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Adriana Schulz and Nadya Peek earn TR35 Awards for their efforts to revolutionize fabrication and manufacturing while bridging the human-machine divide

Adriana Schulz
Adriana Schulz

Allen School professor Adriana Schulz and adjunct professor Nadya Peek are among the 35 “Innovators Under 35” recognized by MIT Technology Review as part of its 2020 TR35 Awards. Each year, the TR35 Awards highlight early-career innovators who are already transforming the future of science and technology through their work. Schulz, a member of the Allen School’s Graphics & Imaging Laboratory (GRAIL) and Fabrication research group, was honored for her visionary work on computer-based design tools that enable engineers and average users alike to create functional, complex objects. Peek, a professor in the Department of Human-Centered Design & Engineering, was honored in the “Inventors” category for her work on modular machines for supporting individual creativity. Schulz and Peek are also among the leaders of the new cross-campus Center for Digital Fabrication (DFab), a collaboration among researchers, educators, industry partners, and the maker community focused on advancing the field of digital fabrication.

Schulz develops novel tools, from algorithms to end-to-end systems, that bridge the gap between ideas and implementation. Schulz’s approach is based on the premise that design should be informed by how objects will perform once they are built, and that users have the opportunity to balance multiple, potentially conflicting tradeoffs as part of the design process. To that end, Schulz has focused on developing interactive software that enables users to explore variations of their design with instant performance feedback and to efficiently gauge the impact of various design compromises to arrive at the optimal choice for their desired functionality.

“3D printers are radically transforming the automotive and aerospace industries. Whole-garment knitting machines allow automated production of complex apparel. Electronics manufacturing using flexible substrates enables a new range of integrated products for consumer electronics and medical diagnostics,” Schulz observed. “These advances demonstrate the potential for a new economy of on-demand production of objects of unprecedented complexity and functionality.”

By combining new computational tools with the proliferation of these new fabrication technologies, Schulz aims to help usher in that new economy. She is also keen to democratize design and production in order to extend the benefits of this brave, new digital manufacturing revolution to the masses. 

”Digital fabrication technologies can be used to not only increase productivity but also to dramatically improve the quality of the products themselves, from consumer goods to medical applications,” Schulz explained. “But beyond the commercial impact, what I am really excited about is the potential to enable anyone to create anything, regardless of their background or individual needs. My goal is to empower people to shape the objects and environments around them to be more accessible, sustainable, and inclusive.”

A recent example of her approach is Carpentry Compiler, a project for which she teamed up with members of the Allen School’s Programming Languages & Software Engineering (PLSE) group and the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Carpentry Compiler leverages abstractions — which revolutionized computing by decoupling hardware from software development — to optimize the production of customized carpentry items. The tool enables users to specify a high-level geometric design that is automatically compiled into low-level hardware instructions for fabricating the parts. This approach optimizes for accuracy, fabrication time, and materials to improve sustainability of the fabrication process while reducing costs.

Schulz wearing a version of the DFab’s medical gown

Lately, Schulz has turned her attention to applying digital fabrication techniques to meeting urgent needs in response to COVID-19. When the pandemic hit, Schulz and other DFab members came together to harness the UW’s fabrication capabilities to rapidly respond to a shortage of critical personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline health care workers. As part of this effort, Schulz co-led the design and iteration of a low-cost medical gown that can be fabricated from readily available plastic sheeting — specifically, two-millimeter thick U-Line brand sheeting often used as a high-quality painter’s drop cloth — with the aid of a CNC vinyl cutter.

As they iterated their designs with their collaborators at UW Medicine, Schulz and the team quickly learned that they had to optimize for a very different set of parameters than what they were accustomed to working with. For example, their design had to provide the required level of protection while simultaneously allowing for freedom of movement. The wearer also needed to be able to quickly and easily remove a used gown without contaminating themselves or others in the process.

“Adriana’s work on the medical gown and other projects reflect her collaborative spirit and her great ingenuity and intuition when it comes to designing to optimize for user needs and preferences,” observed professor Magdalena Balazinska, director of the Allen School. “By creating tools that enable people to quickly and easily understand various tradeoffs between design decisions and performance, Adriana is creating an exciting new paradigm in computer-aided manufacturing. Her creativity and energy have been transformative to the Allen School. We feel fortunate to have her as a colleague and are proud to see her recognized.”

Nadya Peek
Nadya Peek

Schulz joined the University of Washington faculty in 2018 after earning her Ph.D. from MIT. It was there that she honed her approach to computational design for manufacturing while collaborating on projects such as InstantCAD, which enables users to quickly and easily gauge performance tradeoffs associated with changing a mechanical shape’s geometry, and AutoSaw, a template-based system for robot-assisted fabrication to enable mass customization of carpentry items. She also co-led the development of Interactive Robogami, which offers a framework for creating 3D-folded robots out of flat sheets.

Peek, who also joined the UW faculty in 2018 after earning her Ph.D. and completing a postdoc at MIT, directs the Machine Agency lab. Peek develops systems that lower the threshold to deploying precise computer-controlled processes and empower domain experts in a variety of fields to use automation without machine design expertise. Her goal is to extend the benefits of automation — precision and speed — to low-volume manufacturing, scientific exploration, and creative problem solving. For example, she led the development of Jubilee, an open-source tool changing machine that enables researchers to develop workflows for fabrication, material exploration, and other applications and which can be built using a combination of 3D-printed and readily available parts.

Peek’s early work advanced the concept of object-oriented machine design. She established the Machines that Make project to design modular machine components that could be assembled by non-experts into different configurations and directly controlled. Another of her projects, Cardboard Machine Kit, has been used by thousands of people worldwide to make hundreds of different machines. More recently, Peek has turned her attention to the development of production systems for digital fabrication in architecture and construction, automated experiment generation and execution in chemical engineering, and robotic farming of aquatic plants.

“Both Nadya and Adriana are incredibly talented researchers who are adept at synthesizing advances spanning multiple domains to realize their vision,” said Shwetak Patel, a professor in the Allen School and Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering who earned a TR35 in 2009 for his work on energy and health sensing. “They are each transforming in fundamental ways how we think about design, fabrication, and production, and their work has quickly helped to establish the UW as a hub of digital fabrication innovation.”

Leilani Battle
Leilani Battle

In addition to Schulz and Peek, another 2020 TR35 honoree has a strong Allen School connection. Undergraduate alumna and former postdoc Leilani Battle (B.S., ’11), now a member of the computer science faculty at the University of Maryland, College Park, was honored for her work on interactive and predictive data exploration tools that enable scientists and researchers to work more efficiently. Battle worked with Balazinska in the UW Database Group as an undergraduate and completed her postdoc working with professor Jeffrey Heer in the Allen School’s Interactive Data Lab. In between, she earned her master’s and Ph.D. from MIT.

Previous Allen School TR35 honorees include professor Franziska Roesner in 2017, for her work on security and privacy of augmented reality; professors Shyam Gollakota and Kurtis Heimerl in 2014, for their work on battery-free communication and community-based wireless, respectively; adjunct professor and current HCDE chair Julie Kientz in 2013, for her work on software to support health and education; adjunct professor and Global Health faculty member Abie Flaxman in 2012, for improvements in measuring disease and gauging the effectiveness of health programs; professors Jeffrey Heer and Shwetak Patel in 2009 for their work in data visualization and sensor systems, respectively; and professor Tadayoshi Kohno in 2007, for his work on emerging cybersecurity threats. Allen School alumni previously recognized by TR35 include Jeff Bigham, Adrien Treuille, Noah Snavely, Kuang Chen, and Scott Saponas.

Read MIT Technology Review’s TR35 profile of Schulz here, the profile of Peek here, the profile of Battle here, and the full list of TR35 recipients here. Read the related HCDE story here.

Congratulations, Adriana, Nadya, and Leilani!

June 17, 2020

Allen School’s Gabriel Erion awarded prestigious F30 fellowship from National Institutes of Health

Gabriel Erion, an M.D.-Ph.D. student currently doing his Ph.D. research with Allen School professor Su-In Lee in the Artificial Intelligence for Medicine and Science (AIMS) Lab, has earned the prestigious Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award from the National Institutes of Health. The Kirschstein-NRSA, also known as the F30, was created to enhance research and clinical training of promising predoctoral students who are enrolled in a combined M.D.-Ph.D. training program and plan to pursue careers as physician-scientists. 

The University of Washington is one of about 50 schools around the country that have a Medical Scientist Training Program — an M.D.-Ph.D. program supported by federal funding from the NIH. The program can last eight or more years; students spend the first two years of their training in medical school, mostly in a classroom setting. They then transition to a Ph.D. and finish the entire degree before returning to medical school for two years of primarily hospital-based clerkships. After graduating, students often split their time between research and practicing medicine. Erion was the first MSTP student at the University of Washington to join the Allen School for a Ph.D. in Computer Science & Engineering.

Erion initially planned to study biology in college and then go to medical school, but his love for building computers inspired him to take math and computer science classes, too. He switched his major to applied math, but still wanted to combine that with experience in health care. 

“An M.D.-Ph.D. was one of the best ways I found to combine these fields, and the University of Washington had one of the best programs for someone with my interests,” Erion said. “Unlike many other schools, the UW program didn’t limit MSTP students to biology departments, and was supportive of my idea to do a math and computer science based Ph.D.”

Erion and Lee’s research on CoAI: Cost-Aware Artificial Intelligence for Health Care, in collaboration with Dr. Nathan White from the University of Washington Department of Emergency Medicine, helped him secure the fellowship. CoAI is a machine learning method for making cost-sensitive risk scores in clinical settings that maintains or improves accuracy while dramatically reducing the time it takes to predict a variety of patient outcomes.

Medical risk scores are used by doctors to help assess a patient’s risk of having a disease. There are hundreds of such risk scores, and they’re used for a wide range of purposes. Erion’s research focuses on three areas: predicting trauma patients’ risk of bleeding disorders, which is used by doctors to anticipate needs for resources like blood transfusions; predicting in-hospital death of patients in intensive care units, which is used to determine who needs the most attention from doctors and nurses; and predicting whether primary care patients will live for 10 years after their visit — an outcome which is not often assessed in clinics, but could be useful as a general indicator of patient health for primary care doctors. 

CoAI was created to help doctors with these time-consuming risk assessments by providing a general-purpose machine learning framework for building low-cost clinical risk scores. The F30 grant will enable Erion and his team to create methodological developments and experiments to demonstrate CoAI’s value in a range of important clinical scenarios. For example, predicting a trauma patient’s risk of bleeding disorders is tedious right now with the Prediction of Acute Coagulopathy of Trauma (PACT) score, but CoAI could make it more efficient. 

“The PACT score variables are some of the most time- and effort-intensive to gather, which we determined by surveying EMTs, paramedics, and nurses in our region. PACT requires blood pressure and heart rate measurements as input, as well as the Glasgow Coma Score, which is a 15-point scale that takes time and cognitive effort to calculate,” Erion explained. “We wanted to see if we could predict bleeding disorders as well as or better than PACT, while reducing the effort required for emergency medical service providers to gather necessary data for the score.”

This ease of use means the tool would be more likely to be deployed in practice, saving EMTs valuable time in the ambulance. The team conducted a survey that showed providers would prefer a risk calculator for which inputs would only take less than a minute to gather. 

“We showed that CoAI can actually provide more accurate predictions than the PACT score with only 50 seconds of data-gathering, which is almost 10 times less than the PACT score was calculated to take,” Erion said. “It does this by automatically determining which variables are easy to measure, for example, data from the dispatcher that is pre-provided, or data like age that take only seconds to gather. We also demonstrated similar performance improvements for the ICU and primary care datasets.”

Prior to Erion earning the NIH fellowship, he and the CoAI team captured the Madrona Prize at the Allen School’s 2019 Research Showcase.

Congratulations, Gabe! 

June 16, 2020

Luis Ceze and Karin Strauss share ACM SIGARCH Maurice Wilkes Award for their work on DNA-based digital data storage

Karin Strauss and Luis Ceze

Allen School professor Luis Ceze and affiliate professor Karin Strauss, a principal research manager at Microsoft, have earned the 2020 Maurice Wilkes Award from the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Computer Architecture (ACM SIGARCH) for “contributions to storage and retrieval of digital data in DNA.” The award, which is named in honor of the pioneering British computer scientist who built the first operational stored-program computer, recognizes an outstanding contribution by a member of the computer architecture field within the first two decades of their professional career. Ceze and Strauss are the first recipients to share the award in its 22 year history.

“The Maurice WIlkes Award has always been an individual honor, but I think the award committee made the right choice in recognizing Karin and Luis together,” said Allen School professor Hank Levy, who recruited Ceze and Strauss to the University of Washington. “We are witnessing the emergence of an entirely new area of our field — molecular information systems — and Karin and Luis are at the forefront of this exciting innovation.”

Since 2015, Ceze and Strauss have co-directed the Molecular Information Systems Laboratory (MISL), a joint effort by the University of Washington and Microsoft to explore synthetic DNA as a scalable solution for digital data storage and computation. They achieved their first breakthrough the following spring, when they described an archival storage system for converting the binary 0s and 1s of digital data into the As, Ts, Cs, and Gs of DNA molecules. The team followed up that achievement by storing a record-setting 200 megabytes of data in DNA, from the Declaration of Human Rights in more than 100 languages to the music video for “This Too Shall Pass” by popular band OK Go.

The team would later publish the science behind this feat in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Biotechnology, along with a description of their technique for achieving random access using a library of primers that they designed and validated for use in conjunction with polymerase chain reaction (PCR). The latter was a crucial step in demonstrating the feasibility of a large-scale DNA-based digital storage architecture, since such a system would be cost- and time-prohibitive without building in the ability to quickly and easily find and retrieve specific data files without sequencing and decoding the entire dataset.

Last year, Ceze, Strauss, and their colleagues introduced the world to the first automated, end-to-end system for DNA data storage, encoding the word “hello” as five bytes of data in strands of DNA and recovering it. Their fully functioning prototype incorporated the equipment required to encode, synthesize, pool, sequence, and read back the data — all without human intervention. After demonstrating it was feasible to automate DNA data storage, they moved on to showing how it could be practical, too, unveiling a full-stack automated digital microfluidics platform to enable DNA data storage at scale. As part of this work, the lab designed a low-cost, general-purpose digital microfluidics device for holding and manipulating droplets of DNA, dubbed PurpleDrop, which functions as a “lab on a chip.” PurpleDrop can be used in conjunction with the team’s Puddle software, an application programming interface (API) for automating microfluidics that is more dynamic, expansive, and easier to use than previous techniques. Since then, the team has begun exploring new techniques for search and retrieval of data stored in DNA, such as content-based similarity search for images.

Molecular Information Systems Laboratory

”Many people don’t envision a wet lab full of pipettes and DNA quantification, synthesis, and sequencing machines when they think of computer architecture,” Strauss admitted. “But that’s what makes this work so interesting, and frankly, thrilling. We, computer architects, get to work with an incredibly diverse group of brilliant researchers, all the way from coding theorists and programming languages, to mechanical and electrical engineering, to molecular biology and biochemistry. 

“Having done this research has only energized us further to continue working with our colleagues to push the boundaries of computing by demonstrating how DNA, with its density and its durability, offers new possibilities for processing and storing the world’s information,” she concluded.

In addition to pushing the boundaries of computer architecture, Strauss, Ceze, and the other MISL members have made an effort to push the limits of the public’s imagination and engage them in their research. For example, they collaborated with Twist Bioscience — the company that supplies the synthetic DNA used in their experiments — and organizers of the Montreux Jazz Festival to preserve iconic musical performances from the festival’s history for future generations to enjoy. In 2018, the lab enabled the public to take a more active role in its research through the #MemoriesInDNA campaign, which invited people around the world to submit their photos for preservation in DNA under the tagline “What do you want to remember forever?”

More recently, the MISL team entered into a collaboration with Seattle-based artist Kate Thompson to pay tribute to another pioneering British scientist, Rosalind Franklin, who captured the first image revealing the shape of DNA. That tribute took the form of a portrait comprising hundreds of photos crowdsourced from people around the world as part of the #MemoriesInDNA campaign. The researchers encoded a selection of those photos in DNA, with redundancy, and turned the material over to Thompson. The artist then mixed it with the paint to infuse Franklin’s portrait with the very substance that she had helped reveal to the world. 

“We believe there are a lot of opportunities in getting the best out of traditional electronics and combining them with the best of what molecular systems can offer, leading to hybrid molecular-electronic systems,” said Ceze. “In exploring that, we’ve combined DNA storage with the arts, with history, and with culture.”

In addition to combining science and art, Ceze has also been keen to explore the combination of DNA computing and security. In a side project to his core MISL work, he teamed up with colleagues in the MISL and in the Allen School’s Security and Privacy Research Lab to explore potential security vulnerabilities in DNA sequencing software. In a highly controlled experiment, the researchers encoded an exploit in strands of synthetic DNA. They then processed the sample with software compromised by a known vulnerability to demonstrate that it is possible to infect a computer by malicious code delivered through DNA. Ceze also worked with a subset of that same team to understand how people’s privacy and security could be compromised via online genetic genealogy services — including, potentially, the spoofing of relatives who do not exist. 

Four MISL lab members pose with artist Kate Thompson and her portrait of Rosalind Franklin
Ceze (left) and Strauss (right) pose with artist Kate Thompson and MISL members Bichlien Nguyen and David Ward by the portrait of Rosalind Franklin

“As the intersection of DNA and computing becomes more mainstream, it’s important to highlight these vulnerabilities,” Ceze explained. “We want to address any security issues before they can cause harm.”

Ceze joined the University of Washington faculty in 2007 after earning his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Early in his career, Ceze emerged as a leading proponent of approximate computing, which aims to dramatically increase efficiency without sacrificing performance. His work has blended operating systems, programming languages, and computer architecture to develop solutions that span the entire stack, from algorithms to circuits. While approximate computing most often focuses on computation itself, Ceze was keen to apply the principle to data storage. He teamed up with Strauss and other colleagues at UW and Microsoft to focus on what he calls “nature’s own perfected storage medium,” and the rest will go down in computer architecture history.

“Luis established himself as a leader in the architecture community when he took approximate computing from a niche idea to a mainstream research area,” said Josep Torrellas, Ceze’s Ph.D. advisor and director of the Center for Programmable Extreme-Scale Computing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Since then, his contributions working alongside Karin on synthetic DNA for digital data storage have been nothing short of groundbreaking — encompassing an overall system architecture, decoding pipeline, fluidics automation, wet lab techniques and analysis, search capabilities, and more.

“Luis and Karin have advanced a completely new paradigm for computer architecture, and they did it in an impressively short period of time,” he continued. “I can’t think of anyone working in the field today who is more deserving of this recognition.”

Strauss, who also earned her Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign working with Torrellas, joined Microsoft Research in 2009 after spending nearly two years at AMD. A major focus of her work over the past decade has been on making emerging memory technologies viable for use in mainstream computing. In 2013, Strauss contributed to a paper, along with Ceze and their Allen School and MISL colleague Georg Seelig, exploring new approaches for designing DNA circuits. That work challenged the computer architecture community to begin contributing in earnest to the development of this emerging technology. She led the charge within Microsoft Research, along with Douglas Carmean, to devote a team to DNA-based storage, leading to the creation of the MISL.

“Karin is a pioneering researcher in diverse areas of research spanning hardware support for software debugging and machine learning, main memory technologies that wear out, and emerging memory and storage technologies,” said Kathryn McKinley, a researcher at Google. “Her latest research is making DNA data storage a reality, which will revolutionize storage and computing. It is heartwarming to see the amazing research partnership of Karin and Luis recognized with this extremely prestigious award.”

The Maurice Wilkes Award is among the highest honors bestowed within the computer architecture community. Recipients are formally honored at the ACM and IEEE’s Joint International Conference on Computer Architecture (ISCA). This year, the community celebrated Ceze and Strauss’ contributions in a virtual award ceremony as part of ISCA 2020 online.

“We are tremendously proud of Luis and Karin! They are true visionaries and trail-blazers and their creativity never ceases to amaze me,” said professor Magdalena Balazinska, director of the Allen School. “I look forward to seeing the next exciting research results that will come out of their lab. Their work so far has definitely been very impactful, and I’m very happy they have been recognized with this prestigious award.”

Congratulations, Karin and Luis!

June 16, 2020

A tribute to the Allen School’s Class of 2020

Pair of hands making "dubs up" symbol in sunshine
Dubs up! The Allen School pays tribute to the Class of 2020.

Each year in June, the Allen School invites graduates and their friends and family from across the country and around the world to join in a celebration on the University of Washington’s Seattle campus. As COVID-19 precludes the traditional in-person celebration at present, the school is paying tribute to the 2019-2020 graduates online — including video messages from faculty wishing the graduates well as they embark upon the next stage of their academic or professional journeys.

Professor Magdalena Balazinska, director of the Allen School, kicked off the celebration by acknowledging the difficulties that graduates of the Class of 2020 have had to overcome to reach this milestone.

“Your generation has seen some great challenges. When the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly sent us off campus at the end of winter, you rose up to the challenge and completed the quarter,” she said. “You worked hard in difficult conditions all spring. And when it came time to stand up in the name of justice, you stood up. We are immensely proud of you.”

Balazinska’s sentiment was echoed by other Allen School professors featured in the video, including professor and vice director of the Allen School, Dan Grossman. “Your class will always have a special place in our hearts, and not to be melodramatic, a special place in history,” he said. “Please go out and make the world a better place for all of us.”

Portraits of Ethan Chau, Moe Kayali, Pat Kosakanchit, Kimberly Ruth
Outstanding Senior Award winners (clockwise from top left): Ethan Chau, Moe Kayali, Pathirat Kosakanchit, and Kimberly Ruth

Grossman’s confidence in the future impact of the Class of 2020 is understandable, given their past achievements. The school recognized several of them as part of its online tribute for their academic excellence, research, teaching and service. 

Each year, the school selects four graduating bachelor’s students — two each in Computer Science and Computer Engineering — as recipients of the Outstanding Senior Award in recognition of their exceptional academic performance, contributions to the advancement of knowledge, and demonstrated leadership potential and good citizenship. The first of the 2020 honorees, Ethan Chau, is graduating summa cum laude with degrees in Computer Science with the data science option and in Linguistics. Chau worked with Allen School professor Noah Smith in the Natural Language Processing group on the development of new tools for representing languages for which data is scarce and conventional methods are ineffective. He also studied abroad at the prestigious Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich). Chau will continue his studies at the Allen School as part of the Combined B.S./M.S. program.

Fellow Computer Science honoree Moe Kayali is graduating cum laude and will enter the Allen School’s full-time Ph.D. program this fall to work with the Database group. Kayali spearheaded the development of the latest version of the control software for the Manastash Ridge Observatory run by the UW Astronomy Department and earned both a Mary Gates Research Scholarship and an Honorable Mention in the Computing Research Association’s CRA Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher Awards competition. The CRA similarly honored Outstanding Senior Award recipient Pathirat Kosakanchit for her work with the Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICTD) Lab. Kosakanchit, who graduated magna cum laude with a degree in Computer Engineering in winter quarter, previously received the Outstanding Female Award from UW Society of Women Engineers and an Honorable Mention in the CRA Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher Awards competition. After completing her current internship at Qumulo, Kosakanchit will continue in the Allen School as a Master’s student in the Combined B.S./M.S. program.

The fourth and final Outstanding Senior Award went to Kimberly Ruth, who is graduating summa cum laude with degrees in Computer Engineering and Mathematics. For most of her undergraduate career, Ruth worked with members of the Allen School’s Security and Privacy Research Lab on new tools for safeguarding users of emerging augmented reality technologies. Her work earned her a CRA Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher Award, a Goldwater Scholarship, a Mary Gates Research Scholarship, and a Dean’s Medal for Academic Excellence from the College of Engineering. Her work also earned the Allen School’s Best Senior Thesis Award for “Understanding and Designing for Security and Privacy in Multi-User AR Interactions,” which she completed under the guidance of professors Tadayoshi Kohno and Franziska Roesner. As part of that work, Ruth led the development of ShareAR, a toolkit that helps app developers build in collaborative and interactive features without sacrificing user privacy and security. She will continue her research as a Ph.D. student at Stanford University in the fall.

The Allen School highlighted the work of two other graduating seniors with Best Thesis Award Honorable Mentions. Anand Sekar was recognized for his work on “Hardware Implementation of a Wireless Backscatter Communication Protocol for Brain-Controlled Spinal Interfaces,” supervised by professor Josh Smith, director of the Sensor Systems Laboratory, with postdoctoral researcher Laura Arjona. Guanghao Ye, who worked with Yin Tat Lee of the Allen School’s Theory of Computation group, was honored for “Fast Algorithm for Solving Structured Convex Programs.”

Portraits of Angela Eun, Jenny Liang, Murathan Sarayli, Savanna Yee
Undergraduate Service Award winners, clockwise from top left: Angela Eun, Jenny Liang, Murathan Sarayli, and Savanna Yee

The Allen School also recognizes a group of graduating seniors each year for their exemplary service to their fellow students and contributions to the community through its Undergraduate Service Awards. The first of the 2020 recipients, Angela Eun, earned recognition for her mission-driven leadership and compassion as chair of the UW chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery’s Council on Women in Computing (ACM-W). During her time at the helm, Eun worked hard to recenter the organization’s focus on supporting, celebrating and advocating for women in computing. She also empowered her peers to develop their own leadership skills and encouraged them to tap into their strengths to serve the broader school community.  Honoree Jenny Liang is similarly passionate about empowering others and also about developing technology for social good. As vice chair of the Student Advisory Council, she served as an advocate for students’ needs to the school’s leadership and led important directives aimed at supporting student success and equity. She also contributed to research on community-owned LTE networks for underserved areas of Indonesia and Mexico.

Murathan Sarayli earned recognition for his commitment to ensuring transfer students have a positive experience in the Allen School in his roles as a TA for the transfer seminar and as the diversity representative on the Student Advisory Council. In selecting him for the award, the Allen School noted that Sarayli gave voice to a student experience that is often overlooked — a contribution that will have a lasting impact on the school and its students. Last but not least, recipient Savanna Yee served her fellow students both as a TA and a peer adviser. In the latter role, she helped hundreds of students understand the application process and navigate their studies. She also served on the Student Advisory Council and as an officer for ACM-W. In those roles, Yee organized several community events, including ones focused on failure and vulnerability to provide a platform for students to learn and grow.

In addition to honoring exemplary graduates, the Allen School also recognized outstanding TAs who have devoted themselves to promoting computer science education and serving their fellow students through the Bob Bandes Memorial Awards for Excellence in Teaching. The three winners were undergraduate Andrew Gies, a Computer Science and Theatrical Design major who spent five quarters as a TA in the Software Design and Implementation Course; Travis McGaha, a fifth-year student in the Combined B.S./M.S. program who was a TA for nine quarters spanning Computer Science Principles, Computer Programming II, The Hardware/Software Interface, Data Structures and Algorithms, and Systems Programming; and Batina Shikhalieva, an Electrical Engineering major served as a TA for five quarters in Computer Programming I and Computer Programming II. 

Bandes Award Honorable Mentions went to Allen School Ph.D. student Jialin Li, a Ph.D. student and TA for the Allen School’s Operating Systems course; Ph.D. student Chung-Yi Weng, a TA in Computer Graphics, and Tal Wolman, an Earth & Space Sciences major who was a TA for five quarters in the Web Programming course.

While unable to honor graduates with its traditional celebration this month, the Allen School plans to invite them back for a belated celebration when it is safe to gather as a group. Balazinska, for one, is already looking forward to reconnecting in person and hearing about the impact they have made with their education.

“I hope you will come back and visit us and let us know how far an Allen School degree has taken you,” Balazinska told the graduates via video. “When you come back to visit, I will not ask you if you have a big salary or if you have a big house. I will want to hear about how you have changed the world.”

View our online tribute to the Class of 2020 here, profiles of our graduating Ph.D.s here, and awards and special recognition here. The Allen School will award roughly 600 total degrees this year. Only the names of graduates who opted into taking part in the public tribute are listed online.

Congratulations to all of the members of the Allen School Class of 2020!

June 15, 2020

Putting in the work for positive change: A message from the Allen School leadership team

To our extended Allen School community,

Traditionally, June marks a time of great joy and celebration at the Allen School, as we send off our graduates into the world to push the limits of innovation and apply computing for the benefit of humanity. If this were a normal year, we would be gathering with friends and families tomorrow in Hec Edmundson Pavilion on the University of Washington campus in Seattle to cheer on our bachelor’s and master’s recipients as they walked across the stage in their caps and gowns, and to honor our newly-minted Ph.D.s with a traditional hooding ceremony and hugs.

But at this particular moment, we are grappling not only with the scourge of COVID-19, but with another scourge that has taken its toll on members of our community and torn the very fabric of our society. We will find a way to celebrate with our graduates and families when it is safe to do so. But we also must recognize that, for Black families, COVID-19 is not the only public health threat that they need to worry about. And this fills us with sadness and with anger.

We are scientists, engineers, educators, administrators, managers, and counselors. We devote our professional lives to seeking answers and solving problems. It’s what we are trained to do, and what we are training the next generation to do. Usually, when we see a problem, we work out a solution and then we move on. But we can’t do that here. The problems we are aligned against — racism, police brutality, injustice — cannot be solved by an algorithm or an app. We can’t just fix it and move on.

In the face of these challenges, monumental in both scope and urgency, the most immediate thing in our power to do is to look within ourselves and within our own community. 

We acknowledge the pain and the trauma that people of color, individually and collectively, endure — and have endured for generations — at the UW and across the nation. As educational leaders and as human beings, we are outraged at the latest in a long list of examples of injustice and craven indifference toward members of the Black community. We will channel that outrage into our work to make our school, our discipline, and our society more compassionate and inclusive. We will seek out and amplify the voices of those in our community who need to be heard but are too often silenced or ignored. And as we make conditions immediately around our own community better, we believe those changes will spread more globally as persistent work and positive actions build upon each other.

We will take actionable steps to support our students of color and become better allies so that we can share in the burden and emotional labor of confronting racism while seeking to live up to our values around inclusiveness. The first of these will be a virtual community conversation event for Black students and/or students whose loved ones are part of the Black community this week, followed by a community-wide event on allyship over the summer. We wish to acknowledge the efforts of our undergraduate student leaders in moving these conversations forward and for supporting their peers and us as school leaders during this difficult time. They give us hope.

Over the medium and longer terms, we must turn our conviction — that computer science is a gateway to opportunity — into action that ensures that underrepresented minority students are fully exposed to its potential and given the resources and mentorship they need to excel in this field. As concrete steps in this direction, we will strengthen our efforts around recruiting and retaining a diverse faculty and staff and increasing representation of undergraduate and graduate students of color. We will launch a new high school mentorship and pipeline program for underrepresented high school students in Washington to cultivate their academic potential and interest in computer science. We will build on our participation in the FLIP Alliance, a partnership of our nation’s top computer science doctoral programs to increase the number of underrepresented minority students who become future professors and leaders in our field. We will continue to pursue computer-science research agendas and educational content that are ethical and inclusive of everyone, not just those who look like us. 

Last but not least, we will say their names. George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. Manuel Ellis. There are more names — far too many more. To honor their memory, and because it is the right thing to do, we will call out racism and injustice when we see it. We will put in the work to help solve this problem and to bring about positive change. And we will start with ourselves.

–The Allen School Leadership Team

Magdalena Balazinska, Director

Dan Grossman, Vice Director

Paul Beame

Anna Karlin

Ed Lazowska

Jennifer Mankoff

Shwetak Patel

June 11, 2020

Allen School professor Dieter Fox receives RAS Pioneer Award from IEEE Robotics & Automation Society

The IEEE Robotics & Automation Society has announced Allen School professor Dieter Fox as the recipient of a 2020 RAS Pioneer Award in recognition of his “pioneering contributions to probabilistic state estimation, RGB-D perception, machine learning in robotics, and bridging academic and industrial robotics research.” The society will formally honor Fox, director of the University of Washington’s Robotics and State Estimation Laboratory and senior director of robotics research at NVIDIA, during the International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA 2020) next week.

The RAS Pioneer Award honors individuals who have had a significant impact on the fields of robotics and automation by initiating new areas of research, development, or engineering. Fox’s contributions have focused on enabling robots to interact with people and their environment in an intelligent way, with an emphasis on state estimation and perception problems such as 3D mapping, object detection and tracking, manipulation, and human activity recognition.

“We are extremely proud that Dieter has been recognized with this prestigious award. It is truly deserved,” said professor Magdalena Balazinska, director of the Allen School. “And it is wonderful to see that both his groundbreaking academic research and his leadership of industrial research labs are being recognized.” 

During his career, Fox has earned multiple best paper and test of time awards from major robotics, artificial intelligence, and computer vision conferences that showcase the broad impact he has had on the field. Among his many honors are back-to-back Classic Paper Awards from the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI), which recognizes papers deemed to have been the most influential within the field of artificial intelligence from a given year. 

Fox received the first of these honors in 2016 for work he did as a Ph.D. student on “The Interactive Museum Tour-Guide Robot.” Originally published in 1996, that paper introduced RHINO, an autonomous, interactive robot designed to entertain and assist the public in populated environments. RHINO incorporated a number of innovations related to localization, mapping, collision avoidance, and planning to enable it to navigate under uncertainty in challenging conditions — in this case, providing interactive tours to members of the public at the Deutsches Museum in Bonn, Germany. A key aspect of RHINO that set it apart from most other robotics projects at the time was its robust navigation and user interface, which Fox and his colleagues took great pains to make intuitive and user-friendly to non-experts.

The following year, Fox was once again recognized by AAAI, this time for the 1999 paper “Monte Carlo Localization: Efficient Position Estimation for Mobile Robots” published during his time as a postdoctoral researcher at Carnegie Mellon University. Monte Carlo Localization, or MCL, was a new, sample-based algorithm that  introduced the use of randomized samples to represent a robot’s belief about its location in a given environment. Fox and his colleagues were the first to apply sample-based estimation in robotics, which they demonstrated to be more accurate, efficient, and easy to use compared to previous approaches such as Kalman filtering based techniques. Among the real-world settings Fox and his colleagues chose to demonstrate MCL was the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., with the help of a robot named Minerva. The team’s sample-based approach has since become the norm for a wide range of applications in the field.

Robotic vision is an area in which Fox has repeatedly advanced the state of the art during his time at UW. In 2015, he teamed up with postdoc Richard Newcombe and professor Steve Seitz of the Allen School’s Graphics & Imaging Laboratory (GRAIL) to develop DynamicFusion, the first dense simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) system for reconstructing dynamic scenes in real time. The project earned Fox and his colleagues a Best Paper Award at the Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition (CVPR 2015).  Two years later, Fox, Newcombe and Ph.D. student Tanner Schmidt earned a Best Robotic Vision Paper Award at ICRA 2017 for presenting “Self-supervised Visual Descriptor Learning for Dense Correspondence.” Leveraging dense mapping techniques such as the aforementioned DynamicFusion, Fox and his collaborators devised an approach for automating the generation of training data and enabling robots to learn the visual features of a scene in a self-supervised way. The project represented a significant leap forward in robot learning by providing a framework for robots to understand their environment without human intervention.

Demonstrating the cross-cutting nature of his work, Fox has earned recognition beyond core robotics and AI conferences. For example, he earned a 10-Year Impact Award from the Association for Computing Machinery’s International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing (UbiComp 2013) for “Inferring High-level Behavior from Low-level Sensors,” which he, along with Ph.D. students Donald Patterson and Lin Liao and then-UW professor Henry Kautz, originally presented in 2003. In their winning paper, the team described a new predictive model of human behavior — in this case, a traveler moving through an urban environment using multiple modes of transportation — using a probabilistic framework that fuses historic low-level sensor data with common-sense knowledge of real-world constraints. Fox and those same colleagues previously earned the inaugural Prominent Paper Award from AI Journal in 2012 for “Learning and inferring transportation routines.” That paper, which was originally published in 2007, built upon the team’s earlier work at Ubicomp by introducing a hierarchical Markov model capable of learning and inferring a user’s daily movements.

Dieter Fox in cycling gear poses on his bicycle in front of a rock wall with a lake and trees in the background
When he isn’t working with robots, Fox enjoys racing as a member of the Seattle-based Fount Cycling Team

A Fellow of both the IEEE and the AAAI, Fox has published more than 240 technical papers on a range of topics and co-authored the textbook “Probabilistic Robotics.”

“For eight years, Dieter was our only robotics faculty member,” said Allen School professor Ed Lazowska, who recruited Fox to Seattle as chair of what was then the UW Department of Computer Science & Engineering. “Today, UW is a powerhouse in robotics research, but it was Dieter who initially put us on the map.

“He is also a monster on a bicycle — none of us can keep up with him,” Lazowska continued, an avid bicyclist himself. “You could say the same for his research. Dieter’s h-index, a measure of the influence of his research publications, is the highest of any of our faculty. It really is impossible to overstate his impact.”

Fox joined the UW faculty in 2000 after obtaining his Ph.D. from the University of Bonn in Germany and completing a postdoc at Carnegie Mellon University with robotics pioneer Sebastian Thrun. He later combined academic research and teaching when he became director of Intel Labs in Seattle and helped establish and co-led the Intel Science and Technology Center on the UW campus. Fox once again bridged academia and industry in 2017, when he took on a position at NVIDIA to start a robotics research effort. In January 2019, he joined NVIDIA CEO Jensen Huang in celebrating the grand opening of the company’s Seattle research lab near the UW campus.

Fox is one of two researchers selected to receive the RAS Pioneer Award this year. Lydia Kavraki, a professor at Rice University and director of the Ken Kennedy Institute, is being honored for “pioneering contributions to the invention of randomized motion planning algorithms and probabilistic roadmaps.” Kavraki and Fox will be recognized during the virtual RAS Society award ceremony on June 5th.

“Being recognized with this award by my research colleagues and the IEEE society is an incredible honor,” Fox said in a related NVIDIA announcement. “I’m very grateful for the amazing collaborators and students I had the chance to work with during my career. I also appreciate that IEEE sees the importance of connecting academic and industrial research — I believe that bridging these areas allows us to make faster progress on the problems we really care about.”

Congratulations, Dieter!

May 29, 2020

“A hero without a cape”: Elise Dorough recognized by the UW College of Engineering for her commitment to diversity and graduate student success

Elise Dorough, Director of Graduate Student Services for the Allen School, was recently honored by the University of Washington’s College of Engineering with a 2020 Professional Staff Award. In announcing the award, the College cited Dorough’s success in managing the growth of the full-time Ph.D. program and her leadership in transforming the graduate advising process to be more efficient, effective and responsive to the needs of both the students and their faculty advisors. It also highlighted her role in supporting a diverse community within the Allen School and in computer science graduate education generally. 

The school will honor Dorough during an online event, “TGIE” (Thank Goodness It’s Elise), taking place later today. The virtual celebration — a special edition of the school’s weekly “TGIF” gathering — was organized by the graduate students who have benefited from her guidance and compassion.

Dorough first joined the Allen School in 2010 as a member of the undergraduate advising team. When the previous, long-time Ph.D. program adviser decided to retire, professor Hank Levy, former director of the Allen School, appointed Dorough to take on the role in 2014. Since then, Dorough has overseen the expansion of the Ph.D. program from fewer than 200 students to more than 300 today. During most of that time, she was the sole staff member, which meant responding to the needs of current students, prospective students, school leadership, faculty advisors, and campus partners. 

According to professor Anna Karlin, the Allen School’s associate director of graduate studies, the transition when Dorough stepped into the job was seamless.

“It was as if Elise had been doing this job her whole life,” Karlin recalled. “In fact, she has taken the quality of the work to a whole new level. Elise runs virtually every aspect of the Ph.D. program — from recruiting and orientation, to annual evaluations and the day-to-day counseling that the grad students appreciate so much. 

“She acts as a mother, counselor, caretaker, problem-solver, friend and confidante to a group of about 300 Ph.D. students,” Karlin continued. “It is simply impossible to imagine how our graduate program would function without her.”

Dorough, who was elevated to her current title of Director of Graduate Student Services in 2018, serves as a bridge between the students and the faculty and manages an annual admissions process that attracts roughly 2,000 applications annually — double what it was when she took over the position. She is also the go-to resource for Allen School Ph.D. students seeking assistance with a broad range of academic and personal issues. Along the way, she has spearheaded the introduction of a number of process improvements, from automating otherwise time-consuming administrative and reporting tasks, to streamlining faculty review and qualifying exam procedures.

“Elise is a key pillar of our graduate program. She can answer any question and she can handle any problem with calm, empathy, and resolve,” said professor Magdalena Balazinska, director of the Allen School. “She also turns any challenge into an opportunity, and has transformed, scaled, and smoothed all our processes.

“Most recently, Elise demonstrated inspiring leadership when we had to move our prospective graduate visit days online,” Balazinska recalled. “This is a major event, with over 100 students flying from all over the world to Seattle to visit the Allen School. We had to move the event online in less than two weeks and it was before we all became experts in Zoom and doing everything online. Elise did an amazing job in re-organizing the event, leading student volunteers and faculty, and putting together the visit. I received many compliments from prospective students about the quality of our event. We also ended-up with a very high acceptance rate.”

Dorough (front left) and Allen School attendees at the Grace Hopper Celebration

Dorough also has devoted her time and talents to crafting programs, events, and training opportunities that have helped the Allen School build and sustain a welcoming and inclusive culture. Her contributions have included guidance for faculty on implementing a holistic admissions process, “Diversi-teas” for current and prospective students from under-represented minorities, and workshops for faculty, staff, and students. As a founding member of the Allen School’s Diversity Committee, Dorough also has actively sought out training for herself on best practices from national organizations focused on increasing diversity in computing and increased the school’s presence at recruiting events specifically focused on students from diverse backgrounds.

Her emphasis on diversity and inclusion extends beyond the UW campus. Since 2017, Dorough has served as the Allen School’s point-person for participation in the FLIP Alliance for Diversifying Future Leadership in the Professoriate. The FLIP Alliance is a group of 11 leading computer science schools that have committed to increasing the number of under-represented minorities in their respective Ph.D. programs. The ultimate goal of the alliance, which is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), is to grow the number of under-represented minorities who earn doctoral degrees in computer science and go on to become faculty members mentoring the next generation of innovators and leaders in the field.

Perhaps the greatest testament to Dorough’s impact comes from the students she works with day in, day out to ensure that they have access to the courses, advising, and services they need to not just survive in graduate school, but to thrive. More than 80 Ph.D. students — including students who aren’t directly enrolled in the Allen School but collaborate with members of the faculty — paid tribute to her compassion, support, and knowledge. Among the comments praising her to the college’s selection committee:

“Elise makes everything in CSE better. Whenever I have a question or a problem, she’s the first person I ask. She always either knows exactly what to do, or does everything she can to help you figure it out. The Ph.D. process would be orders of magnitude more stressful and difficult to navigate without Elise always being there to help us through it.”

“Elise is amazing! She always goes above and beyond what her job requires! I’ve never dealt with an administrative person who cared about the students as much as Elise does.”

“Knowing you have a support system that will try to work with you is essential to feeling secure in a community; Elise is the backbone of that support system for Ph.D. students in the Allen School.”

“Elise may have only one job, but she does something like 20. I can’t imagine the Allen School running the way it does without her. She is also a fantastic advocate for the well-being of students in the Allen School, and so contributes significantly to its positive and welcoming culture.”

Ph.D. alumna Kira Goldner (left) with Dorough on graduation day

“It’s very hard to get grad students to unanimously agree on anything, but I have never heard anything but love and admiration towards Elise from the grad student community.”

“Elise is a legend in CSE, a hero without a cape.”

“I wish our whole academic culture modeled Elise.”

Levy believes that Dorough’s hands-on, personal touch and her pursuit of excellence in all that she does have been integral to the success of the Ph.D. program.

“Elise is a truly outstanding professional whose work has had an enormous impact,” Levy said. “Maintaining a supportive culture and a high level of satisfaction and service in the face of such rapid growth is a remarkable achievement, and one that Elise deserves complete credit for. Simply put, Elise is a superstar.”

Shine on, Elise! And congratulations on this well-deserved recognition of all that you do for our school and our students!

May 22, 2020

UW and UCSD researchers earn Test of Time Award for driving automobile security in new directions

Car hitting traffic cones
Correspondent Lesley Stahl experiences car hacking during a segment on the CBS News program “60 Minutes” Courtesy of CBS News

Ten years ago, a team of security and privacy researchers at the University of Washington and University of California, San Diego published a paper, “Experimental Security Analysis of a Modern Automobile,” describing how they were able to override critical safety systems and take control of a range of vehicle functions of what was later revealed to be a pair of 2009 Chevy Impalas. That work, which was first presented at the IEEE’s 2010 Symposium on Security and Privacy in Oakland, California, opened up an entirely new avenue of cybersecurity research while serving as a wakeup call to an industry that was more accustomed to guarding against break-ins of the physical, rather than the over-the-air, kind. This week, the IEEE Computer Society Technical Committee on Security and Privacy recalled the significance of the team’s contributions and their enduring impact with its 2020 Test of Time Award.

The project was originally the brainchild of professor Tadayoshi Kohno of the Allen School’s Security and Privacy Research Lab and one of his mentors, UCSD professor and Allen School alumnus Stefan Savage (Ph.D., ‘02). Fresh off the success of Kohno’s 2008 IEEE Symposium on S&P paper examining the security of wireless implantable medical devices — which also later earned a Test of Time Award — he and Savage turned their attention to another technology gaining in popularity: the computerized automobile. 

Backed by funding from the National Science Foundation and flexible funds from an Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship, the duo pulled together what they refer to as an “all-star team” of students. The lineup included then Allen School Ph.D. students Karl Koscher, Alexei Czeskis, and Franziska Roesner; and UCSD Ph.D. student Stephen Checkoway, postdoc Damon McCoy, and master’s student Danny Anderson. Checkoway and Anderson were no strangers to UW; the former had earned his bachelor’s from the Allen School and the Department of Mathematics in 2005, while the latter had just graduated with his bachelor’s from the Allen School in 2009. Allen School and UW Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering professor Shwetak Patel and UCSD professor Hovav Shacham joined the leadership team during the formative stages of the project, and UCSD research staff member Brian Kantor rounded out the group. 

The team would become the first to drive home to automobile manufacturers, regulators, security experts, and the public the extent to which modern-day vehicles were vulnerable to cyberattacks. According to Savage, one of the main reasons they succeeded in doing so was that the students — all new, or at least, new to this area of research — “didn’t know any better” and were therefore undaunted by the task set for them by their mentors.

“Essentially, we bought two cars and said to the students, here are the keys, go figure it out,” recalled Savage. “To Yoshi’s and my delight, they did. And in the process, they established this entirely new subfield of automotive security research.”

Stefan Savage (left) Tadayoshi Kohno (right)

The group called itself the Center for Automotive Embedded Systems Security, or CAESS. It was fairly large, as far as research collaborations go. According to Checkoway, its size was a feature, not a bug.

“This was an extremely collaborative effort; no task was performed by an individual researcher alone. I believe our close collaboration was the key to our success,” explained Checkoway, the lead Ph.D. student on the UCSD side who later joined the faculty of Oberlin College. “On a personal level, the large group collaboration was so much fun, that collaborative research has been my preferred method of research ever since.”

It is a theme that is echoed by Checkoway’s colleagues, even 10 years on.

“It was really exciting to join this great team and contribute to such an impactful project at the very beginning of graduate school,” said Roesner (Ph.D., ‘14), now a professor in the Allen School and co-director of the Security and Privacy Research Lab with Kohno. “I had recently decided to switch my focus from computer architecture to security, after discovering that I really liked the ‘security mindset’ of challenging assumptions in designs. This experience and this paper essentially launched my security research career.”

Koscher (Ph.D., ‘14), who has since returned to his old Seattle stomping ground as a research scientist after completing a postdoc at UCSD, was the lead Ph.D. researcher on the UW side.

“We really were one team, and there was definitely enough work to keep everyone on both sides busy.” Koscher recalled. “We at UW would attack a problem from one direction, while the folks at UCSD attacked it from another. Each side brought the puzzle pieces to complete the other.”

Among the puzzles the team needed to piece together was how to access one or more of a vehicle’s electronic control units (ECUs) — the collection of independent computers that communicate across multiple internal networks. At the time, it was estimated that the average luxury sedan contained as many as 70 ECUs running over 150 megabytes of code. This did not comprise the totality of the potential attack surface of a vehicle, however; additional entry points came in the form of the federally-mandated onboard diagnostic system, optional short-range wireless capabilities such as Bluetooth, and telematics such as OnStar with its long-range cellular radio link.

Beginning with 2008 models, all cars sold in the United States were required to implement the Controller Area Network (CAN) bus for diagnostics — making it the dominant in-car communication network not only for GM, but also other major manufacturers such as Ford, BMW, Honda, and Volkswagen. To facilitate the full range of exploits they wanted to explore, Koscher and the team developed CarShark, a custom CAN bus analyzer and packet injection tool. 

The “all-star team,” top row, from left: Karl Koscher, Alexei Czeskis, Franziska Roesner; middle, from left: Stephen Checkoway, Damon McCoy, Danny Anderson; bottom, from left: Brian Kantor, Shwetak Patel, Hovav Shacham

Using this approach, the team determined that weaknesses in the underlying CAN protocol meant that, by infiltrating almost any one of the vehicle’s ECUs, an attacker would be able to leverage that access to circumvent a broad array of safety-critical systems. In a series of experiments, both in the lab and on the road, the researchers demonstrated the ability to control a variety of vehicle functions while overriding or disabling driver input. They also examined scenarios in which malicious actors could exploit multiple components in a composite attack, including using the telematics unit to bridge multiple ECUs and to inject or wipe malicious code.

Czeskis (Ph.D., ‘13), who is currently a Staff Software Engineer at Google focused on authentication, identity, and protection of high-risk users, recalled both the audacity and novelty of what he and his fellow students were doing — particularly when it came to testing.

“We had to verify that our hypotheses and techniques would hold outside of the lab setting,” he explained. “That meant we often had to drive the car up to the computer science building, lift it on jack stands, and then repeatedly rev the engine and honk the horn for extended periods of time while puzzled students walked by.

“We also needed to test our techniques in a safe, real-world setting, so we took our car to a decommissioned airstrip,” he continued. “That involved signing a waiver acknowledging the ‘possibility of death’ as a graduate student while working on this project! Of course, we had appropriate safety precautions in place. As a motorcycle rider with protective equipment and perhaps a higher tolerance for risk than other members of the team, I ended up being the test driver at the airstrip and other test environments.”

The results of those tests ranged from annoying to downright alarming. For example, the team found through its stationary testing that it could gain control of the radio to deliver audible clicks and chimes at arbitrary intervals. The researchers also gained full control of the Instrument Panel Cluster (IPC), including the speedometer, fuel gauge and other displays, to deliver a message to a hypothetical driver that they had been “Pwned by CarShark.” The team found additional ways to interfere with functions that could compromise driver and passenger safety through an ECU called the Body Control Module. These included locking and unlocking the doors, adjusting or disabling the interior and exterior lighting, operating the windshield wipers, and engaging in the aforementioned horn honking. 

While all this sounds frightening enough while stationary, the team demonstrated that they could do these things while the car was moving at 40 miles per hour. They also broke into the Engine Control Module which, as the name suggests, gave them control over the vehicle’s engine. Once they gained access to the ECM, the researchers were able to temporarily boost engine RPM, and even disable the engine completely. But the researchers didn’t stop there; they also infiltrated the Electronic Brake Control Module. That enabled them to lock individual brakes or sets of brakes — a capability they later demonstrated to great effect in a CBS “60 Minutes” segment featuring correspondent Lesley Stahl behind the wheel. They could also release the brakes and then prevent them from subsequently being enabled.

The team knew they were onto something big, but it took a while to figure out who they could go to with their findings. “When we started, we didn’t even know how to get in touch with the right people — if they even existed — at the manufacturer,” Koscher recalled. “It took the industry by complete surprise.”

They eventually did find the right people at GM, opting to initially share their findings directly with the company while declining to “name and shame” them in the paper released to IEEE Symposium on S&P and the public.

“It was clear to us that these vulnerabilities stemmed primarily from the architecture of the modern automobile, not from design decisions made by any single manufacturer,” Kohno explained. “It later came out that our model was from GM, but it was never just about GM. Like so much that we encounter in the security field, this was an industry-wide issue that would require industry-wide solutions.”

The way they were…members of the automobile security research team in 2010, left to right: Stephen Checkoway, Alexei Czeskis, Karl Koscher, Franziska Roesner, Tadayoshi Kohno, Stefan Savage, and Damon McCoy. (Not pictured: Danny Anderson, Shwetak Patel, and Brian Kantor)

Those solutions, which can be directly traced to the UW and UCSD collaboration, include new standards for motor vehicle security, guidelines for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), and the creation of the Electronic Systems Safety Research Division at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And the impact of the team’s work continues to be felt to this day.

“I think it was a bit unexpected how impactful this work would be,” Koscher said. “Yoshi’s previous work included exploring vulnerabilities in pacemakers and voting machines, but progress had been slow in those industries. It wasn’t clear that automobiles would be any different.

“But it turned out this time was different. Shortly after disclosing the vulnerabilities we found, GM appointed a VP of product security to lead a new division of over 100 employees solely focused on improving the security of their vehicles,” he continued. “In 2012, DARPA announced their $60M+ High-Assurance Cyber Military Systems (HACMS) project, partially inspired by our work. The following year, industry security researchers began to replicate our work. But I think it finally hit me when DEF CON, the world’s largest hacker conference, introduced their Car Hacking Village in 2014.”

In addition to transforming an existing industry, the team’s work has also generated an entirely new one. “Our project spawned dozens of startup companies — and hundreds of jobs — focused on automobile security,” Savage noted.

Following the conclusion of the project, McCoy went on to join the faculty of New York University, while Shacham later left UCSD to join the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin. Anderson launched his own firm, Daniel Anderson Software Consulting, focused on creating independent iOS apps. Kantor later retired from UCSD after more than 30 years of service. He passed away last year.

“This work was really visionary at the time, and it proved to be a game-changer for industry, government, and academia,” Kohno concluded. “I like to think that was due to the high quality of the work, and how thoughtful we were in its execution.”

The team was formally honored today for that quality and execution in a virtual award ceremony during the IEEE Symposium on S&P 2020 online. Read the research paper here, view the team’s award acceptance here, check out the UCSD announcement here, and learn more about this and related work on the CAESS website here.

Congratulations to the entire team!

May 18, 2020

Professor Franziska Roesner honored for outstanding engagement with undergraduate researchers

Allen School professor Franziska Roesner has earned an Undergraduate Research Mentor Award from the University of Washington. This honor recognizes her commitment to guiding undergraduate researchers to achieve success as research scholars. Students presenting their work at the annual Undergraduate Research Symposium were invited to nominate their mentors for this award and a committee selected the honorees. This year, five out of 188 nominated mentors were chosen. 

Roesner, co-director of the Security and Privacy Research Lab, mentors eight undergraduate researchers on her team. Savanna Yee, a fifth year undergraduate in the lab, said Roesner’s affable personality made working in the lab less intimidating. 

“Franzi is wonderful to work with. She’s very approachable, and really cares about prioritizing the goals of the undergrad students and makes sure to check in with us frequently,” Yee said. “When I first started working with Franzi I didn’t expect to have so much direct contact with a faculty member, but I am so glad that she makes time to check in with us and really get to know us as individuals. Franzi is honest, and open about her imperfections and struggles, and I really appreciate this because sometimes, when working with an expert leader in a field, we hold them up on a pedestal. But Franzi is so real about being a regular person, and this makes me very comfortable.”

Roesner attributes her passion for undergraduate research mentorship to her own early exposure to it at the University of Texas at Austin, from her professor at the time, Doug Burger

“The only reason that my own career even followed this path is because I had an amazing undergraduate research mentor, so I am trying to pay it forward,” she said.

Kimberly Ruth, who is also a fifth year senior in the Security and Privacy Research Lab, said Roesner’s support is inspiring.

“Franzi is an extraordinarily supportive mentor. She empowers me to be a meaningful contributor in project planning and implementation, giving me ample room to grow and contribute. Her communication is always clear, prompt, and friendly,” Ruth said. “Even amidst a busy faculty schedule, she always takes time to comment thoughtfully on works in progress: anything from a brainstormed list of ideas to a section of an academic paper in preparation to a research scholarship application essay. With her guidance and feedback, I’ve taken on increasing levels of autonomy and responsibility in my work, becoming increasingly self-sufficient and skilled as a young researcher. She’s given helpful advice at career decision points I’ve faced, sharing anecdotes that advise and reassure. I feel incredibly lucky to have Franzi as my mentor.”

Roesner, whose research spans a number of projects related to privacy and security in emerging technologies, said that developing research proficiency as an undergraduate is invaluable.  

“I think the skills you learn in doing research are valuable beyond that specific field, or even a research-focused career path,” Roesner said. “You learn how to identify important problems, how to make concrete progress in the face of vast uncertainty about where to even begin or how to evaluate success, how to pick up new skills and knowledge as needed to solve your problem, how to collaborate and ask questions, how to grow from failure, and so on.”

Provost Mark Richards and Dean and Vice Provost for Undergraduate Academic Affairs Ed Taylor recognized the awardees in a recorded video message today before this year’s virtual symposium. 

Congratulations, Franzi — and thank you for being an extraordinary mentor to our students!

May 15, 2020

The cell whisperer: Yuliang Wang earns Young Scientist Award for advancing computational approaches to restore intercellular communication

Yuliang Wang

Allen School research professor Yuliang Wang received the Jaconnette L. Tietze Young Scientist Award from the John H. Tietze Foundation Trust for his work on novel approaches for identifying and restoring intercellular communication in diseases affecting complex tissues such as the heart, kidney, and brain. The award is administered by the University of Washington’s Institute for Stem Cell & Regenerative Medicine (ISCRM), where Wang is a core faculty member, to recognize and support junior faculty conducting stand-out research related to stem or progenitor cell biology or therapies.

Wang’s research focuses at the intersection of computation and biology, integrating multi-omic data (transcriptomics, epigenomics, metabolomics) and network modeling to understand how the metabolic and signaling network states influence stem cell differentiation and tissue development. For his latest project, Wang is exploring new and efficient techniques for capturing intercellular “whispers” — the complex communication between diverse cell types that enable the proper function of organs such as the heart and kidneys — to understand how they are affected by diseases. The project combines concepts from information theory, such as KL divergence, and single cell transcriptomics, which measures gene expression for thousands of genes found in individual cells across 10,000 or more cells simultaneously. 

Single cell transcriptomics enables researchers to identify novel cell types and marker genes as well as uncover the developmental trajectories of individual cell types. Wang is interested in going beyond the analysis of individual cell types to uncover the ligand-receptor interactions that connect different cell types. To that end, he and his team introduced talklr, short for “intercellular crossTALK mediated by Ligand-Receptors.” Talklr identifies and prioritizes ligand-receptor pairings that display distinct expression patterns across interacting cell types, and then infers whether their transcriptional targets are activated. By applying KL divergence, talklr simultaneously considers the expression distributions of both the ligand and receptor genes across all interacting cell types and conditions. This approach enables talklr to capture one-to-many and many-to-many cell type interactions that previous computational methods may miss. It also allows talklr to factor in the context-dependence of gene expression changes in one cell type associated with expression levels in another cell type when determining whether such changes are biologically significant.

Wang aims to make talklr widely accessible to researchers without programming experience and to enable easy integration into existing lab workflows. He hopes one outcome of this work will be new targeted pharmacological interventions for restoring essential intercellular communication where normal cell function has been disrupted through disease.

”By applying advanced computational methods like talklr to single cell gene expression analysis, we will gain new insights into how interactions between different cell types affect disease and developmental processes,” explained Wang. “If we can better understand the impact of these intercellular communications on complex tissue structures, that knowledge could potentially lead to new therapeutics for helping to restore proper organ function in patients.”

Wang joined the UW faculty in 2016 after spending two years as a senior research associate in the Computational Biology program at Oregon Health & Science University. Before that, he completed a postdoc at Sage Bionetworks in Seattle. Wang earned his Ph.D. in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and a master’s in Applied Statistics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2013.

Read the ISCRM announcement here.

Congratulations, Yuliang!

May 6, 2020

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