HCDE celebrates graduating PhD students

Friday, June 12, 2015

Left to right: Dr. Robert Watson, Dr. Michael Brooks, and Dr. Daniel Perry

The department of Human Centered Design & Engineering (HCDE) celebrated three graduating PhD students at its 2015 Commencement on June 9, 2015: Dr. Robert Watson, Dr. Michael Brooks, and Dr. Daniel Perry.

HCDE Associate Professor Cecilia Aragon and Professor Jennifer Turns shared the following remarks about Brooks, Perry, and Watson, during the ceremony.

Michael J. Brooks

Thesis: Computational Tools for Qualitative Research with Online Social Text Data

Michael Brooks and Cecilia Aragon

By Cecilia Aragon

Michael Brooks came to us from Oberlin College with a BA in computer science and mathematics. In the five years he has been here at UW, I have been very proud to see him grow into an innovative, thorough, and exceptional researcher in human centered design and engineering.

Michael has the highest HCDE GPA of any of our 113 graduating students this year. Although he is very quiet and self-effacing, he is one of the most intellectually gifted students I have ever worked with. He is a deep thinker, a careful researcher, fantastic designer, talented writer, and excellent programmer. He is one of those rare individuals who has both a deep knowledge of HCI theory and design and is a top-notch software developer. He truly exemplifies what human centered design and engineering is all about. He has volunteered countless hours in our lab and to help others, particularly with technical work and teaching others his skills.

His thesis, “Computational Tools for Qualitative Research with Online Social Text Data,” focusing on the development of data analysis tools for data-intensive social science constitutes very original work on an important topic. In his thesis, Michael developed innovative machine learning software grounded in deep ethnographic research of his user community, combining his exceptional skills as a software developer with thoughtful qualitative research to produce a set of high-quality open source tools and a dissertation reflecting rigorous intellectual scholarship.

Michael received at least one postdoctoral offer from a top institution, but he has decided that he loves Seattle too much to leave. Whichever Seattle company is fortunate enough to hire him will soon have an exceptional employee. Congratulations, Michael!

Daniel Perry

Thesis: A Complex Systems Model of Learning for Science and Data Science Digital Games

By Cecilia Aragon

Daniel Perry and Cecilia AragonI first met Daniel Perry when I taught a class in information visualization at UC Berkeley, where he was a masters student in the Information School, having completed a BA in anthropology from Brown University. I was so impressed with his work that I hired him as an RA at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, where I was working at the time. He conducted exceptional research into thermostat usability that top companies such as Nest still reference today.

When Daniel heard about HCDE, he decided immediately that it would be the perfect place to grow his research career. He joined us four years ago and has repeatedly demonstrated outstanding and original thought in his research on educational games for STEM and data science. He is an all-around great student, excelling intellectually, in originality, in leadership, and as a good departmental citizen, giving generously of his time to help others. He is constantly coming up with new ideas, learning the new material it takes to develop them, and then implementing them, often in a way to benefit underrepresented groups. He is a true leader in every sense of the word; I can't count the number of times he has innovated in his research or to help others in our lab, within the department, or the general public. His exceptional record was recognized by the UW Graduate School when he was awarded a Presidential Dissertation Fellowship for the 2014-15 academic year.

I am convinced that his groundbreaking thesis on a design framework for game-based learning, “A Complex Systems Model of Learning for Science and Data Science Digital Games,” will be foundational one day. Daniel’s dissertation examines how game-based learning experiences vary based on the specific perceptual, affective, and cognitive capacities of each learner. His research builds upon a co-design process and studies with a diverse group of high school students as he developed MAX5, a computer game where players use bioinformatics tools to stop a lethal influenza outbreak. Daniel's thesis demonstrates his cross-disciplinary skills and astonishing capability to rapidly develop new competencies such as software development and statistical data analysis.

I'm very proud that Daniel has been offered a data science postdoctoral position in the Information School at the University of California, Berkeley, and I look forward to hearing about his brilliant academic career in the very near future. Congratulations, Daniel!  

Robert Bennett Watson

Thesis: The Effect of an API Reference Topic's Visual Design and Information Content on the Speed and Accuracy of Topic-Relevance Assessment

By Jennifer Turns

Robert Watson and Jennifer TurnsI am Jennifer Turns and I am proud to have been a member of Bob Watsons dissertation committee and to have know Bob for a long time now. I am speaking on behalf of HCDE Professor Jan Spyridakis, the chair of Bob’s dissertation committee. Jan, unfortunately, couldn’t be here today.

Bob Watson has now obtained his 3rd degree from the University of Washington and his 2nd graduate degree from HCDE. When Bob completed his HCDE Masters’ degree in 2009 and received the HCDE Department’s Award of Excellence for Innovation, he announced at graduation that he was going to spend more time with his family “now that his time in graduate school was over.” That thought lasted for about one year—until his intellectual curiosity brought him back to spend the past 5 years pursuing his doctoral degree in HCDE.

In his doctoral work, Bob brought together his two professional worlds — the worlds of software development and the world of technical communication… Bob is currently a Programmer/Writer at “thePlatform,” and has been a programmer-writer at Microsoft, a Lead Software Engineer at Microsoft, a Software Development Lead at Intermec, and the list goes on.

So how did Bob bring these worlds together? The specific focus of his dissertation was on API documentation. If you know about API’s, then you certainly appreciate that the API documentation is an important component of the API. APIs are sets of routines, protocols, and tools for building software applications. Software developers use APIs to create applications and web sites AND to do so, they must find and evaluate many API documentation topics, many of which vary greatly in their visual design and the information they contain. Bob’s dissertation investigated how variations of application programming interface (API) documentation affected performance and perceptions of software developers. His results will help those creating such documentation to make design decisions. 

The experiment that he ran was meticulous, rigorous, and elegant. That said, a really cool feature of his work was how he ran the experiment. It was run entirely online, and including practicing software developers from around the world. Not only is this interesting—it was also part of his goal. What Bob has in mind was not just him answering a small number of research questions in his dissertation, but also demonstrating how related research questions could be answered as a regular part of practice (as opposed to painstakingly by PhD students over multiple years.

A few more words. In his time with us, Bob has done us proud. He has taught for us, represented our department at many conferences, helped Professor Spyridakis run multiple successful research groups, and generally been a great departmental citizen.

Congratulations Bob on a job well done.