Western students take top two spots in national computer science competition

by John Thompson, Office of Communications and Marketing

Western Washington University students Stephanie Mason of Bellingham and Ted Weber of Shoreline won first and second place, respectively, at the Association for Computing Machinery’s ACM Student Research Competition in Orlando, Florida last month.

The ACM awards, an internationally recognized contest where undergraduate and graduate students present their original research, are a part of the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Technology Conference. The competition committee selected only 22 students nationally to participate in this competition, so to have two entries from Western was already an honor, but Mason said to take the top two spots was incredibly exciting.

“Sending word back to WWU was even more satisfying because it was like I was sharing the win with everyone, which was made doubly cool by Ted winning, too,” said Mason, who is majoring in Mathematics and Biology with a minor in Computer Science. “On a personal level it was very gratifying to have all of the hard work I put into the research, the poster design, and the presentations recognized. It also felt very, very good to be a positive representative of Western, the Computer Science Department, and my research advisor, Dr. Filip Jagodzinski.”

Mason’s project, titled “Characterizing Rigidity Properties of Protein Cavities through Data Visualization,” used a computational approach to investigate various aspects of protein structure. She combined features of a physical aspect of protein structure — their cavities — with a computational output called rigidity analysis.

“Both cavities and rigid properties are of interest due to their importance in protein function,” she said. “I found there are indeed some interesting relationships, but this work is ongoing and we have yet to tease apart what the specifics of those relationships are and whether or not they are biologically meaningful.”

Because of her win at the Grace Hopper Celebration, Mason will advance to the ACM’s Grand Finals competition later this spring.

Weber, a Computer Science major, was awarded second place for his work with WWU Assistant Professor of Computer Science Moushumi Sharmin on “MyQuitPal,” a smoking-cessation app that objectively identifies factors contributing to lapse, visualizes smoking behavior, and notifies users when they are susceptible to lapse, all in near real-time.

“Addiction prevention has always been an important subject for me, so when I found out about Professor Sharmin’s research I was attracted immediately. Being able to use the skills I’ve acquired in the Computer Science department to solve real-world problems has been an amazing opportunity,” he said.

Being able to work on research he is passionate about was his major goal in working on MyQuitPal, but Weber said being honored with a national award for his work was icing on the cake.

“I entered the competition primarily as a way to showcase my research to as many people as possible. I had several excellent conversations with other researchers after the presentation, and even spoke with some people struggling with tobacco addiction as well,” he said. “It was reassuring to know that other people thought my work was meaningful, and that I could really make a big impact if I continue working on the project.”

For more information on the ACM awards or the student’s research, contact the chair of Western’s Computer Science Department, Perry Fizzano, at perry.fizzano@wwu.edu.

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Thursday, November 16, 2017 - 9:33am