer science activities. He also served as the Allen School advising team’s first full-time summer outreach assistant.

Graduates seated in the arena wearing caps and gowns, with guests seated in bleachers in the background
Nearly 2,500 family and friends joined the celebration

The Best Senior Thesis Award went to Nelson Liu, who earned his degree in Computer Science and Linguistics working with professor Noah Smith of the Allen School’s Natural Language Processing Group. Liu completed his thesis on the use of recurrent neural networks in natural language processing that included a new discovery about the ability of RNNs to “remember” farther into the past if the data they are trained on has the properties of natural language. Liu’s work earned a Best Paper Award at the Association for Computational Linguistics’ Workshop on Representational Learning for NLP, and according to Smith, will change the way the NLP field thinks about RNNs — an example of Liu’s “high motivation to do things no one has done before,” he said. Liu will pursue a Ph.D. in Computer Science at Stanford University.

Five graduating students were recognized with Outstanding Senior Awards: Ryan Feng, Nelson Liu, Alison Ng, Mitali Palekar, and Hannah Werbel. Feng, who earned his bachelor’s in Computer Engineering, has excelled in the classroom and in the lab as an undergraduate researcher in the Networks & Mobile Systems Lab led by professor Shyam Gollakota and the Personal Robotics Lab led by professor Siddhartha (Sidd) Srinivasa. Liu was called to the stage a second time in recognition of his research that had earned him Best Senior Thesis as well as a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation. Ng, who majored in Computer Engineering, was previously recognized among the Husky 100 for her leadership on the Allen School’s Student Advisory Council and service to her fellow students as a peer adviser. Palekar, another Husky 100 honoree and Allen School peer adviser, earned her degree in Computer Science with interdisciplinary honors and served as President of the UW chapter of the Society of Women Engineers. Last but not least, Werbel, who graduated with a degree in Computer Science with interdisciplinary honors and minors in Mathematics and Physics, distinguished herself during her time at UW by earning both the President’s Freshman Medal and the Dean’s Medal from the College of Arts & Sciences.

Purple graduation cap and gold tassel decorated with gold stars and "Class of 0x7E3"
Class of 2019 in software-developer speak

UW ACM Chair Armaan Sood announced lecturer Justin Hsia as the recipient of the 2019 ACM Teaching Award, which is presented to an outstanding faculty member on behalf of the student body. Hsia was cited for his commitment to making complicated (“or even dull”) topics interesting and engaging, and for encouraging students to provide feedback throughout his courses. He was also celebrated for his focus on improving the teaching assistant (TA) experience. It was fitting, then, that Hsia later returned to the stage to recognize some of those very TAs with the Bob Bandes Memorial Excellence in Teaching Awards. These awards honor outstanding TAs who devote themselves to promoting computer science education and giving back to the school community. The three winners were master’s graduate Joshua Fan, who TAed for multiple courses, primarily Foundations of Computing 2; Cherie Ruan, who served as TA coordinator for the school’s introductory programming courses while earning her bachelor’s in Computer Science and Informatics; and Robert Weber, a current Ph.D. student in the Theory of Computation group who has TAed for multiple courses related to data structures and algorithms. Honorable mentions went to Avidant Bhagat, a Computer Science graduate who TAed for Software Design & Implementation every quarter this year; Zachary Chun, who graduated with a bachelor’s in Computer Science after TAing for 10 quarters, including introductory programming and data structures courses; and Erik Hoberg, who TAed for nine quarters in a variety of courses, many geared toward non-majors.

After handing out diplomas and hooding the Ph.D.s, Levy closed his final Allen School graduation celebration with some parting words to the newly-minted graduates. “I’d like to say one more thing to our students,” he said. “You’re part of the Allen School CSE community, and we want to continue to be an active part of your lives. Basically, you’re stuck with us forever!”

Congratulations to the Class of 2019 — and thank you, Hank, for 13 years of outstanding leadership, service, and friendship to the Allen School community!

Photo credits: Matt Hagen

June 18, 2019

Director Hank Levy reflects on the growth of Seattle tech and using computer science to solve grand societal challenges in GeekWire podcast

Photo: Todd Bishop/Geekwire

“I’m biased, but I like to say that there’s never been anything like computer science. I don’t think in history there’s been anything that’s been on an exponential growth curve for 50 years without stop. And that gives you some remarkable things.” – Hank Levy, Director of the Allen School & Wissner Slivka Chair in Computer Science & Engineering

After 13 years at the helm of the University of Washington’s Computer Science & Engineering program — first as department chair, and then the first-ever director of the Paul G. Allen School — professor Hank Levy will step down at the end of June. In a wide-ranging conversation with reporter Todd Bishop, Levy reflected on the change he has witnessed in the field of computing, in how we educate the next generation of computer scientists and engineers, and in the size and reach of the local technology community in the latest GeekWire podcast.

Listen or read a transcript of the interview here.

June 14, 2019

Graduating senior Hannah Werbel earns College of Arts & Sciences Dean’s Medal

Allen School senior Hannah Werbel is among four undergraduates to earn the prestigious Dean’s Medal from the University of Washington’s College of Arts & Sciences. Werbel, who will receive her bachelor’s in Computer Science with minors in Physics and Mathematics this month, was named a Dean’s Medalist in the Natural Sciences category for her academic excellence, leadership, and service.

From the moment she stepped on campus, Werbel has distinguished herself through a rigorous program of study and her participation in a variety of extra-curricular and volunteer activities. In her sophomore year, she earned the Freshman Medal as part of the UW President’s Medalist Awards in recognition of her high academic standing and campus involvement. Outside of the classroom, Werbel has played the piccolo as part of the Husky Marching Band for the past four years, frequently volunteering her time and talents for smaller alumni and charity functions in addition to her regular band duties. Her efforts earned her the Bill Bissel Memorial Award last year, which recognizes the student who most embodies the band’s “touch of class” motto.

Werbel, who is legally blind, has made accessibility a centerpiece of her campus engagement. She has served as president of the Washington Association of Blind Students since her freshman year and also worked as a student assistant for the DO-IT Center, which focuses on empowering people with disabilities to succeed through education and technology. In that role, Werbel planned events for high school students participating in the center’s summer college preparatory program and spoke at a variety of events about accessibility in higher education and the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. In 2017, Werbel was selected to participate in the Lime Connect Fellowship Program, which offers professional and leadership development opportunities to outstanding juniors with disabilities.

In addition to being an accomplished student, accessibility advocate, and musician, Werbel excelled in research. Even before her arrival on campus, Werbel completed a summer research internship in the UW BioRobotics Lab during her junior year of high school. As part of her internship, she programmed software modules in MATLAB to analyze data generated from experiments with brain-computer interfaces. The research team was so impressed with Werbel’s work, she was invited to continue working in the lab after her internship ended. Werbel also spent two quarters as a teaching assistant for the Allen School’s introductory computer science class, CSE 142. She was recognized with the Outstanding Female Engineer Award from the UW chapter of the Society of Women Engineers in 2017.

“Hannah’s time at UW has been marked by interdisciplinary academic excellence and leadership inside and outside of the classroom,” said Hank Levy, Director of the Allen School and Wissner-Slivka Chair. “She is humble, intelligent, hard-working, and inspirational. Hannah joined our undergraduate program as an interest-changer after her sophomore year, and she has only reached the beginning of her potential in the field of computer science. She likely doesn’t quite know how special she is and how far her talent will take her, and I hope this recognition pushes her to even greater heights.”

Alternately described as “dedicated,” “selfless,” and “an ambassador for the University,” Werbel has helped make the campus community a better place than when she found it. Following her graduation from the Allen School, Werbel will spend the summer as a research intern with Microsoft Quantum Computing before joining Facebook full-time as a software engineer.

Read GeekWire’s Geek of the Week profile of Werbel here and our previous Undergrad Spotlight featuring Werbel here.

Congratulations, Hannah, and thank you for your commitment to excellence and service to your fellow students inside and outside of the Allen School!

June 13, 2019

Allen School and AI2 researchers unveil Grover, a new tool for fighting fake news in the age of AI

Sample fake news headline with drawing of Grover and "Fake News" speech bubble
What makes Grover so effective at spotting fake news is the fact that it was trained to generate fake news itself.

When we hear the term “fake news,” more often than not it refers to false narratives written by people to distort the truth and poison the public discourse. But new developments in natural language generation have raised the prospect of a new potential threat: neural fake news. Generated by artificial intelligence and capable of adopting the particular language and tone of popular publications, this brand of fake news could pose an even greater problem for society due to its ability to emulate legitimate news sources at a massive scale. To fight the emerging threat of fake news authored by AI, a team of researchers at the Allen School and Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2) developed Grover, a new model for detecting neural fake news more reliably than existing technologies can.

Until now, the best discriminators could correctly distinguish between real, human-generated news content and AI-generated fake news 73% of the time; using Grover, the rate of accuracy rises to 92%. What makes Grover so effective at spotting fake content is that it learned to be very good at producing that content itself. Given a sample headline, Grover can generate an entire news article written in the style of a legitimate news outlet. In an experiment, the researchers found that the system can also generate propaganda stories in such a way that readers rated them more trustworthy than the original, human-generated versions.

“Our work on Grover demonstrates that the best models for detecting disinformation are the best models at generating it,” explained Yejin Choi, a professor in the Allen School’s Natural Language Processing group and a researcher at AI2. “The fact that participants in our study found Grover’s fake news stories to be more trustworthy than the ones written by their fellow humans illustrates how far natural language generation has evolved — and why we need to try and get ahead of this threat.”

Choi and her collaborators — Allen School Ph.D. students Rowan Zellers, Ari Holtzman, and Hannah Rashkin; postdoctoral researcher Yonatan Bisk; professor and AI2 researcher Ali Farhadi; and professor Franziska Roesner — describe their results in detail in a paper recently published on the preprint site arXiv.org. Although they show that Grover is capable of emulating the style of a particular outlet and even writer — for example, one of the Grover-generated fake news pieces included in the paper is modeled on the writing of columnist Paul Krugman of The New York Times — the researchers point out that even the best examples of neural fake news are still based on learned style and tone, rather than a true understanding of language and the world. So, that Krugman piece and others like it will contain evidence of the true source of the content.

“Despite how fluid the writing may appear, articles written by Grover and other neural language generators contain unique artifacts or quirks of language that give away their machine origin,” explained Zellers, lead author of the paper. “It’s akin to a signature or watermark left behind by neural text generators. Grover knows to look for these artifacts, which is what makes it so effective at picking out the stories that were created by AI.”

The research team, top row from left: Rowan Zellers, Ari Holtzman, Hannah Rashkin, and Yonatan Bisk. Bottom row from left: Ali Farhadi, Franziska Roesner, and Yejin Choi.

Although Grover will naturally recognize its own quirks, which explains the high success rate in the team’s study, the ability to detect evidence of AI-generated fake news is not limited to its own content. Grover is better at detecting fake news written by both human and machine than any system that came before it, in large part because it is more advanced than any neural language model that came before. The researchers believe that their work on Grover is only the first step in developing effective defenses against the machine-learning equivalent of a supermarket tabloid. They plan to release two of their models, Grover-Base and Grover-Large, to the public, and to make the Grover-Mega model and accompanying dataset available to researchers upon request. By sharing the results of this work, the team aims to encourage further discussion and technical innovation around how to counteract neural fake news.

According to Roesner, who co-directs the Allen School’s Security and Privacy Research Laboratory, the team’s approach is a common one in the computer security field: try to determine what adversaries might do and the capabilities they may have, and then develop and test effective defenses. “With recent advances in AI, we should assume that adversaries will develop and use these new capabilities — if they aren’t already,” she explained. “Neural fake news will only get easier and cheaper and better regardless of whether we study it, so Grover is an important step forward in enabling the broader research community to fully understand the threat and to defend the integrity of our public discourse.”

Roesner, Choi and their colleagues believe that models like Grover should be put to practical use in the fight against fake news. Just as sites like YouTube rely on deep neural networks to scan videos and flag those containing illicit content, a platform could employ an ensemble of deep generative models like Grover to analyze text and flag articles that appear to be AI-generated disinformation.

“People want to be able to trust their own eyes when it comes to determining who and what to believe, but it is getting more and more difficult to separate real from fake when it comes to the content we consume online,” Choi said. “As AI becomes more sophisticated, a tool like Grover could be the best defense we have against a proliferation of AI-generated fake news.”

Read the arXiv paper here, and see coverage by TechCrunch, GeekWire, New Scientist, The New York Times, ZDNet, and Futurism. Also check out a previous project by members of the Grover team analyzing the language of fake news and political fact checking here.

June 11, 2019

Student-led company Bottomline earns third-place finish in UW Buerk Center’s Dempsey Startup Competition

Five smiling students posed in front of Paccar Hall
The Bottomline team, left to right: Lukas Joswiak, Elton Carr, Mitali Palekar, Adam Towers, and Mayank Maheshwari (Not pictured: Jeremy Peronto).

Bottomline, a startup co-founded by students in the Allen School and Foster School of Business at the University of Washington, earned third place at the recent Dempsey Startup Competition hosted by the UW Foster School’s Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship. The company provides data analytics that empowers job candidates and employers in the technology sector to evaluate the value and competitiveness of multiple job offers. Bottomline was co-founded by Allen School seniors Lukas Joswiak and Mitali Palekar, sophomore Adam Towers, professional master’s student Elton Carr, and Mayank Maheshwari and Jeremy Peronto of the Foster School’s evening MBA program.

Working under the motto “no two offers are created equally,” the team behind Bottomline focused on bringing more transparency and equity to technology recruitment and compensation practices. To that end, they developed a service that breaks down the various components of complex job offers to enable candidates to compare their relative value. The resulting “bottom line” for each offer accounts for variables that contribute to a candidate’s overall compensation, including base salary, stock options, bonuses, benefits, and more. Candidates can adjust the comparison to account for external factors, such as regional cost of living and local taxes, to understand how these will affect their take-home pay.

The same data that helps individual candidates to assess the value of each offer received can also be used by recruiters, hiring managers, and businesses interested in analyzing how their company’s compensation packages measure up to those of their peers. With the help of Bottomline, employers are able to gauge how their offers compare to the rest of the industry and stay abreast of compensation trends to ensure they remain competitive in the quest for talent. The service is also useful for ensuring that companies are offering fair and equitable compensation across their workforce.

“Given the increasing focus on hiring, promotion and compensation practices across the tech industry, the concept behind Bottomline couldn’t be more timely,” noted Allen School professor Ed Lazowska. “Not only that, but the team executed on that idea in a way that benefits those on both sides of the interview table, bringing more clarity and transparency to what can be a fraught — not to mention opaque — process. It is great to see our students take on this challenge and come up with a service that will not only empower job seekers and inform recruiters, but also encourage equitable practices across the industry as a whole.”

Bottomline grew out of a class project for the Allen School’s entrepreneurship course, CSE 599, taught by Lazowska and Greg Gottesman, Managing Director of Pioneer Square Labs. The course, which is open to students in the Allen School, Foster School MBA program, Human-Centered Design & Engineering master’s program, and Interaction Design program, provides a hands-on, team-based experience in what it takes to build a company, from startup to exit. Along the way, students learn how to validate an idea with potential customers, assess potential financing strategies, hone their investor pitch, develop a product as well as a go-to-market and operating plan, and deal with legal issues associated with launching a new business. Those lessons would prove invaluable to the Bottomline founders as they progressed through the competition.

“We would not have been anywhere without this class,” said Palekar, one of Bottomline’s student co-founders who will graduate from the Allen School this month. “Throughout the quarter, we iterated week after week on our idea based on feedback from experienced entrepreneurs, whose insights helped us understand what would and wouldn’t work. Moreover, we received an immense amount of constructive criticism and guidance in terms of our pitch as well as our business models — things that had previously not been our strong suit. We are immensely grateful for this class for giving us the platform to come up with an idea, refine our product, and create a sustainable business over the long term.”

The class instructors were just as impressed with the team’s work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit. “I love this team, it’s just a perfect mix of computer science students and MBAs,” said Gottesman. “The interesting part of the Bottomline story is how entrepreneurial they were as a team. The compensation and offer-analytics idea was not even the first one they worked on in the class — they killed an earlier project based on customer feedback and pivoted to this new space, because several of the team members had direct experience comparing multiple offers. They then executed on the product like rabid dogs.”

The Dempsey Startup Competition, formerly known as the Business Plan Competition, attracted a total of 113 submissions from teams at 16 schools across the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. Bottomline advanced through the first stage of competition in April, when it was among 36 teams chosen to compete for a “sweet 16” spot and earn a shot at being among the finalists last month. The students’ third-place finish was the highest of any UW competitor, earning them the “Friends of the Dempsey Startup” Prize and a check for $7,500. Brennan Colberg, a sophomore in the Allen School, contributed to the team in the early stages of the competition.

Read the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship’s announcement here, and a related GeekWire article here. Learn more about the Dempsey Startup Competition here.

Congratulations to the whole team!

June 10, 2019

“Accessibility is our responsibility”: Students expand their knowledge of best practices and technologies as part of Study Away Silicon Valley

The following post was authored by Richard E. Ladner, Professor Emeritus at the Allen School and Principal Investigator of AccessComputing

The Allen School’s 2019 SASV delegation, left to right: Venkatesh Potluri, Nicole Riley, Ather Sharif, Lucy Jiang, Bryan Lim, and Richard Ladner.

Five students from the Allen School joined a group of 25 students from seven different universities who traveled to Silicon Valley last month to participate in the Teach Access program Study Away Silicon Valley (SASV). I led the group from the University of Washington and served as one of six faculty mentors for the small group projects that participating students completed during the five days of SASV. The students visited the accessibility teams at Walmart, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Verizon Media Group (Yahoo!), and Facebook, where they learned how each of these companies are making their products and services more accessible and usable.

The delegation included Allen School Ph.D. students Venkatesh Potluri and Ather Sharif, fifth-year masters student Nicole Riley, and undergraduates Lucy Jiang and Bryan Lim. In addition to the goal of increasing their knowledge of accessibility practices, these students plan to help the Allen School to improve its curriculum to include more about accessibility-related technologies and practices that these companies are looking for in the people they hire.  

Ather observed that SASV will be helpful for his research. “SASV was a truly remarkable experience. It was fascinating to learn about the efforts and initiatives put forward by the tech companies to improve accessibility in their organizations and products. This knowledge will help me tremendously in my research in not only finding the right problem to target but also targeting it with a pragmatic approach.”

Venkatesh also anticipates that what he learned at SASV will benefit his research. “As a graduate student with research focused in accessibility, it was invaluable to understand the different approaches the industry had towards accessibility. I hope to use these insights from the Study Away as inspiration to solve meaningful accessibility gaps.”

As Bryan noted, there is a gap between what new employees know about accessibility coming into these companies, compared to what they need to know to be effective employees. “Being a part of SASV made me realize the magnitude of the task to make products and services accessible to all. Even more surprising was that almost every company mentioned the existence of a skills gap. New employees consistently had little to no experience with accessibility, and many of the people on their accessibility teams learned on the job. Knowing this, I think that teaching students about accessibility will give them a leg up no matter where they go.”

For her part, Nicole appreciated hearing firsthand about the importance of accessibility to employers and the opportunities available for researchers and technologists who focus in this space. “One thing I learned on the trip was how valuable skills are in accessibility to companies in Silicon Valley. I also learned about the variety of roles available in which you can do accessible work and the diversity of paths to get there, along with new accessible technology that they were developing.”

Lucy also was impressed by each company’s respective commitment to accessibility. “It was so impactful to visit companies like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook and learn about not only their work in accessibility, but their commitment to continual growth and progress. From learning about the importance of universal design, to thinking outside the box and working with a group of people of diverse backgrounds to develop a product idea, I’ll always cherish my newfound friendships with students and faculty from universities across the country. Though this trip was just one week long, I’m inspired to become even more involved in this field — after all, accessibility is our responsibility.”

Next spring, Teach Access is planning another SASV. I am already looking forward to assembling another group of students eager to participate in this enriching learning experience and to incorporate accessibility practices and technologies into their own work. And hopefully we can host a Study Away Puget Sound (SAPS) in the future!

June 4, 2019

Undergraduate Asila Maksumova earns Allen AI Outstanding Engineer Scholarship

Allen School undergraduate Asila Maksumova has been selected as the recipient of the 2019 Allen AI Outstanding Engineer Scholarship for Women and Underrepresented Minorities sponsored by the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2). Maksumova, who is majoring in Computer Science, is the second Allen School student to receive the scholarship, which was created by AI2 in 2018 to encourage and support students from underrepresented groups pursuing AI education and careers.

Maksumova is an experienced programmer with a keen interest in artificial intelligence, machine learning, data analytics, and the Internet of Things. During her time at the University of Washington, Maksumova has contributed her talents to the UnderWater Remotely Operated Vehicle Team (UWROV), a group of undergraduate students who design, build, and operate underwater robots. She enjoys mentoring others and has spent the past two quarters as a teaching assistant for the Allen School’s introductory programming course, CSE 142. She is also active in the Sigma Kappa sorority.

Off campus, Maksumova has completed software development internships at General Electric, Kernel Labs, and OSISoft, and spent several months as a researcher at the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center. She begins a new internship at Apple in June.

Left to right: Joanna Power, Christine Betts, and Asila Maksumova at the Allen AI Outstanding Engineer Scholarship reception

The Allen AI Outstanding Engineer Scholarship covers full tuition, fees, and textbooks for one academic year. Scholars also have the opportunity to participate in a paid internship working alongside AI2 scientists. In addition to encouraging more diversity in computing, the scholarship program aims to nurture students on the path to a lifelong career. Allen School undergraduate Christine Betts earned the inaugural scholarship last year.

Maksumova was formally recognized at a reception this week featuring remarks from Betts; Allen School alumna Joanna Power (M.S., ‘98), senior software engineer at AI2; and professor Ed Lazowska, Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the Allen School.

Read the AI2 announcement here.

Congratulations, Asila!

May 31, 2019

CSE2 Move Team recognized with College of Engineering Team Award

Group of people smiling in grey Allen School t-shirts
Members of the CSE2 Move Team, front row, left to right: Adrian Dela Cruz, Tracy Erbeck, Fred Videon, Sophie Ostlund, Emma Gebben, Voradesh Yenbut. Back row, left to right: Aaron Timss, Rod Prieto, Kris Venden, Stephen Spencer, Dan Boren, Alex Lefort, Jason Howe, Della Welch.

Not pictured: Tony Anderson, Nancy Burr, Joel Cohn, Alex Eckerman, Rebekah Hansen, Mark Murray, John Petersen, Jan Sanislo.

On February 28th, friends and supporters of the Allen School gathered to celebrate the dedication of the new Bill & Melinda Gates Center for Computer Science & Engineering. It was a momentous occasion made possible by the generosity of more than 500 donors, a contribution from Washington state taxpayers…and the careful planning and hard work of nearly two dozen Allen School facilities, operations, and technology support staff responsible for orchestrating the move of people, labs, and equipment into their gleaming new space. Last week, those staff members were formally recognized with the College of Engineering’s 2019 Team Award for having undertaken that monumental — and monumentally successful — assignment.

“To meet the needs of rapidly growing student and faculty populations, the team orchestrated a complex plan to relocate and redistribute the Allen School across two buildings,” the College notes in its award citation. “They demonstrated an exceptional level of organization, efficiency and professionalism to ensure that all faculty, staff and students could access classrooms, laboratories and office spaces from day one.”

The team honored at last Thursday’s award ceremony included the following staff members, all of whom went above and beyond to ensure the Bill & Melinda Gates Center was ready to welcome occupants to their new home:

  • Tony Anderson, technology
  • Dan Boren, technology
  • Nancy Burr, technology
  • Joel Cohn, technology
  • Adrian Dela Cruz, operations
  • Alex Eckerman, technology
  • Tracy Erbeck, facilities
  • Emma Gebben, technology
  • Rebekah Hansen, technology
  • Jason Howe, technology
  • Alex Lefort, operations
  • Mark Murray, technology
  • Sophie Ostlund, operations
  • John Petersen, technology
  • Rod Prieto, technology
  • Jan Sanislo, technology
  • Stephen Spencer, technology
  • Aaron Timss, technology
  • Kris Venden, technology
  • Fred Videon, technology
  • Della Welch, technology
  • Voradesh Yenbut, technology

Professors Paul Beame, Associate Director of Facilities for the school, and Ed Lazowska, Associate Director for Development & Outreach, were among the faculty who sang the team’s praises. “We had extremely high expectations for the members of the Move Team based on their prior work in operations and lab support, but executing the move under extremely tight and shifting constraints was truly amazing,” they wrote in support of the team’s nomination. “Their work exemplifies the best qualities of teamwork, planning, and dedication that characterize the staff of the College of Engineering.”

Despite detailed plans that were months — in some cases, years — in the making, the team had to contend with a number of unforeseen circumstances that threatened to throw the move schedule off track. The move was to be done in phases over a period of nearly two months; every step of the way, team members expertly worked around delivery delays, travel schedules, holidays, and even a freak snowstorm that shut down the University to meet their deadlines and ensure that the new building occupants experienced a smooth transition with minimal disruption to their work. This included assisting teams with everything from rolling million-dollar robots across the street to packing up specks of DNA destined for the new wet lab, in addition to coordinating the arrival and proper placement of an entire building’s worth of computers, multimedia displays, furniture, and fixtures.

“The combination of personal commitment and absolute quality focus of the Allen School’s move team turned an enormous challenge into a smooth and successful transition in which occupants of both buildings are incredibly happy,” professor Hank Levy, Director of the Allen School, said. “Their amazing dedication to this task meant that faculty, students, and staff could walk into their new spaces and find them completely ready for occupancy on day one. They have my highest respect for their work.”

Teamwork is the hallmark of the Allen School approach, and it shows; previously, the Allen School’s undergraduate advising team was recognized by the College for providing exceptional service to our growing population of majors, prospective students, parents, and K-12 educators.

Way to go, team!

May 28, 2019

Groundbreaking study that served as the foundation for securing implantable medical devices earns IEEE Test of Time Award

Members of the team that examined the privacy and security risks of implantable medical devices in 2008. UW News Office

In March 2008, Allen School researchers and their collaborators at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Harvard Medical School revealed the results of a study examining the privacy and security risks of a new generation of implantable medical devices. Equipped with embedded computers and wireless technology, new models of implantable cardiac defibrillators, pacemakers, and other devices were designed to make it easier for physicians to automatically monitor and treat patients’ chronic health conditions while reducing the need for more invasive — and more costly — interventions. But as the researchers discovered, the same capabilities intended to improve patient care might also ease the way for adversarial actions that could compromise patient privacy and safety, including the disclosure of sensitive personal information, denial of service, and unauthorized reprogramming of the device itself.

A paper detailing their findings, which earned the Best Paper Award at the IEEE’s 2008 Symposium on Security and Privacy, sent shock waves through the medical community and opened up an entirely new line of computer security research. Now, just over 10 years later, the team has been recognized for its groundbreaking contribution by the IEEE Computer Society Technical Committee on Security and Privacy with a 2019 Test of Time Award.

“We hope our research is a wake-up call for the industry,” professor Tadayoshi Kohno, co-director of the Allen School’s Security and Privacy Research Laboratory, told UW News when the paper was initially published. “In the 1970s, the Bionic Woman was a dream, but modern technology is making it a reality. People will have sophisticated computers with wireless capabilities in their bodies. Our goal is to make sure those devices are secure, private, safe and effective.”

Chest x-ray showing an implanted cardioverter defibrillator (ICD).

To that end, Kohno and Allen School graduate student Daniel Halperin (Ph.D., ‘12), worked with professor Kevin Fu, then a faculty member at University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Fu’s students Thomas Heydt-Benjamin, Shane Clark, Benessa Defend, Will Morgan, and Ben Ransford — who would go on to complete a postdoc at the Allen School — in an attempt to expose potential vulnerabilities and offer solutions. The computer scientists teamed up with cardiologist Dr. William Maisel, then-director of the Medical Device Safety Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and a professor at Harvard Medical School. As far as the team was aware, the collaboration represented the first time that anyone had examined implantable medical device technology through the lens of computer security. Their test case was a commercially available implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) that incorporated a programmable pacemaker capable of short-range wireless communication.

The researchers first partially reverse-engineered the device’s wireless communications protocol with the aid of an oscilloscope and a commodity software radio. They then commenced a series of computer security experiments targeting information stored and transmitted by the device as well as the device itself. With the aid of their software radio, the team found that they were able to compromise the security and privacy of the ICD in a variety of ways. As their goal was to understand and address potential risks without enabling an unscrupulous actor to use their work as a guide, they omitted details from their paper that would facilitate such actions outside of a laboratory setting. On a basic level, they discovered that they could trigger identification of the specific device, including its model and serial number. This, in turn, yielded the ability to elicit more detailed data about a hypothetical patient, including name, diagnosis, and other sensitive details stored on the device. From there, the researchers tested a number of scenarios in which they sought to actively interfere with the device, demonstrating the ability to change a patient’s name, reset the clock, run down the battery, and disable therapies that the device was programmed to deliver. They were also able to bypass the safeguards put in place by the manufacturer to prevent the accidental issuance of electrical shocks to the patient’s heart, thereby potentially triggering shocks to induce hypothetical fibrillation after turning off the ICD’s automatic therapies.

Equipment used in the 2008 study to test the security of a commercially available ICD.

The team set out to not only identify potential flaws in implantable medical technology, but also to offer practical solutions that would empower manufacturers, providers, and patients to mitigate the potential risks. The researchers developed prototypes for three categories of defenses that could ostensibly be refined and built into future ICD models. They dubbed these “zero-power defenses,” meaning they did not need to draw power from the device’s battery to function but instead harvested energy from external radio frequency (RF) signals. The first, zero-power notification, provides the patient with an audible warning in the event of a security-sensitive event. To prevent such events in the first place, the researchers also proposed a mechanism for zero-power authentication, which would enable the ICD to verify it is communicating with an authorized programmer. The researchers complemented these defenses with a third offering, zero-power sensible key exchange. This approach enables the patient to physically sense a key exchange to combat unauthorized eavesdropping of their implanted device.

Upon releasing the results of their work, the team took great pains to point out that their goal was was to aid the industry in getting ahead of potential problems; at the time of the study’s release, there had been no reported cases of a patient’s implanted device having been compromised in a security incident. But, as Kohno reflects today, the key to computer security research is anticipating the unintended consequences of new technologies. It is an area in which the University of Washington has often led the way, thanks in part to Kohno and faculty colleague Franziska Roesner, co-director of the Security and Privacy Research Lab. Other areas in which the Allen School team has made important contributions to understanding and mitigating privacy and security risks include motor vehicles, robotics, augmented and virtual reality, DNA sequencing software, and mobile advertising — to name only a few. Those projects often represent a rich vein of interdisciplinary collaboration involving multiple labs and institutions, which has been a hallmark of the lab’s approach.

Professor Tadayoshi Kohno (left) and Daniel Halperin

“This project is an example of the types of work that we do here at UW. Our lab tries to keep its finger on the pulse of emerging and future technologies and conducts rigorous, scientific studies of the security and privacy risks inherent in those technologies before adversaries manifest,” Kohno explained. “In doing so, our work provides a foundation for securing technologies of critical interest and value to society. Our medical device security work is an example of that. To my knowledge, it was the first work to experimentally analyze the computer security properties of a real wireless implantable medical device, and it served as a foundation for the entire medical device security field.”

The research team was formally recognized during the 40th IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy earlier this week in San Francisco, California. Read the original research paper here, and the 2008 UW News release here. Also see this related story from the University of Michigan, where Fu is currently a faculty member, for more on the Test of Time recognition.

Congratulations to Yoshi, Dan, Ben, and the entire team!


May 23, 2019

Have you heard? UW researchers developed a new smartphone app that screens for ear infections in children

Dr. Randall Bly checks his daughter’s ear for fluid using a new smartphone app and paper funnel. Dennis Wise/University of Washington

Researchers in the Allen School and UW Medicine have come up with a novel way to determine whether children may be suffering from an ear infection with the help of a smartphone and a piece of paper. In a paper published last week in the journal Science Translational Medicine, the team presents a new app that can detect the presence of fluid behind a child’s eardrum — a telltale sign of infection — anytime, anywhere in a matter of seconds using a smartphone’s microphone and speaker.

It’s a development that is sure to be music to parents’ ears. And given that the software can be used on virtually any smartphone without the need for specialized equipment, the app’s potential should resonate with providers, as well.

“Designing an accurate screening tool on something as ubiquitous as a smartphone can be game changing for parents as well as health care providers in resource-limited regions,” professor Shyam Gollakota, director of the Allen School’s Networks & Mobile Systems Laboratory, said in a UW News release. “A key advantage of our technology is that it does not require any additional hardware other than a piece of paper and a software app running on the smartphone.”

As Gollakota and his co-authors point out, acute otitis media (AOM) — the condition commonly referred to as an “ear infection” — is a leading cause of pediatric healthcare visits. Fluid in the ear can indicate a child has AOM or otitis media with effusion (OME), a condition in which fluid is present without an acute infection. The latter affects up to 80 percent of children and increases their chances of developing AOM in addition to other complications. Current methods for determining the presence of middle ear fluid, such as pneumatic otoscopy, require a visit to the doctor’s office, but is used by less than one-third of providers; tympanometry requires a referral to an audiologist and relies on expensive, specialized equipment.

The app offers instructions for assembling a paper funnel to use with the app. Dennis Wise/UW

For a more convenient — and less costly — solution, the UW team applied the concept of acoustic reflectometry to build a smartphone app that detects the presence of fluid by tapping into the eardrum’s response to sound waves. The researchers take advantage of the co-located microphone and speaker configuration already built into widely available smartphone models to provide a mobile software-based solution, thus negating the need for a separate device. To initiate the test, a user takes a simple, do-it-yourself paper funnel cut from a pattern and affixes it to the smartphone’s speaker. The funnel is placed at the entrance to the outer ear, enabling the phone to emit a series of soft, bird-like chirping sounds into the ear canal. The sound waves from the chirps cause the eardrum to vibrate to varying degrees, depending on whether fluid is present. Those vibrations are then reflected back to the app, which measures the resulting interference with the chirps.

The vibration of a normal eardrum generates a broad-spectrum, soft echo. The presence of fluid, however, restricts the vibration of the eardrum, reflecting sound waves back along the ear canal in a manner that creates more destructive interference. By measuring this interference, the app alerts the user whether fluid — and potentially, infection — is present inside the ear. As Allen School Ph.D. student Justin Chan, co-lead author of the paper, explained, the concept is similar to the different tone one gets from tapping a drinking glass. “Depending on how much liquid is in it, you get different sounds,” he noted. “Using machine learning on these sounds, we can detect the presence of liquid.”

Co-lead authors Dr. Sharat Raju (left) and Allen School Ph.D. student Justin Chan. Dennis Wise/UW

Gollakota and Chan worked with Allen School Ph.D. student Rajalakshmi Nandakumar and physicians Sharat Raju and Randall Bly of UW Medicine on the project. The researchers trained the algorithm that powers their app with data collected from 53 children undergoing surgery at Seattle Children’s Hospital, where Bly practices, with parental consent. Nearly half of the patients, who ranged from 18 months to 17 years of age, were scheduled for a myringotomy, a common procedure to address recurring ear infections in which a small, plastic tube is inserted into the eardrum to prevent a future build-up of fluid in the middle ear. The other patients were undergoing procedures for conditions unrelated to the ear and showed no signs of having middle ear fluid. Each of the 98 patient ears tested with the smartphone app were also tested using a commercially available acoustic reflectometry device for comparison.

The team demonstrated the app could correctly identify the presence or absence of fluid 85 percent of the time, a rate of accuracy comparable to that of standard methods. The researchers also showed that, with minimal training, parents and caregivers can perform the test on any smartphone with a DIY funnel made out of any type of paper — proving that their new app offers a sound approach for screening at home or on the go.

Allen School professor Shyam Gollakota (left) and Ph.D. student Rajalakshmi Nandakumar. Mark Stone/UW

“The medical community has recognized the need for a more efficient yet reliable screening for middle ear fluid in children,” noted Gollakota. “The community also called for new strategies for monitoring fluid at home following a physician’s exam. Our app provides a way to do both, helping to speed diagnosis and improve patient outcomes for two of the most common pediatric ear diseases.”

Gollakota and his collaborators will commercialize their work through a new UW spinout company, Edus Health, with the goal of putting the app in the hands of parents and providers around the world.

Read the journal paper here, UW News release here, and National Science Foundation release here. Check out coverage by NPR, Associated Press, US News & World Report, CNBC, GeekWire, STAT News, New Scientist, Gizmodo, Digital Trends, New Atlas, MobiHealth News, and Mental Floss.


May 21, 2019

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