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Allen School strengthens its leadership in AI with the arrival of Hannaneh Hajishirzi

Hannaneh HajishirziThe Allen School is thrilled to officially welcome professor Hannaneh Hajishirzi, whose research and teaching spans artificial intelligence, natural language processing, and machine learning, to the full-time faculty. Many members of the Allen School community will be familiar with Hajishirzi and her work from her time as a research professor in Electrical Engineering and an adjunct professor in Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington.

The goal of Hajishirzi’s research is the development of robust, scalable systems that can understand, interpret, and reason about data drawn from multiple sources. To that end, she designs algorithms for question answering, semantic understanding, and information extraction from textual and visual data, including news articles, web data, technical documents, and conversations. By leveraging two complementary developments in the field of AI — symbolic representation and end-to-end deep learning neural models — Hajishirzi aims to dramatically improve output while reducing latency and computational costs for a range of applications, including search engines, education, media, and financial services.

Working with colleagues at UW and the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, Hajishirzi led the development of GeoS, the first automated system capable of solving geometry word problems that uses symbolic representations to understand and interpret natural language text and corresponding diagrams. She also led the development of Bi-Directional Attention Flow for Machine Comprehension (BiDAF) in collaboration with AI2 and UW researchers. BiDAF is a novel end-to-end neural question-answering system for textual paragraphs and diagrams that outperformed all previous QA systems tested on the Stanford Question Answering Dataset. Other projects include the development of systems that can automatically solve and generate algebra word problems; Skim-RNN, an efficient recurrent neural network that determines the importance of input tokens to downstream tasks and “skims” those that are unimportant, similar in concept to human speed-reading; Query Reduction Network (QRN), a variant on RNNs that is capable of multi-hop reasoning; and a new data-driven approach for extracting knowledge about life events using online photo albums — to name only a few.

Hajishirzi first arrived at UW as a research scientist in 2012. Since joining the faculty three years ago, she has advised several Allen School Ph.D. students and has taught or guest-lectured in a variety of introductory and advanced courses in artificial intelligence, statistical machine learning, natural language processing, digital signal processing, and grounded language acquisition and vision.

Hajishirzi previously held postdoctoral research positions at Carnegie Mellon University and Disney Research. She has earned numerous awards for her research, including an Allen Distinguished Investigator Award, a Google Faculty Research Award, a Bloomberg Data Science Award, an Amazon Research Award, and a SIGDIAL Best Paper Award. Hajishirzi earned a bachelor’s degree in Computer Engineering from Sharif University of Technology and a Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Welcome, Hanna!


July 9, 2018

Allen School invites K-12 teachers to explore computer science at CS4HS

A group of teachers try a CS Unplugged activity at CS4HS

The Allen School is gearing up for its annual CS4HS workshop for K-12 teachers taking place July 16 – 18 on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. CS4HS offers educators from across Washington an opportunity to explore computer science — no prior programming experience required — along with tips for incorporating CS principles into their classroom teaching. While the curriculum originally was designed with math and science teachers in mind, the Allen School welcomes teachers of all subjects who are interested in learning how to use computer science to enhance student learning.

Workshop participants will become familiar with simple concepts and activities that can be adapted to suit many different course subjects and grade levels. These include computational thinking, user-centered design, and basic coding using popular visual programming languages such as Scratch and Processing. Presenters will also share useful information about academic and career pathways that teachers can take back to their classrooms. Upon completion of CS4HS, participants will have access to free tools to help nurture students’ creativity while exposing them to the fundamentals of this exciting subject.

CS4HS is a joint undertaking of UW, Carnegie Mellon University, and CS Unplugged. Since 2007, more than 600 teachers from around the state have participated in the UW-hosted workshop. Past participants have delivered rave reviews about the content, the speakers — even the food — that they encountered over the course of the three days.

“I attended the CS4HS summer workshop at the UW and was absolutely thrilled by the quality of the presentations, the breadth of material we covered and the quantity of classroom-ready material we received,” said CS4HS alumnus Judson Miller, a teacher at Roosevelt High School in Seattle. “As a high school math teacher, I was curious and excited to learn how this workshop on computer science might prove useful in my class. In the end, I can say absolutely that this workshop changed my teaching.”

There is a non-refundable registration fee of $50 for each participating teacher. Eligible teachers earn 20 clock hours of professional development credit from the Washington Science Teachers Association at no cost to them. For out-of-town participants, free accommodation in UW campus housing is available with a refundable security deposit.

To learn more and to join us at this year’s workshop, visit the CS4HS website.


June 26, 2018

Yejin Choi recognized with Borg Early Career Award

Yejin ChoiYejin Choi, a professor in the Allen School’s Natural Language Processing research group, has earned a 2018 Borg Early Career Award from the Computing Research Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research (CRA-W). The annual award, which is named in honor of pioneering computer scientist Anita Borg, recognizes women in computing who have made significant contributions to the field through their research and activities that promote diversity.

When Choi joined the Allen School faculty in 2014, she had already established herself as a rising star at the intersection of NLP and computer vision — work for which she shared the 2013 David Marr Prize, one of the most prestigious awards bestowed upon researchers in the computer vision community. Since then, Choi has directed her research toward developing machines’ ability to uncover meaning beyond that which is explicitly expressed in language — to “read between the lines,” so to speak — to enable more intelligent, intuitive communication and to promote artificial intelligence for social good.

Choi is particularly interested in language learning grounded within physical and social contexts to help machines develop common-sense understanding of how the world works and to identify and address implicit bias. To that end, Choi and her collaborators have developed connotation frames for understanding power and agency that they used to uncover bias in modern film scripts; a technique for extracting inferred knowledge about objects and their related actions that humans tend to accept as a given; and an analysis of linguistic patterns associated with online news to distinguish between true reporting, satire, and fake news — to name only a few.

Last year, Choi served as a faculty advisor to the University of Washington team that created a socialbot that captured first place in the inaugural Amazon Alexa Prize competition. She previously earned a place among “AI’s 10 to Watch,” a celebration of early-career researchers who are already making an impact on the field of AI that is compiled by IEEE Intelligent Systems. Choi currently splits her time between the University of Washington and the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2), where she oversees Project Alexandria to build a common-sense AI.

While her research has yielded advances in the detection and correction of language that targets underrepresented groups, Choi’s impact on diversity extends well beyond the lab. She has served as a faculty advisor for the UW College of Engineering’s STARS program, which helps aspiring engineering and computer science majors from underserved communities to successfully navigate the transition to more rigorous college-level coursework. As a member of the executive board of the Association of Computational Linguistics, Choi worked with a special committee aimed at advancing equity and diversity within the ACL community.

In addition to recognizing Choi, the CRA honored University of Michigan professor Reetuparna Das with a 2018 Borg Early Career Award for her service to Women in Computing Architecture (WiCArch) and her many activities to encourage high-school girls and freshmen women in college to explore computing.

Previous Borg Early Career Award recipients with an Allen School connection include alumnae Martha Kim (Ph.D., ’08), a faculty member at Columbia University; A.J. Bernheim Brush (Ph.D., ’02), Principal Program Manager at Microsoft; and Gail Murphy (Ph.D., ’96), a faculty member at the University of British Columbia.

Read the award citation here.

Congratulations, Yejin!


June 15, 2018

Allen School celebrates the graduating class of 2018

Allen School Ph.D. graduates with their faculty advisors

Newly-minted Allen School Ph.D.s with their faculty advisors. Karen Orders Photography

Tonight, the Allen School hosted its 2018 graduation event celebrating student, faculty, and alumni excellence. In addition to awarding nearly 450 degrees — a 20% increase over the previous year — and highlighting the contributions of Alumni Impact Award winners Yaw Anokwa and Eileen Bjorkman, we were honored to welcome graduation speaker Harry Shum, Executive Vice President of Microsoft’s Artificial Intelligence and Research Group and a longtime friend and supporter of the Allen School.

Shum set a celebratory tone for the evening as he congratulated students on their hard-earned degrees. “You, as CS graduates, have the opportunity to speed innovation and to transform our world for the better, perhaps more than any other profession.”

Suggesting that there has never been a more extraordinary time to work in computing, Shum drew inspiration from three areas of the field — quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and mixed reality — to offer the soon-to-be graduates advice for the future.

“As an adjunct CS professor myself, I thought about giving a technical talk today…” Shum joked, “But since you know about all of these areas already thanks to your great UW education, instead I thought I’d offer some life lessons.”

The biggest lesson, he said, is to embrace the uncertainty that comes with exploration and discovery. “Often reporters ask me, ‘What can a quantum computer do?’ My answer: ‘I don’t know,’” Shum explained. “You may wonder, ‘But Harry, how do you not know? You’ve been spending hundreds of millions’….Even the best minds of their time couldn’t predict the road ahead.”

Harry Shum: “I don’t think there’s ever been a more extraordinary time to be in the field of computing.” Karen Orders Photography

Shum’s second lesson reflected a commitment that he shares with the Allen School: diversity. While some people may worry about the impact of artificial intelligence on jobs or doomsday scenarios involving robots taking control, Shum is more concerned about AI bias. “We have to build AI systems that hear all voice and recognize all faces equally well across our diverse world to create the best future for everyone,” Shum said. The solution, he suggested, starts with people, not technology. Calling upon his firsthand experience with how diverse teams drive the best outcomes, Shum urged his audience to seek out opportunities to experience different cultures and perspectives. “Your thinking will be better as a result. You’ll build better products for everyone.”

Last but not least, Shum cited the tagline for one of his favorite products, the HoloLens, for his final piece of advice: “’When you change the way you see the world, you change the world you see.’ May you be inspired to see life differently, to pursue something new,” he said.

Two members of the Allen School community who are living examples of Shum’s advice are Alumni Impact Award recipients Yaw Anokwa and Eileen Bjorkman. Allen School professor Ed Lazowska presented the awards, which — in addition to acknowledging the extraordinary contributions of past students — demonstrate for our graduates that they are about to join a long line of individuals who have built upon their Allen School education to change the world. This year’s recipients each exemplify that principle in their own way: Anokwa through his work on the Open Data Kit for mobile data collection in the developing world, and Bjorkman through her distinguished career in the United States Air Force.

The Allen School also took the opportunity to highlight the students and faculty who have made lasting contributions of their own through research, teaching, and mentorship. This year, we had the opportunity to give the CRA-E Undergraduate Research Faculty Mentoring Award to professor Michael Ernst. Ernst was chosen by the Computing Research Association to receive the award based on his combination of research accomplishments and caring mentorship of aspiring computer scientists. Winners are recognized at the event of their choosing; it is fitting that Ernst, with his track record of offering rewarding research experiences to so many undergraduates — more than 120 at last count — that he would opt to celebrate with our students.

The opportunity to engage in high-quality research experiences is one of the hallmarks of an Allen School education for many undergraduates, and we recognize exceptional student research through our annual Best Senior Thesis Award. This year’s recipient, Bruno Castro-Karney, earned the award for his thesis, “A Crash-Safe Key-Value Store Using Chained Copy-on-Write B-trees,” completed under the guidance of professor Xi Wang.

Left to right: Harry Shum, Yaw Anokwa, Eileen Bjorkman, and Ed Lazowska. Kristin Osborne

For the second year in a row, the UW student chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) awarded its Undergraduate Teaching Award to lecturer Adam Blank. As ACM officers Aishwarya Mandyam and Karishma Mandyam noted, Blank likely taught most of the students waiting to collect their diplomas. While Blank’s responsiveness is legendary — his average response time to questions posted on class discussion boards clocks in at around two minutes — his students also appreciate him for his dedication to learning for its own sake.

Many students themselves help to make the Allen School experience a rewarding one as teaching assistants (TAs). We honor a select group of outstanding TAs each year with our Bob Bandes Memorial Award to thank them for their efforts to inspire and encourage their fellow students — or, in the words of one student who nominated their TA, help to make challenging coursework “less painful than I thought it would be.” The 2018 winners were Aaron Johnston, Aaron Su, and Jefferson Van Wagenen, with Ollin Boer Bohan, Sarang Joshi, and Miya Natsuhara receiving honorable mentions.

We also honor a group of graduating students each year who demonstrate superior scholarship, leadership potential, and technical excellence with Outstanding Senior Awards. The 2018 recipients were computing engineering graduate Kathryn Howland, and computer science graduates Linxing “Preston” Jiang, Colin Summers, and Kaitlyn Zhou.

Last but not least, we select a graduating student each year who has actively and enthusiastically contributed to the Allen School community with our Undergraduate Service Award. This year’s honoree, Melissa Medsker (Galloway), is so passionate about computer science education that she served as a TA for 15 Allen School classes — earning a Bob Bandes Memorial Award of her own along the way.

View the video of the live-stream here and check out electronic copy of the printed graduation program here. See GeekWire coverage here.

Thank you to all of the friends, family, and alumni who came out to celebrate with us — and congratulations to the members of the Allen School’s Class of 2018! Please keep in touch!


June 8, 2018

Allen School recognizes Yaw Anokwa and Eileen Bjorkman with Alumni Impact Awards

Every year, the Allen School recognizes two alumni who have made outstanding contributions to computing and to society. Each of our 2018 Alumni Impact Award recipients, Yaw Anokwa and Eileen Bjorkman, exemplify how a computer science education offers multiple avenues to achieving success and making an impact. Anokwa and Bjorkman will be formally honored as part of the Allen School’s graduation celebration this evening on the University of Washington Seattle campus.

Yaw Anokwa (Ph.D., ’12) engineers solutions with a global reach

Yaw AnokwaIn January 2018, Somalia’s Federal Ministry of Health announced a campaign to vaccinate more than 726,000 young children in the Banadir region against poliovirus. Although no new cases of polio had been reported at the time of the announcement, several sewage samples taken in the nearby capital city of Mogadishu had recently tested positive for the virus. The Somali government, aided by the World Health Organization and UNICEF, hoped to stave off a public health emergency by vaccinating children who were either too young or had been passed over in previous campaigns due to ongoing conflict in the region.

The rapid mobilization was justified. Prior to the introduction of effective vaccines in the mid-20th century, polio was responsible for hundreds of thousands of cases of childhood paralysis in industrialized countries each year. While the Global Polio Eradication Initiative has made great strides toward eliminating the virus worldwide, there are areas of sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East where political instability, inadequate infrastructure, and other challenges cause polio to remain a threat even today. Banadir had proved particularly vulnerable; it reported the highest number of poliovirus infections — 72 out of a total 199 cases — during the Horn of Africa outbreak just four years earlier.

To provide public health officials with timely and accurate information as the campaign progressed, more than 200 personnel were trained on a set of open-source mobile data collection tools known as the Open Data Kit, or ODK. The software that powers ODK had been started roughly a decade ago and half a world away, by a team of researchers at the University of Washington. That team included 2018 Alumni Impact honoree Yaw Anokwa.

Anokwa was born in Ghana and moved to the United States when he was 10 years old after his father, a college professor, accepted a job at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. Anokwa knew from a young age that he wanted to be an engineer — “I broke a lot of toys as a kid, trying to see how they worked” — but once he discovered programming in college, his interest switched from hardware to software. He went on to simultaneously earn bachelor’s degrees in computer science and electrical engineering from Butler University and Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, respectively. When it came time to choose a graduate school, Anokwa admitted he didn’t have a particularly strong feeling about UW. Not, that is, until he attended prospective student visit days.

“Everyone was friendly, kind, thoughtful,” Anokwa recalled. “The people I met at UW CSE treated me as a person who had something of value to contribute.”

When he arrived in Seattle in fall 2005, Anokwa thought he would study artificial intelligence. He abandoned that notion fairly quickly after he developed a rapport with professor Gaetano Borriello, who sparked his interest in ubiquitous computing and human computer interaction. Shortly after he began working with Borriello, Anokwa stumbled onto information and communication technologies for development, or ICTD, because of the groundbreaking research Tapan Parikh (Ph.D., ’07) was doing with his CAM system in rural India. Anokwa’s interest reached a high during a colloquium featuring alumnus Neal Lesh (Ph.D., ’97). Lesh, who was pursuing a second graduate degree in international public health at Harvard at the time, had returned to his alma mater to deliver a talk titled “Gadgets for Good: How Computer Researchers Can Help Save Lives in Poor Countries.”

“Neal was this sort of wandering guru of ICTD, and his presentation on how a little bit of tech from one person could have a direct and positive impact in the service of social justice blew me away,” said Anokwa. “The point of most academic research is to explore questions for which a solution might be 20 or 30 years away.

“Maybe that’s why I was never a great researcher,” he continued. “I saw plenty of current problems, so why worry about future problems? Let’s build stuff that’s useful today! ODK is a great example of this; from day one, people found it useful.”

Inspired by Lesh’s example, Anokwa took a break from UW after earning his Master’s degree and traveled to Rwanda to work with an organization called Partners in Health. The group was deploying an electronic alternative to paper medical records, called OpenMRS, in the small town of Rwinkwavu. In Rwanda, Anokwa observed how the reliance on paper records hindered the care of patients with chronic diseases such as AIDS and tuberculosis — and saw how OpenMRS made things better.

While OpenMRS had real potential to streamline workflow and improve outcomes, the time and the training required of doctors and nurses trying to use the system proved to be obstacles. Since the point of the system was to improve direct care, Anokwa set about simplifying the interface for accessing patient information, mapped to clinical workflow. A new search module enabled providers to easily locate patients in the system by name, location, or cohort, while a new patient summary module offered a concise overview of patient data in an easy-to-read, printable format. Additional features, such as automated alerts and the ability to generate customized graphs for specific patient data points, provided more robust functionality.

What was intended to be a three-month break had turned into six, and then Anokwa heard from Borriello. His advisor informed him that he was taking a sabbatical from UW to work on a new mobile data collection project at Google; Anokwa’s fellow graduate students, Carl Hartung and Waylon Brunette, planned to work on the project with him. The goal was to create a set of modular, customizable tools for data collection that would leverage the new Android operating system as well as the growth in mobile technologies. The tools would be built on open standards and be, in the team’s words, “easy to try, easy to use, easy to modify, and easy to scale.” After some back and forth, the three convinced Anokwa to return to Seattle and join them.

“Android was just coming out, but Gaetano already recognized its potential to drive innovation in the ICTD space,” Anokwa explained. “From my experience with OpenMRS, and some convincing from Gaetano, Carl, and Waylon, I could see that it was a good problem to solve.”

ODK started out as a set of two complementary tools: ODK Collect, a tool for survey-based data gathering that can be used even without network connectivity; and ODK Aggregate, a cloud-like service for storing, managing, and publishing data. While OpenMRS had offered a desktop solution to the “paper problem” in healthcare, ODK enabled people to create and act on digital records for a variety of purposes in the field — sometimes literally. In one of the first deployments of the new platform, Google and the Grameen Foundation used ODK to gather data on the availability of phone-based services in rural Uganda to develop an app offering agricultural advice to farmers.

In another early example, Anokwa and Hartung traveled to Kenya to work with one of the largest HIV treatment programs in sub-Saharan Africa, AMPATH. By furnishing its community outreach workers with phones running ODK, the group was able to improve in-home testing and counseling for over a million people in rural parts of the country. Anokwa subsequently worked with AMPATH to field-test a mobile phone-based clinical decision system called ODK Clinic, which formed the basis of his Ph.D. dissertation under the guidance of Borriello and Parikh, then a faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley. ODK Clinic drew upon Anokwa’s experience working on OpenMRS and ODK, providing physicians with point-of-care access to patient summaries and reminders to improve the quality of care for patients living with HIV.

The more people used ODK, the more uses people seemed to find for it. Since its inception, ODK has helped members of the Surui tribe and the Brazilian Forest Service to monitor conditions in the Amazon rainforest, the Jane Goodall Institute to track conservation efforts in Tanzania, The Carter Center to observe elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo — even an astronaut on the International Space Station to track the progress of the Carbon for Water program. As the user community grew, so did the tools, including a drag-and-drop form designer known as ODK Build developed by undergraduate researcher Clint Tseng (B.S., ’10) and a form management tool called ODK Briefcase. To date, the ODK website has seen traffic from nearly every country, and Anokwa estimates that millions of users have used ODK or its derivatives worldwide.

Some of this growth has been spurred by Nafundi, a consulting company Anokwa co-founded with Hartung in 2011 when the pair realized how many large organizations wanted to use ODK but needed help. Nafundi provides that help in the form of software development and technical support. After Hartung departed in 2016 to focus full-time on a new startup company, Anokwa’s partner in life, software engineer, and former Allen School lecturer Hélène Martin (B.S., ’08) stepped in and became his partner in business, too. Together, the couple manage Nafundi’s small and distributed team of developers from their home base in San Diego, California.

Anokwa and Martin share the technical work and community leadership, and over the last year they have been focused on adding much needed functionality to the most widely deployed ODK tools and implementing community-oriented processes project-wide. As Anokwa explains, “We use a combination of grants and client work to feed the open-source project. Our hope is that the investments we are making now will enable other organizations to step forward and help make the ODK pie bigger.”

Following Borriello’s passing in 2015, Allen School professor Richard Anderson had assumed management of ODK. Now, he and his team are working with Anokwa and others in the ODK community to morph it into a stand-alone entity, with the hope that independence will lead to even greater impact. Anokwa is particularly motivated to ensure the transition is successful because, in his view, ODK represents Borriello’s legacy to the world.

“ODK has become the de facto data collection tool for global development, and the project’s continued success is a responsibility that I take very seriously,” noted Anokwa. “It’s what the folks who depend on ODK deserve, and it’s what Gaetano wanted.”

“Yaw’s work in creating and supporting Open Data Kit shows the power of computer science to change the world,” said Hank Levy, Allen School Director and Wissner-Slivka Chair. “ODK is helping to improve the lives of people in underserved communities around the globe, and Yaw’s commitment is an example for all of us.”

When asked why he thought ODK took off in the way that it has, Anokwa cited a variety of factors. “Luck and timing both played a part,” Anokwa admitted, “but also, it was free — free as in no cost, and free as in no restrictions. Anyone can take ODK and adapt it to their needs.

“I would like to believe that the care and attention we provided to our user community was also a factor, because I’ve spent a lot of time responding to emails and giving talks about ODK,” he laughed. But ultimately, he points out, software has to work.

Perhaps there is no better example of why the software “has to work” than the fight to eradicate polio. “The vaccinators in Somalia are putting their lives on the line, going house to house in one of the most dangerous places in the world,” noted Anokwa. “They may only get one chance to vaccinate a child, so the software has to be deployable by regular people and work the first time, every time.”

It’s the users, then, who are the real heroes of this tale, in Anokwa’s view — them, and the people with whom he has collaborated over the past 10 years.

“I get an unfair share of the credit for all of this,” Anokwa said. “ODK’s success is made possible by a community of contributors who believe that together, the little data collection project I helped to start can help make the world a better place.”

According to one of his former Ph.D. advisors, Tapan Parikh, Anokwa’s emphasis on community has been at the heart of ODK and its impact — even if he did take some convincing at first.

“I remember that Yaw was initially apprehensive about taking on the ODK project for his dissertation. He was concerned that there was not enough research content in an area that had already been well-explored by others, including myself,” Parikh said. “I tried my best to tell him that there was a lot more left to do, and that the potential for impact was huge.

“I’m so glad that Gaetano was eventually able to convince Yaw to take this project on,” he continued. “It is no overestimation to say that ODK is one of the most influential ICTD systems projects to come out of the academic realm, and that a large part of the credit for building and sustaining the open-source community around ODK should go to Yaw.”

Looking back on what he has gained from his Allen School education, Anokwa observed, “UW in general, and Gaetano in particular, gave me the space to try things, even if they seemed unreasonable. I gained the confidence to head in the direction of the unknown, and to persevere. Along the way, I learned that I’m never going to be the smartest person in the room — as anyone who remembers me from algorithms class can attest! — but with a little luck, everyone can make their mark. I don’t know if I deserve this award, but my hope is that the attention it brings can inspire someone to start their journey in the same way that Gaetano, Tapan, and Neal inspired me to start mine so many years ago.”

Eileen Bjorkman (B.S., ’79) earns her wings

Eileen BjorkmanAlumni Impact Award recipient Eileen Bjorkman didn’t set out to study computer science. When she first arrived at the University of Washington in 1975, she was looking forward to earning her degree in aeronautical engineering.

It was a reasonable plan; after all, jet fuel practically runs through Bjorkman’s veins. Her father, Arnold Ebneter, was an aviation enthusiast from an early age who spent more than 20 years in the Air Force as a pilot and engineer. Her mother, Colleen, was an amateur pilot, having been bitten by the flying bug while earning her Girl Scout aviation merit badge. Growing up in various locations in the south and midwest, Bjorkman was surrounded by airplane books, airplane magazines — even miscellaneous airplane parts — vying for space alongside the usual detritus of family life. There was also the family plane, a Beechcraft Bonanza affectionately known as “Charlie,” with seating for six. Bjorkman and her three sisters all flew before they could walk.

“One of the problems with growing up in an aviation family is that you don’t remember your first flight,” observed Bjorkman. “My father took me up in the family plane when I was three weeks old. Until I was eight or nine, I just assumed every family was like ours and flew airplanes on weekends.”

After Ebneter retired from the Air Force in 1974, he accepted a job as an engineer at the Boeing plant in Renton, Washington. Shortly after the family completed the move to the Pacific Northwest, Bjorkman enrolled in UW. Her sophomore schedule included statics — an introductory engineering course — and the FORTRAN programming language. For reasons she can no longer remember, she disliked statics so much that she decided she wasn’t cut out for aeronautical engineering after all. Having discovered that she liked programming, she opted to pursue computer science instead.

One day on the bus, Bjorkman struck up a conversation with the late Ira Kalet, a faculty member in UW’s Department of Radiation Oncology and, later, adjunct professor of Computer Science. Kalet suggested that Bjorkman apply for a job as a student programmer at the Northwest Medical Physics Center, which at the time was part of UW’s Regional Medical Program. She took his advice and soon found herself developing program interfaces to aid doctors in devising radiation treatment plans for cancer patients. Bjorkman liked the fact that her code was being used to save lives. The pay wasn’t bad, either.

“I earned four dollars an hour, which seemed like a lot in those days,” Bjorkman recalled with a laugh. “And the equipment was cool, too. Not only did my machine have a whopping 64K of memory, but it had 64K of graphics memory. That was a big deal.”

After graduating from UW in 1979, Bjorkman accepted a full-time position at the center, where she obsessed over ways to reduce the runtime of such complex programs.

“Some of those programs could take as long as 45 minutes,” she noted. “I was always looking for ways to cut that down. When I was able to reduce it to 30 minutes, wow — that was an exciting day!”

Bjorkman still felt her work was worthwhile, but she couldn’t picture herself programming for the rest of her life. Looking to expand her professional horizons, Bjorkman headed to the UW placement center. And it was from there that her career took off in a new — and yet, familiar — direction.

“I went to the placement center to meet with a recruiter from Boeing,” Bjorkman explained. “While I was waiting, I started chatting with an Air Force recruiter who happened to be there. The next thing I know, I’m filling out stacks of paperwork, and the Air Force is offering me a place in its accelerated engineering program.”

Bjorkman enrolled in the Air Force Institute of Technology thinking she would earn a second bachelor’s in electrical engineering, but her superiors had other ideas. She was directed to the aeronautical engineering program — the subject she had intended to study back at UW, before succumbing to FORTRAN’s charms. Bjorkman couldn’t believe it at first, but then everything clicked into place.

“The two degrees meshed together better than I ever thought they would,” recalled Bjorkman. “And right around that time, airplanes started to become computerized.”

At that point, Bjorkman faced another career-defining decision. By the mid-80’s, the Air Force had reversed an earlier policy prohibiting women from flying, but she couldn’t meet the stringent vision requirements to be a pilot. However, she could be a flight test engineer, which would still put her in the cockpit — just in the back seat gathering data, rather than in front at the controls. So in 1985, Bjorkman became only the sixth woman ever to enroll in the Air Force’s Test Pilot School. By that point, she was used to being one of only a few women, if not the only woman, making her way in a male-dominated field.

“At UW, I got used to being the only woman in a lot of my engineering classes, and there were maybe three other women besides me studying computer science,” said Bjorkman. “When I first graduated from Test Pilot School, I was the only female Test Pilot School graduate on base.”

Bjorkman would go on to notch over 700 hours of flight time in more than 25 different aircraft as a flight test engineer, instructor, and test squadron commander. On the ground, she assumed a series of management and leadership roles focused on improving the safety and effectiveness of various Air Force systems. It was these mid-career positions, beginning in the early 1990s, that demonstrated just how useful her combination of degrees could be.

For her first assignment at the Pentagon, Bjorkman was put in charge of air-to-air combat modeling to evaluate how adjustments to a fighter jet’s aerodynamics and systems would affect the outcome under various conditions. Bjorkman found herself once again using FORTRAN — this time, writing data scripts for a program simulating in-air dogfights — and managing a small network of computers. Her recommendations were used by the Air Force to help decide what to buy and modify for its fighter aircraft.

“I recognize the fingerprints of what I worked on 20, 25 years ago still being put into practice today,” said Bjorkman. “It is gratifying to see that the simulations I ran back then are still contributing to a better Air Force.”

Her next two assignments took her to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, home of the Holloman High-Speed Test Track. The 10-mile, precision-aligned track enables the Air Force to field-test new systems before making them operational. As commander of the 846th test squadron, which operates the test track, she led the testing of high-speed missile delivery systems and new ejection seat designs — the latter intended to accommodate lower weight people, such as the women who were becoming more prevalent among the pilot ranks. The following year, she assumed command of the 746th, which was responsible for testing global positioning system (GPS) satellites and equipment. At the time, GPS was on the cusp of making the leap from military to consumer applications. Looking back, Bjorkman finds this period of her career particularly satisfying in the knowledge that the systems she worked on wound up benefiting not just the Air Force, but the whole world.

Bjorkman retired from active duty as a colonel in 2010, at which point she began serving in a civilian capacity. Along the way, she earned two master’s degrees from the armed forces — one in aeronautical engineering and the other in national resource strategy — followed by a Ph.D. in systems engineering from The George Washington University. She currently serves as the Air Force’s Deputy Director of Programs, Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans, Programs and Requirements. In that role, she oversees the $605 billion Future Years Defense Plan, the five-year budget plan for investing in technology, equipment, and personnel to maintain the Air Force’s readiness and evolve its capabilities in line with new advances and emerging threats.

In her spare time, Bjorkman has clocked more than 2,000 hours of civilian flight time. Despite aviation’s defining presence throughout her childhood, Bjorkman didn’t learn to fly while she was growing up. This was partly because Charlie was too advanced for a novice pilot, but also, she admitted, “I wasn’t that interested in flying until I joined the Air Force. Then I figured I better learn.”

One activity that Bjorkman has consistently remained passionate about since childhood is writing. Her first published work came at the tender age of nine when, she said with lingering disbelief, “I wrote a stupid story and sent it into a kids’ magazine — and they published it!” Her first paid writing assignment — outside of technical reports and military briefings — was a short piece that appeared in Air & Space Magazine titled “Maybe I Will Pass on That Coffee.” The article relays a harrowing, yet humorous, firsthand account of being stuck in the back of an F-16 with a full tank of fuel and a full bladder, thousands of feet above the nearest bathroom. Since then, she has written numerous articles for Air & Space, Aviation History, the Daily Herald of Everett, and others.

Last March, Bjorkman published her first book, The Propeller under the Bed: A Personal History of Homebuilt Aircraft, after taking a non-fiction writing course through UW Continuing Education. The idea for the title originated with Bjorkman’s mother, inspired by the wooden propeller that her husband had stashed under their bed when he dreamed of building his own plane. The book was a labor of love for Bjorkman, and while it took fewer than five years to complete, it was a lifetime in the making.

Propeller follows her father’s journey as an aviation enthusiast and engineer who, at the age of 82, set a new world record for the longest nonstop flight, measured as a straight-line distance, in a lightweight C-1aI class aircraft. On July 25, 2010, Ebneter took off from Paine Field in Everett, Washington in his “E-1,” an all-metal airplane that he designed and built himself. Around 2,328 miles and a little over 18 hours later, he touched down at Shannon Airport in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Ebneter had beaten the old record by nearly 114 miles — overcoming a faulty fuel gauge and an uncooperative headwind along the way. As the story unfolds, Bjorkman weaves in a history of homebuilt aircraft and the people who dared to reach for the sky on their own terms. As it turned out, recounting the story of her father’s dream was the perfect opportunity to fulfill one of her own.

“Writing a book has been a lifelong dream for me, but I never expected that it would turn into a project about my family and the dreams of thousands of other amateur aircraft homebuilders throughout the world,” Bjorkman wrote on her blog at the time. “During my research, I gained a much better understanding of not only the history of aviation in the United States but also learned much about my own parents and other relatives. I feel very fortunate to have had this opportunity to document all of this for future generations to enjoy.”

And what of that computer science degree Bjorkman earned nearly four decades ago — how did her time at UW influence and inspire the high-flyer she would later become?

“I’ve always thought of myself as an engineer, rather than a computer scientist, but there’s no doubt that my CS degree gave me the building blocks for success. Time and again, I found I could do things with computers that my colleagues could not — or at least, took my colleagues longer to learn,” Bjorkman explained. “Even today, that fundamental knowledge is still valid. But more important than the mechanics of learning to code, my degree gave me confidence to rise to the occasion when challenged and to accomplish things that I didn’t think I was capable of doing.”

“We always emphasize to students that a degree in computer science will prepare them for the broadest imaginable range of careers — Eileen exemplifies this,” said Allen School professor Ed Lazowska, Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering. “She proved that with a CS degree, the sky’s the limit — literally and figuratively! She was also a trailblazer for women in the service of her country. We’re incredibly proud of all that Eileen has accomplished, and we’re delighted to be able to recognize her with our 2018 Alumni Impact Award.”

Asked what advice she would offer students today, Bjorkman harkened back to the words of her examiner when she earned her private pilot’s license. “He impressed upon me that earning my license was not the end of my education as a pilot, but the beginning — that it is actually a license to learn,” she recounted. “Whatever you get your degree in, view that as your license to learn.

“And to students of computer science: don’t think of yourself as just a ‘computer scientist,'” she urged. “Think of yourself as a person with a computer science degree, which opens up all kinds of possibilities for you to go out and do great things.”

Learn more about Allen School alumni who are doing great things on our Alumni Impact Award webpage here.

June 8, 2018

Allen School undergraduate research poster session

Many thanks to the alums who joined us this evening to view a collection of undergraduate research projects. And congratulations to the students behind the project judged first among many outstanding projects: Camille Birch, Nicole Riley, Melissa Medsker, and Molly Bucklin for their project “An Interactive Viewer for Analyzing Folded Protein Structures,” advised by professor Larry Ruzzo.

June 7, 2018

Allen School Ph.D. alum Hadi Esmaeilzadeh wins IEEE TCCA Young Computer Architect award

2013 Allen School Ph.D. alum Hadi Esmaeilzadeh, an Associate Professor of Computer Science & Engineering at UCSD (where he recently moved from Georgia Tech), today received the Young Computer Architect award from the IEEE Technical Committee on Computer Architecture at the International Symposium on Computer Architecture.

The award, which is open to any individual who has completed his/her Ph.D. degree within the last 6 years, recognizes outstanding early-career research contributions in the field of Computer Architecture.

Hadi began his graduate studies at the University of Texas at Austin, advised Doug Burger. When Doug moved to Microsoft Research, Hadi transferred to the University of Washington, where he was co-advised by Doug and Luis Ceze. In the year of his graduation, he received the William Chan Memorial Dissertation Award for the top dissertation in the Allen School.

Hadi’s research has been recognized by four Communications of the ACM Research Highlights, four IEEE Micro Top Picks, and a Distinguished Paper Award in HPCA 2016. He has received the Air Force Young Investigator Award (2017), the Georgia Tech College of Computing Outstanding Junior Faculty Research Award (2017), two Qualcomm Research Awards (2017 and 2016), two Google Research Faculty Award (2016 and 2014), two Microsoft Research Awards (2017 and 2016), and the Lockheed Inspirational Young Faculty Award (2016).

It was a great day for the Allen School at ISCA: in addition to Hadi’s recognition, Susan Eggers received the IEEE/ACM Eckert-Mauchly Award, the computer architecture community’s most prestigious honor.

June 5, 2018

Allen School to expand Direct to Major admission in computer science

The Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science & Engineering on the UW Seattle campusThe Allen School announced today that it will expand Direct to Major admission to its Computer Science bachelors program for incoming University of Washington freshmen beginning with the fall 2019 incoming class. Once the change takes effect, Direct to Major admission will be the primary pathway into the Computer Science major.

The Allen School historically has accepted only a small percentage of Computer Science majors straight from high school through its direct admission process; the majority of students enroll at UW as “pre-majors” and then apply to the Computer Science major after satisfying prerequisites. Despite recent growth in the number of students the Allen School is able to serve thanks to increased state investment, student interest in computer science continues to exceed capacity — requiring the Allen School to turn away a number of qualified students.

“The Allen School’s expansion of Direct to Major as part of the UW freshman admissions process will provide more assurance to students and their families as they plan for the future,” explained professor Dan Grossman, Deputy Director of the Allen School, in a UW News release. “It also will allow the Allen School to fully engage undergraduates in an immersive computer science experience from their first day on campus.”

While Direct to Major will become the main entry point into Computer Science for the majority of students, the Allen School will continue to offer a pathway for enrolled students who discover the field after their arrival at UW. It will also continue to offer a robust selection of courses designed for non-majors who wish to explore computer science as part of a well-rounded program of study. Direct to Major will have no impact on the admission process for students seeking to transfer into the Allen School’s Computer Science program from community and technical colleges. Nor will it apply to the Allen School’s Computer Engineering major, which will continue to fall under the College of Engineering’s Direct to College admission process announced last year.

The expanded Direct to Major pathway will be open to prospective UW freshmen beginning with the cohort applying this summer and fall, for enrollment in fall 2019. Students who indicate Computer Science as their intended major on their application will automatically be considered.

“The uncertainty faced by entering freshmen led to high levels of stress and frustration for students and parents alike,” said Crystal Eney, Director of Student Services at the Allen School. “This new system will provide them with more clarity at the start of their educational journey and enable us to provide a better experience to students who decide to pursue computer science at the UW.”

Students, parents, and interested members of the public can learn more about the change by visiting the Allen School’s online guide to Direct to Major admission here and the UW News release here.

June 5, 2018

Susan Eggers receives Eckert-Mauchly Award for outstanding contributions to computer architecture

Susan EggersAllen School professor emerita Susan Eggers has been honored with the 2018 Eckert-Mauchly Award in recognition of her outstanding contributions to the field of computer architecture. The award, which is sponsored by the Association for Computing Machinery and the IEEE Computer Society, is the computer architecture community’s most prestigious honor. Eggers was cited in particular for her work on simultaneous multithreaded processor architectures and multiprocessor memory sharing and coherency.

After earning her bachelor’s degree in economics, Eggers worked in a variety of roles for more than a decade before turning her attention to computer engineering. She began her faculty career at the University of Washington in 1989 after completing her Ph.D. at University of California, Berkeley at the age of 47. Although she may have arrived at computing as a career path later than some, Eggers would more than make up for lost time by producing some of the most significant and enduring contributions to the field of computer architecture over the past 30 years.

Most significant among these was Eggers’ role in the development and commercialization of simultaneous multithreading (SMT). While chip manufacturers were achieving rapid gains in memory and logic in the mid-1990s, those physical manifestations of Moore’s Law failed to generate the expected improvements in performance. To Eggers, the most promising approach to translate exponential growth in chip density into enhanced performance was to increase parallelism, or the ability of computers to run calculations concurrently.

Eggers was one of the leading proponents of SMT as a way to boost parallelism, and with it, performance. SMT combines hardware multithreading with superscalar processor technology to enable multiple independent threads to issue instructions to multiple functional units in a single cycle. Eggers and her collaborators demonstrated several substantial advantages that SMT offered over other architectures, including higher throughput, increased speed, and greater flexibility in hardware design. SMT faced considerable skepticism, but over the next eight years, Eggers and her collaborators in academia and industry would refine and validate SMT, which became an essential component in the processors produced by industry leaders such as Intel and IBM. Eggers co-authored roughly a dozen papers about SMT, two of which earned Test of Time Awards in 2010 and 2011, respectively, from the International Symposium on Computer Architecture (ISCA).

Eckert-Mauchly Award Committee chair Kunle Olukotun presents the award to Susan Eggers

Eggers also made significant, early-career contributions in cache coherency, a technique for maintaining consistent data across shared memory multiprocessors. These included the first data-driven study of multiprocessor data sharing — which was instrumental in advancing the field’s understanding of hardware and software coherency techniques — as well as novel cache coherency protocols.

Eggers’ interests in performance improvements extend beyond chip design. For example, she was a member of the team that built DyC, an easy-to-use system for dynamic compilation in C that was more expressive, flexible, and controllable than previous annotation-based approaches.

Eggers is a Member of the National Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, the Association for Computing Machinery, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She is being formally honored today by her peers in the computer architecture community at ISCA 2018 in Los Angeles, California. Eggers is the first Allen School faculty member — and the first woman — to receive the Eckert-Mauchly Award in its 39-year history.

Read the ACM press release here, and learn more about the Eckert-Mauchly Award here. Read a terrific interview with Eggers in IEEE Micro here.

Video of Eggers’ acceptance speech here.

Congratulations, Susan! And congratulations also to 2013 Allen School Ph.D. alum Hadi Esmaeilzadeh, who received the IEEE TCCA Young Computer Architect award on the ISCA stage on the same morning!


June 5, 2018

“Celebration with the STARS”

Part of the Allen School contingent at the 2018 “Celebration with the STARS” banquet: Adilene Pulgarin, Tevin Stanley, faculty member Lauren Bricker, Kieran Hess, Joshua Quichocho, Wen Liu, and Simplicio DeLeon.

The Washington STate Academic RedShirt (STARS) program supports engineering and computer science students from low-income backgrounds and underserved high schools in navigating the transition to college-level engineering courses.

Tonight marked the fifth annual “Celebration with the STARS” banquet, and the graduation from UW of the first cohort of STARS students. 30% of the graduates are Allen School students – and 39% of the newest (fifth) cohort are headed for the Allen School!

Congratulations, STARS!

June 3, 2018

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