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Allen School’s Barbara Mones celebrated for her distinguished career in computer animation and XR education

Allen School teaching professor Barbara Mones has had a remarkable career in education as director of Animation Production for the Animation Research Labs, director of the Reality Studio and as leader of both the Facial Expression Research Group and the Octopus Research Group. In recognition of her outstanding work, Mones was recently honored with the 2021 Distinguished Educator Award from the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques (ACM SIGGRAPH) for her trailblazing role in developing curricula in computer animation and her continuing role in extending the curricula to virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR). 

Mones, who joined the Allen School in 1999, has built a career working in and teaching computer graphics and animation production. Her research is in animation, visual storytelling, content development, fast prototyping, facial expression for stylized characters and the animation production pipeline design for games, film and immersive environments. As director of the Reality Studio, Mones teaches students about effective production pipelines and clear storytelling for and in VR, AR and MR. Students develop and create their own animation and immersive projects under her guidance. 

“Since joining the Allen School, Barbara grew a single course in digital animation into a suite of courses extending from traditional to immersive — virtual reality — digital animation,” said Ed Lazowska, Professor and Bill & Melinda Gates Chair Emeritus in the Allen School. “Year after year, the animated shorts that her students create are invited to prestigious animation festivals in the U.S. and beyond. Year after year, her graduates take positions at leading animation houses. Year after year, we receive messages from former students describing how their careers were shaped by the experiences they had with Barbara at University of Washington.”

The curricula Mones has developed in computer animation has been widely recognized and influential — she has lectured at institutions globally on animation and curriculum development. She also coordinated an international student animation competition for the ACM SIGGRAPH for 17 years and served as Art Chair for the organization’s Education Committee.

“Barbara gave me my first opportunity to learn the skills for animation and visual effects. She introduced me to my grad program and set me on the path to working in the film industry,” said Elizabeth Muhm (B.S., Computer Science and Mathematics, ‘09), a former teaching assistant for Mones who is currently a software engineer at Google. “She both shared her passion for the craft and taught practical skills I use daily like how to manage up and how to think of all your work as a draft to iterate on.”

Students who study digital animation at the UW have the opportunity to put what they learned into practice in the Allen School’s Animation Capstone, in which they collaborate on the production of an animated short film following an industry-standard production pipeline that spans modeling, shading, lighting, animating, rendering and post-production. With her capstone students, Mones has produced and directed 20 animated shorts, many of which were screened at domestic and international film festivals. Along the way, she has developed a curriculum that now incorporates AR, VR and MR into storytelling, content development and filmmaking.  

Dancer By the Sea” and “The Tyrant” are her most recent films to be screened at festivals — and both have garnered many awards. “Dancer By the Sea” has been screened in 22 national and international festivals, including in Canada, Portugal, Germany, Holland, Romania and Russia. “Dancer By the Sea” won 24 awards including Best Inspirational Film at the Top Shorts Festival, Best Family Animated/Best Music Score at the Canada Shorts: Canadian and International Short Film Festival, Best Inspirational Film  at the Festigious Los Angeles Film Festival, Award of Outstanding Excellence at the CineMagic Film Festival and the Award of Outstanding Excellence – Viewer Impact, Inspirational at the Depth of Field International Film Festival. “The Tyrant” has been screened in 10 national and international festivals and won four awards to date, including Best Animated Film at the Gold Star Movie Awards, Honorable Mention/Best Animated Short at the Independent Shorts Awards and Gold Winner/Animation at the International Independent Film Awards. 

Standouts in previous years include the 2008 film “KINGS,” which won a Reviewers’ Choice Award at the Port Townsend Film Festival and Honorable Mention at the New Jersey Film Festival, both in 2011, and “Fish Out of Water,” produced in 2017, that received an Honorable Mention at the fifth annual Noida International Film Festival and was a Merit Winner at the Global Shorts international short film competition. 

Furthermore, her graphics and animation have been shown in museums and institutions worldwide, including the Smithsonian Institution and the Villa Ciani Museum in Switzerland and the ACM SIGGRAPH Electronic Theater. She also has designed and implemented training programs in the areas of digital modeling, animation and 3D paint at Dreamworks/Pacific Data Images and Industrial Light & Magic.

Before arriving at the UW, Mones was a Teaching Fellow at the Human Interface Technology Lab at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, and worked for the White House and National Aeronautics and Space Administration on Al Gore’s Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) Program. For this she was presented with a NASA Group Achievement award. She was recently elected into the SIGGRAPH Executive Committee to serve for three years. 

Watch Mones talk about the award and speak more about her work here. All of her screenings and awards can be seen on the Animation Research Labs website

Congratulations, Barbara! 

October 19, 2021

Allen School’s Saadia Gabriel and Dhruv Jain win Google Research/CMD-IT LEAP dissertation Fellowships for research aimed at detecting misinformation and advancing sound accessibility

Saadia Gabriel (left) and Dhruv Jain

Allen School Ph.D. students Saadia Gabriel and Dhruv (DJ) Jain each won a dissertation Fellowship from Google Research and the CMD-IT Diversifying LEAdership in the Professoriate (LEAP) Alliance. In an effort to make computer science research careers more accessible, Google Research partnered with the LEAP Alliance, which is operated by the national Center for Minorities and People with Disabilities in Information Technology to increase the diversity of Ph.D. graduates in computing. Together, the organizations provided a total of six dissertation awards this year to support doctoral students from historically underrepresented groups as they complete their Ph.D. requirements.

Gabriel, advised by Allen School professor Yejin Choi, researches natural language generation and social commonsense reasoning. Gabriel has previously worked on evaluating factuality in generation, as well as improving fairness and explainability in toxic language detection. In her most recent work, she investigates how people might react to Covid-19 and climate misinformation online. She aims to find how well machine learning models interpret and understand reactions and emotions of people in everyday situations and whether or not these models are capable of recognizing text that is factually consistent with prior context. She also seeks to determine if machine learning algorithms are designed with accessibility and interpretability in mind. 

Gabriel will design algorithms for machine learning approaches to find implications captured by written language then develop frameworks that can understand headlines that are harmless versus headlines that have malicious intentions. Ultimately she plans to develop a system prototype and mobile application for artificial intelligence-augmented news reading, using resources she develops for generative neural models to be trained with misinformation detection formalisms. 

Gabriel has previously earned the David Notkin Endowed Graduate Fellowship in Computer Science & Engineering and the ARCS Foundation Fellowship

Jain, who is co-advised by Allen School professor Jon Froehlich and Human Centered Design & Engineering professor and Allen School adjunct professor Leah Findlater, works in the Makeability Lab to advance sound accessibility by designing, building and deploying systems that leverage human computer interaction (HCI) and artificial intelligence (AI). His primary aim is to help people who are d/Deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) to receive important and customized sound feedback.

Jain created HomeSound, a smart home system that senses and alerts users to sound activity like a beeping microwave, blaring smoke alarm or barking dog. To increase the portability of HomeSound, Jain created SoundWatch, an app that provides always-available sound feedback on smartwatches. When the app picks up a nearby sound like a car honking, a bird chirping or someone hammering, it sends the user a notification along with information about the sound. The next phase of his research will be devoted to building on this work, which was well-received by users, to enable feedback to be customized to individual needs, such as the calls of each of their children or the beep of a new home appliance. For example, Jain is currently working on ProtoSound, a sound recognition system that can be personalized by end-users by inputting a few labelled examples of each sound.

Jain has earned two Best Paper Awards, four Best Paper Award Honorable Mentions and one Best Artifact Award at top conferences in the field of HCI. In addition to the Google Research/CMD-IT LEAP Alliance grant, he previously received a Microsoft Research Dissertation Grant to support his work.

Congratulations Saadia and DJ!

October 14, 2021

Allen School’s Amy Zhang and Franziska Roesner win NSF Convergence Accelerator for their work to limit the spread of misinformation online

Amy Zhang (left) and Franziska Roesner

Allen School’s Amy Zhang and Franziska Roesner win NSF Convergence Accelerator for their work to limit the spread of misinformation online

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has selected Allen School professors Amy Zhang, who directs the Social Futures Lab, and Franziska Roesner, who co-directs the  Security and Privacy Research Lab, to receive Convergence Accelerator funding for their work with collaborators at the University of Washington and the grassroots journalism organization Hacks/Hackers on tools to detect and help stop misinformation online. The NSF’s Convergence Accelerator program is unique in that its structure offers researchers the opportunity to accelerate their work over the course of a year to find tangible solutions. The curriculum is designed to strengthen each team’s convergence approach and further develop their solution to move on to a second phase with the potential for additional funding.

In their proposal, “Analysis and Response for Trust Tool (ARTT): Expert-Informed resources for Individuals and Online Communities to Address Vaccine Hesitancy and Misinformation,” Zhang, Roesner, Human Centered Design & Engineering professor and Allen School adjunct professor Kate Starbird, Information School professor and director of the Center for an Informed Public Jevin West, and internet and Hacks/Hackers researcher at large Connie Moon Sehat, who serves as primary investigator of the project, aim to develop a software tool — ARTT — that helps people identify and prevent misinformation. This currently happens on a smaller scale by individuals and community moderators with few resources or expert guidance on combating false information. The team, made up of experts in fields such as computer science, social science, media literacy, conflict resolution and psychology, will develop a software program that helps moderators analyze information online and present practical information that builds trust.  

“In our previous research, we learned that rather than platform interventions like ‘fake news’ labels, people often learn that something they see or post on social media is false or untrustworthy from comment threads or other community members,” said Roesner, who serves as co-principal investigator on the ARTT project alongside Zhang. “With the ARTT research, we are hoping to support these kinds of interactions in productive and respectful ways.”

While ARTT will help prevent the spread of any misinformation, the team’s focus right now is on combating false information on vaccines — vaccine hesitancy has been identified by the World Health Organization as one of the top 10 threats to global health.

In addition to her participation in the ARTT enterprise, Zhang has another Convergence Accelerator project focused on creating a “golden set” of guidelines to help prevent the spread of false information. That proposal, “Misinformation Judgments with Public Legitimacy,” aims to use public juries to render judgments on socially contested issues. The jurors will continue to build these choices to create a “golden set” that social media platforms can use to evaluate information posted on social media. Besides Zhang, the project team includes the University of Michigan’s Paul Resnick, associate dean for research and faculty affairs and professor at the School of Information, and David Jurgens, professor at the Information School and in the Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s David Rand, professor of management science and brain and cognitive sciences and Adam Berinsky, professor of political science.

Online platforms have been increasingly called on to reduce the spread of false information. There is little agreement on what process should be used to do so, and many social media sites are not fully transparent about their policies and procedures when it comes to combating misinformation. Zhang’s group will develop a forecasting service to be used as external auditing for platforms to reduce false claims online. The “golden sets” created from the jury’s work will serve as training data to improve the forecasting service over time. Platforms that use this service will also be more transparent about their judgments regarding false information posted on their platform. 

“The goal of this project is to determine a process for collecting judgments on content moderation cases related to misinformation that has broad public legitimacy,” Zhang said. “Once we’ve established such a process, we aim to implement it and gather judgments for a large set of cases. These judgments can be used to train automated approaches that can be used to audit the performance of platforms.”

Participation in the Convergence Accelerator program includes a $749,000 award for each team to develop their work. Learn more about the latest round awards here and read about all of the UW teams that earned a Convergence Accelerator award here

October 5, 2021

CAREER Award-winning faculty at the Allen School advance leadership and innovation in software testing, machine learning equity, and natural language understanding

NSF logo

How can we endow artificial intelligence with the ability to comprehend and draw knowledge from the immense and varied trove of online documents? Is there a way to make testing and debugging of software that pervades our increasingly technology-dependent world more efficient and robust? Speaking of pervasiveness, as technologies like machine learning are more embedded into our society, how can we be sure that these systems reflect and serve different populations equitably? 

Those are the questions that Allen School professors Hannaneh Hajishirzi, René Just and Jamie Morgenstern are grappling with in their latest research. And while each focuses on a different area, they all have at least two things in common: Their commitment to integrating research and education earned them National Science Foundation CAREER Awards recognizing junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars, and their contributions are helping to cement the Allen School’s leadership in both core and emerging areas of computing.

Hannaneh Hajishirzi: Knowledge-rich neural text comprehension and reasoning

Hannaneh Hajishirzi

Hajishirzi joined the Allen School faculty full-time in 2018 and is the director of the H2Lab, where she focuses on finding and addressing foundational problems in artificial intelligence (AI) and natural language processing (NLP). She is also a Fellow at the Allen Institute for AI. In her CAREER award-winning work, Hajishirzi aims to improve textual comprehension and reasoning using AI capabilities and deep learning algorithms to help applications better understand text and draw logical conclusions. For example,  her research seeks to enable AI systems to answer questions such as “What percentage of Washington state’s budget has been spent on education over the last 20 years?” or verify claims like “Baricitnib prevents 2019-COV from infecting AT2 lung cells.” To do so, the AI system needs to comprehend the claim, find data from reliable sources like scientific articles, and perform reasoning skills to integrate explicit and implicit evidence. Hajishirzi will integrate AI capabilities into deep learning algorithms to understand and reason about textual comprehension to devise hybrid, interpretable algorithms that understand and reason about textual knowledge across varied formats and styles. It will also generalize to emerging domains with scarce training data and operate efficiently under resource limitations.

“Effectively unlimited quantities of ever-changing knowledge are available online in diverse styles, such as news vs. science text and formats — knowledge bases, financial reports and textual documents,” Hajishirzi said. “The content and language style in these domains might evolve over time; for example, scientific articles about the Covid-19 pandemic may use different vocabulary and style as scientists learn more about the virus and communicate findings to different audiences. It is really important to build AI systems that make sense of this enormous amount of knowledge. As a result, textual comprehension is a fundamental problem in AI and NLP.”

René Just: Toward effective, predictable, and consistent software testing

René Just

Since joining the Allen School faculty in 2018, Just has focused on software engineering and data science, in particular static and dynamic program analysis, empirical software engineering and applied statistics and machine learning. Through his CAREER-winning research,  Just is working to increase the quality of the software that powers modern technology and to improve software development more generally with a framework and methodology for systematic software testing. By developing more effective and consistent software testing approaches, Just will provide developers with concrete test goals quantifying the degree to which these test goals are representative of the defects that were experienced during development in the past. By developing more effective and consistent software testing, his method will be able to assess test goals to check for bugs that were experienced during the development of the software.

“Given that software affects nearly every aspect of our daily lives, its defects have serious implications, and significant advances in software quality benefit every corner of society,” Just said. “This is the main motivation for my work on software testing, which aims to prevent fatal software incidents, million-dollar defects, and a lot of frustration caused by software that simply isn’t working as expected.”

Jamie Morgenstern: Strategic and equity considerations in machine learning

Jamie Morgenstern

Morgenstern, who joined the Allen School faculty in 2019, studies the social impact of machine learning (ML) and the impact of social behavior because of ML. In her CAREER award-winning work, Morgenstern is researching the performance of machine learning systems that are trained and tested on heterogeneous and strategically generated data and make both predictions and decisions. This work will help guarantee high-quality predictions in domains with varied data sources. It will also help ensure that insights from ML will apply to diverse populations rather than just the majority. Morgenstern’s work will transform the way both researchers and practitioners reason about human-centric ML models. Additionally, it will shed light on interesting technical questions about how optimizing for different measures of performance affects minority communities. 

“This will provide guarantees on the future performance of systems built on human-generated historical data, even when those people will continue to interact with the system,” Morgenstern said. “My research will inform the design of learning algorithms trained and deployed on human-generated data, in domains such as commerce, medicine, risk modeling, and social benefit allocation.”

Morgenstern, Just and Hajishirzi are the most recent Allen School faculty members to advance leading-edge research with support from the NSF CAREER program. A total of 64 faculty members have received one of these prestigious awards or their predecessor, the Presidential/NSF Young Investigator Award, during their time at the Allen School.

August 13, 2021

Kyle Johnson wins 2021 Generation Google Scholarship

Kyle Johnson

Kyle Johnson, a Ph.D. student working with professor Shyam Gollakota in the Allen School’s Network and Mobile Systems Lab, received a Generation Google Scholarship for his academic performance, leadership and commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. The company created the scholarship to help students pursuing computer science degrees excel in technology and become leaders in the field. 

As a researcher, Johnson aims to create battery-less micro robots designed to operate autonomously for prolonged periods of time, implementable as the sensory notes in a swarm algorithm. To achieve this, he plans to leverage the properties of structures like leaf-out origami to create origami robots. These have potential applications in many environments requiring both low-power and small-scale devices, like in the deployment of space rovers for interplanetary exploration. 

“As a first year graduate student, Kyle is leading embedded systems and robotic research that span aerospace, electrical and mechanical engineering and computer science,” said Gollakota. “The miniaturized robotic systems he is building, if successful, are creative and more importantly useful for achieving wireless sensor deployment at a scale that has not been possible before.”

In addition to his research, Johnson has been a leader in working towards improving diversity, equity and inclusion in academia and technology fields. For the past three years, Johnson has taught middle and high school students how to code and hardwire a multitude of different sensors and devices, demonstrating to students that they can apply the technical concepts that they learn in class towards solving real-world problems.

In the summer of 2019, Johnson traveled to Cape Town, South Africa to study racism, education and development. There, he learned from high school math and physics teachers about creating lesson plans and teaching to diverse students before eventually teaching some of those classes himself. At the University of South Africa, Johnson shared his experiences during the “Trauma, Educational Exclusions and Survival: Examining Global Student Experience & Resilience” workshop at an academic development symposium and encouraged those at the university to be more engaged in public schools to better prepare students for higher education. 

Upon his return to the United States, Johnson co-founded the student group A Vision for Electronic Literary & Access (AVELA) to provide more opportunities for underrepresented students to pursue their interests at a university level. Johnson and the other AVELA members accomplish this by representing the populations that they aim to support while leading workshops, camps and other forms of community outreach. AVELA has partnered with Seattle Public Schools, the Kent School District, the National Society of Black Engineers, Seattle MESA, The Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, InspireOne, and the city of Seattle to teach engineering workshops and create lesson plans catered towards aspiring, underrepresented students. The organization is in the process of earning a 501(c) status; as a nonprofit, AVELA can apply for grants and additional funding.

Over the past year, Johnson has worked to help change policies and job descriptions at the University of Washington to make them more equitable and created tools for students to more quickly report racism, sexism and other discriminatory actions. He also co-founded the Black Student Graduate Association (BSGA).

““The BGSA focuses on giving UW’s Black graduate students the space to relax, network and share experiences,” Johnson said. “As the 100-member organization expands, I hope more Black graduate students will find solace in a community of their peers.”

In addition to his Google Scholarship, Johnson is also a recipient of the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, the National GEM Consortium Fellowship and the Washington Research Foundation Scholarship. And he is a LEAP Fellow – the LEAP Alliance is a collaboration among Berkeley, CMU, Cornell, Georgia Tech, Harvard, Illinois, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, Texas, and Washington focused on diversifying LEAdership in the Professoriate.

Congratulations, Kyle! 

July 30, 2021

Ph.D. alumnus Adrian Sampson receives Young Computer Architect Award for his impact in approximate computing and programming languages in hardware

Adrian Sampson in front of a water fall

Allen School alumnus Adrian Sampson (Ph.D., ‘15) has been recognized by the IEEE Computer Society’s Technical Committee on Computer Architecture with the 2021 Young Computer Architect Award for “contributions to approximate computing and hardware synthesis from high-level representations.” This award honors an outstanding researcher who has completed their doctoral degree within the past six years and who has made innovative contributions to the field of computer architecture. Sampson, who completed his Ph.D. working with Allen School professor Luis Ceze and Allen School professor and vice director Dan Grossman, is now a faculty member in the Department of Computer Science at Cornell University in the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science.

“Adrian’s work on programming language-hardware co-design for approximate computing led to a new research area with lots of follow-on research by the community,” said Ceze. “His research impact is complemented by him being an amazingly creative, caring and fun human being. I could not be more proud of him.”

Sampson devoted his early career to new abstractions in approximate computing, with a focus on rethinking modern computer architecture — specifically reducing the energy consumption of computer systems. For instance, Sampson, along with Ceze and Grossman, created EnerJ, a language for principled approximate computing that allows programmers to indicate where it is safe to permit occasional errors in order to save energy. While power consumption of computers is often strained by correctness, guarantees like EnerJ, an extension to Java, exposes hardware faults in a safe, principled manner allowing power-saving techniques like lower voltage. Sampson’s research shows that approximate computing is a promising way of saving energy in large classes of applications running on a wide range of systems, including embedded systems, mobile phones and servers. 

“Modern architecture gives everyone a license to try ideas that are weird and ambitious and potentially transformative,” Sampson said about his work. “It would be silly not to take up that opportunity.”

At Cornell, Sampson and his research group, Capra, are focused on programming languages and compilers for generating hardware accelerators. One area in particular is field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), which allow the co-design of applications with hardware accelerators. These are still hard to program, so Sampson and his team created Dahlia, a programming language that leverages an affine type system to constrain programs to only represent valid hardware designs. Dahlia aims to compile high-level programming languages into performant hardware designs and offer open source tools to help programming language and architecture.

“What Adrian has leveraged in clever and impactful ways throughout his career is that many potential amazing performance advantages at the hardware level are possible only if given extra information or assurance from the software as to where the techniques are safe to use,” Grossman said.

In addition to his Computer Architecture Award, Sampson previously was recognized with an NSF CAREER Award in 2019 and a Google Faculty Research Award in 2016, just to name a few, and has published more than 40 papers

Sampson is not the only person with an Allen School connection to earn the Young Computer Architect Award since its inception in 2011: Ceze himself received the award in 2013, and he was also the advisor to Hadi Esmaeilzadeh, who received the award in 2018, and Brandon Lucia, who received the award in 2019.

Congratulations, Adrian!

July 15, 2021

Allen School professor Emina Torlak receives Robin Milner Young Researcher Award for her groundbreaking work in automating reasoning for programmers

Emina Torlak photo

Allen School professor Emina Torlak, co-founder of the UNSAT group and a member of the Programming Languages & Software Engineering (PLSE) group, earned the 2021 Robin Milner Young Researcher Award from the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Programming Languages (ACM SIGPLAN) for her research contributions in automated reasoning to make computer programming easier. The award was named in honor of Milner, the legendary British computer scientist who was a leader in programming language research and had a passion for mentoring his younger colleagues. Torlak is the 10th recipient of the award, which is given to a researcher within 20 years of their start of graduate school.

“This prestigious award is explicit recognition of what is well-known in the programming-languages research community: Emina builds beautifully engineered systems that are ready for serious use not just by her group but by other researchers, and she does so by extending the elegant logical foundations of our field in sophisticated ways,” said Dan Grossman, professor and vice director of the Allen School. “Her tools don’t just work; they do things nobody else knows how to do.”

In her work, Torlak combines new language abstractions, algorithmic insights, robust design, and thorough implementation. From the start of her career as a doctoral student at MIT, she has been building tools and applications that find and solve problems in programming languages.

“Automatic verification of programs ensures that programs are free of bugs that hackers could exploit to break into the system. Unfortunately, verifying program correctness is a specialized task that programmers are not trained to perform,” said Allen School professor Rastislav Bodik. “Emina’s research goal has been to make automatic verification of programs accessible to programmers who lack expertise in verification. She has accomplished this vision by automating a lot of the verification process, in a clever way. Her key insight was that it was impossible to construct a super-verifier that would automatically verify all kinds of programs, and that to automate the process, verifiers would need to be tailored to narrower classes of programs. She designed a tool that allowed programmers to automatically construct such automatic verifiers for their programs.”

An example is Torlak’s Rosette framework, which allows users to quickly develop their own domain-specific program synthesis algorithms.

“Rosette is an ingenious design that combines advances from programming languages such as meta-programming, compilation as in partial evaluation and formal methods such as symbolic computation,” Bodik said. “Using Rosette, programmers were able to construct verifiers in a few days where it would take months to do so with traditional methods. Rosette was also used to construct synthesizers of programs, which are tools that automatically write programs. Using Rosette, researchers have built synthesizers that reached parity with human programming experts on a range of advanced programming tasks. This success owes both to Emina’s design skills and the leadership in supporting the open-source community around Rosette.”

Leveraging Rosette, Torlak helped to create Serval, a framework for creating automated verifiers for systems software. It overcomes several obstacles in scaling automated verification, including the developer effort required to write verifiers, the difficulty of finding and fixing performance bottlenecks, and limitations on their applicability to existing systems. From there, she contributed to the development of Jitterbug, a tool for writing and proving the correctness of just-in-time (JIT) compilers for computers using the extended Berkeley Packet Filter (eBPF) technology. It produces a formal correctness guarantee for eBPF JITs, a security-critical component of the Linux operating system, through a precise specification of JIT correctness and an automated verification strategy that scales to practical implementations.

“Emina Torlak is a leader in the area of automated verification. She has made both conceptual contributions and built tools that are state-of-the-art and widely used,” said the Milner Award selection committee. “On the conceptual side, the notion of a solver-aided programming language is hers and has quickly become standard terminology.”

Torlak’s research has been published at some of the most prestigious and highly competitive conferences in the field, including ACM SIGPLAN’s Symposium on Principles of Programming Languages (POPL), Conference on Programming Language Design and Implementation (PLDI), International Conference on Functional Programming (ICFP), International Conference on Computer Aided Verification (CAV), the International Conference on Software Engineering (ICSE) and much more. Torlak joined the University of Washington in 2014 and has since been named a Sloan Research Fellow and won an NSF CAREER Award, an Amazon Research Award, two Best Paper Awards, two Distinguished Paper Awards and a Distinguished Artifact Award.

Read more about Torlak’s Young Researcher Award here

Congratulations, Emina! 

June 30, 2021

Allen School’s Yasaman Sefidgar earns Facebook Fellowship for her work in building supportive social systems

Yasaman Sefidgar

Yasaman Sefidgar, a Ph.D. student working with Allen School professor James Fogarty, has been named a 2021 Facebook Fellow for her research developing computational and data-driven systems that inform and support social and health interventions. Sefidgar’s work currently is focused on studying the powerful effects of social support and how to make it more accessible with online platforms, especially during difficult times.

Sefidgar aims to use her Fellowship to understand the emotional needs of people online — specifically among minority populations who experience particular incidents like microaggressions. Her findings will help her design systems that can aid people coping with distress. In her previous work with students struggling with microaggression, she found that those who successfully worked through it bounced back quickly after seeking support from others who had similar experiences and could offer guidance. The earlier they found this support, the better their recovery. Sefidgar wants to connect people based on their experiences and the impact the connection makes, then guide the social interaction dynamics to make the connection a positive one. 

After studying insights from interviews and a large dataset, and building a framework to analyze the collected stories and encounters, Sefidgar will curate algorithms to build a platform that can support more specific needs to promote well-being. 

“We need additional knowledge of mechanisms of effective social support in situations of interest. My mixed-method research addresses both fronts,” said Sefidgar. “Qualitative accounts of how individuals currently seek support would highlight the challenges and barriers that technology solutions might address. They can also inform quantitative analysis that not only confirms the qualitative insights but also brings to light the mechanistic elements of effective support.” 

Sefidgar said that Facebook has the relevant resources to improve social support for well-being by leveraging the day-to-day experiences shared on its platforms to new recommendation policies and content curation. The company can also implement interventions that improve conversations. 

“I hope findings from my work can inform the design of interfaces, interactions, and algorithms on Facebook and Instagram with the potential to benefit millions of users,” she said.

Before coming to the Allen School, Sefidgar obtained her B.S. in computer engineering from the Sharif University of Technology and M.S. degrees in human-computer interaction from the University of British Columbia and in computer vision from Simon Fraser University. She has co-authored 10 publications, including a Best Paper Honorable Mention for “Situated Tangible Robot Programming” from the 2017 International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction.    

Sefidgar is one of only 21 doctoral students worldwide chosen to receive Facebook Fellowships this year based on their innovative research. Past Allen School recipients of the Facebook Fellowship include Minjoon Seo (2019), James Bornholt and Eunsol Choi (2018), and Aditya Vashistha (2016). 

Congratulations, Yasaman! 

June 18, 2021

UW researchers ride a wave of innovation at the 2021 ACM CHI Conference

CHI 2021 logo

Researchers at the University of Washington contributed to four Best Papers and 11 Best Paper Honorable Mentions at the recent Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2021) organized by the Association for Computing Machinery. The virtual conference offered UW researchers the opportunity to showcase the breadth and depth of their expertise in human-computer interaction (HCI) and design as well as the strength of interdisciplinary collaborations such as DUB. Members of the Allen School co-authored two of the Best Papers and eight of the papers recognized with Honorable Mentions. 

In addition to the papers, Allen School professor Jeffrey Heer, director of the Interactive Data Lab, was inducted into the CHI Academy for his substantial, cumulative contributions to the field of human-computer interaction, social computing and data visualization. He is one of only eight new members elected to the Academy this year. 

Wang, Bodik and Ko
Authors of the Best Paper: “Falx: Synthesis-Powered Visualization Authoring,” from left to right, Wang, Bodik and Ko.

Allen School Ph.D. student Chenglong Wang and professor Rastislav Bodik of the Programming Languages & Software Engineering (PLSE) group and iSchool professor and Allen School adjunct professor Amy J. Ko, co-authored the award-winning paper, “Falx: Synthesis-Powered Visualization Authoring,” with professors Yu Feng  at the University of California Santa Barbara and Isil Dilig at the University of Texas, Austin and former Allen School professor Alvin Cheung, now a faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley. In the publication, the team introduces Falx, a tool that enables data analysts to create data visualizations more easily through demonstrations. While modern visualization tools make data visualization design easier, when it comes to exploratory visualization, there can often be a mismatch of data layout and design that requires significant effort. Falx addresses the issue by automatically inferring the visualization specification and transforming the data to match the design from user demonstrations. 

Karusala and Anderson
Allen School authors of the Best Paper:”‘That Courage to Encourage’: Participation and Aspiration in Chat-Based Peer Support for Youth Living with HIV,” Karusala and Anderson.

Allen School Ph.D. student Naveena Karusala and professor Richard Anderson of the Information and Communication for Technology Development (ICTD) Lab  co-authored ‘‘’That courage to encourage’: Participation and Aspirations in Chat-based Peer Support for Youth Living with HIV” with UW Global Health professors Brandon Guthrie, Grace John-Stewart and Keshet Ronen; professor Megan A. Moreno at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; and Kenyatta National Hospital researchers David Odhiambo Seeh, who is also a research assistant at UW, Cyrus Mugo and Irene Inwani. For their award-winning paper, the team conducted a qualitative study of WhatsApp-based facilitated peer support groups for youth living with HIV in Nairobi, Kenya. While chat apps can make patient-provider communication and peer support more accessible outside of clinical settings, the experience of participants in such group chats in areas where phone sharing and intermittent data access are common is understudied. Using a combination of chat records and interviews with participants, the researchers found that the youth in the chat groups were motivated by newfound aspirations and a sense of community to manage their health despite the complexities of group dynamics, intermittent participation, and concerns about privacy. The paper offers takeaways for participation and privacy in chat-based health communities and how the role of aspirations can be factored into the design of health interventions. 

In addition to the two award-winning papers, Allen School researchers contributed to eight papers that earned Honorable Mentions for addressing topics such as medical making during a pandemic, remote collaboration and communication, the impact of prison surveillance, and more:

Do Cross-Cultural Differences in Visual Attention Patterns Affect Search Efficiency on Websites?” by Allen School Ph.D. students Amanda Baughan and Tal August, professor Katharina Reinecke, postdoctoral researcher Nigini Oliveira and researcher Naomi Yamashita of Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation explored the differences between the way Westerners and people in East Asian societies — U.S. and Japanese citizens, specifically — absorb contextual information online and the implications of their findings for website design.  

Medical Maker Response to COVID-19: Distributed Manufacturing Infrastructure for Stop Gap Protective Equipment,” co-authored by professor Jennifer Mankoff and Ph.D. student Kelly Mack of the Allen School’s Make4All Lab, Georgia Institute of Technology professor Rosa Arriaga and Ph.D. student Udaya Lakshmi, and Carnegie Mellon University professor Scott Hudson and graduate student Megan Hofmann, assesses the efforts of medical makers to organize stopgap manufacturing capabilities to address acute and chronic shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the pandemic to inform future infrastructure design that will enable community production of safe devices at scale.

The same team also contributed to “The Right to Help and the Right Help: Fostering and Regulating Collective Action in a Medical Making Reaction to COVID-19,” which explores the tension between the medical field’s “do no harm” ethos and maker communities’ desire to rapidly innovate in response to shortages of PPE. To address this tension and strike a balance between action-oriented and regulated practices, the researchers recommend that regulatory bodies build coalitions with makers, online platforms give communities more control over the presentation of information, and repositories to balance the need to distribute information while limiting the spread of misinformation.

Scraps: Enabling Contextual Mobile Capture, Contextualization, and Use of Document Resources,” co-authored by Allen School alumna  Amanda Swearngin (Ph.D., ‘19), now an engineer at Apple, and Microsoft researchers Shamsi Iqbal, Victor Poznanski, Mark Encarnación, Paul Bennett and Jaime Teevan, presents an app that makes it easy for people to capture and add context to information from their phone and later link that information to a document on their desktop.  

Allen School Ph.D. student Chunjong Park is one of the researchers behind another app “Significant Otter: Understanding the Role of Biosignals in Communication,” co-authored by Carnegie Mellon University professors Laura Dabbish and Geoff Kaufman and Snap, Inc. researchers Fannie Liu, Yu Jiang Tham and Tsung-Yu Tsai. Significant Otter is an Apple Watch/iPhone app with animated otter avatars that enables romantic partners to share and respond to each other’s biosignals to create a more authentic communication that fosters social connection.

Allen School Ph.D. student Ruotong Wang co-authored “Tabletop Games in the Age of Remote Collaboration: Design Opportunities for a Socially Connected Game Experience” with University of Minnesota professor Svetlana Yarosh and Ph.D. student Irene Ye Yuan and Northwestern Ph.D. student Jan Cao. The paper examines how people adapted existing technologies and their offline practices in pursuit of a shared tabletop gaming experience in the context of the pandemic. The team also reflects on challenges and opportunities for designing a better communal gaming experience in the age of remote collaboration.  

What Do We Mean by ‘Accessibility Research’? A Systematic Review of Accessibility Papers in CHI and ASSETS from 1994 to 2019,” by Kelly Mack, professor Jon Froehlich and Ph.D. student Dhruv Jain in the Allen School’s Makeability Lab; UW Human Centered Design & Engineering professor Leah Findlater and graduate student Emma McDonnell and Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence researcher Lucy Lu Wang, reflects on gaps in accessibility research presented at CHI and the International ACM SIGACCESS Conference on Computers and Accessibility (ASSETS) over a 25-year period and offers guidance for future work in the field.

You Gotta Watch What You Say”: Surveillance of Communication with Incarcerated People, by Allen School Ph.D. student Kentrell Owens, alumna Camille Cobb (Ph.D., ‘19), now a postdoc at Carnegie Mellon University, and CMU professor Lorrie Cranor examines the impact of third-party surveillance of communications between families and relatives who are in prison. Using semi-structured interviews, the team explored the implications of family members’ inaccurate understanding of surveillance and the misalignment of incentives between end-users and vendors to enhance ongoing conversations around carceral justice and the need for more privacy-sensitive communication tools.

All told, UW authors contributed a total of 50 papers presented at this year’s conference. See the complete list of UW CHI papers here.

June 10, 2021

Allen School’s Tim Althoff, Ashish Sharma and Inna Lin win Best Paper Award at WWW for their work to improve online mental health support

Collage of Althoff, Sharma and Lin
From left to right: Althoff, Sharma, Lin

Allen School Ph.D. student Ashish Sharma, professor Tim Althoff and incoming Ph.D. student Inna Lin won the Best Paper Award at the The Web Conference 2021 (WWW) for “Towards Facilitating Empathic Conversations in Online Mental Health Support: A Reinforcement Learning Approach.” In the paper, the group presented computational methods for improving empathy in online mental health support conversations. Their work was chosen from among 1,736 submissions to the conference, which focuses on advancements in the technologies supporting the World Wide Web and their impact on society and culture. 

“We felt the work is going to have a significant impact on the community based on the algorithmic approach and the very thorough experiments that were done in the paper itself,” said Kira Radinsky, the Best Paper Award chair. “This is the direction we felt is going to bring the most value to the community.” 

The paper, which was co-authored with UW Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences professor David Atkins and Stanford University Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences instructor Adam Miner, addresses improving web-based mental health conversations in online peer-to-peer support platforms, which could help improve access to treatment and reduce the global disease burden.

“We describe a system that can give feedback to help someone express empathy more effectively when supporting others based on natural language processing and machine learning innovations — reinforcement learning for dialogue,” said Althoff, who directs the Allen School’s Behavioral Data Science Group. “This is hugely exciting as this work has been a big step towards one of the biggest and most meaningful goals in my research for a long time.”

The team, which was based on a collaboration with the UW and Stanford Medical Schools and the largest online peer-to-peer support platform worldwide, Talklife, found that online mental health conversations could have significantly more empathy than what is currently expressed. To facilitate conversations with higher empathy levels, which is key for providing successful support, they introduced a new task of empathic rewriting. Their approach employs artificial intelligence (AI) tools for identifying and improving empathy to effectively increase the level of empathy in the chat posts. 

As part of this work, the researchers introduced PARTNER, a new deep reinforcement learning agent that learns to make edits to text to increase empathy in a conversation. Through a combination of automatic and human evaluation, the team demonstrated that PARTNER is capable of generating more empathetic, specific and diverse responses than what is currently being shared on Talklife or what current machine learning models can provide. 

“Rarely does mental health research have the practical application and potential for impact that we believe this research will have,” said Jamie Druitt, CEO of Talklife. “This proposed research directly addresses real challenges and can be implemented to create measurable change on mental health platforms.”

This research has been supported in part by a Microsoft AI for Accessibility grant, the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, NSF grant IIS-1901386, NIH grant R01MH125179, and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (INV-004841).

Congratulations Ashish, Tim, Inna and the rest of the team! 

June 8, 2021

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