iSchool Ph.D. students are taking their research expertise beyond the academic arena and into some of the world’s most influential tech companies. This past summer, several students completed internships at places such as Apple and Microsoft, engaging in projects to advance the information and technology field.
Several students focusing on human-computer interaction (HCI) honed their skills and knowledge while on industry research teams.
Rachel Franz, who worked with the Ability Team at Microsoft Research, helped to make virtual reality accessible for individuals with limited head movement by developing interaction techniques that make it easier to view environments in VR.
The internship helped her tailor her academic experience. “My work with older adults and people with disabilities made me sensitive to some of the accessibility issues in VR,” Franz said. “After the internship, I decided to focus my Ph.D. on how to make social experiences in VR accessible and enjoyable for older adults.”
Mingrui Ray Zhang interned at Google this past summer, where he worked on the Android system user interface team and did research on the Google keyboard, known as Gboard.
“I mainly focused on investigating users' typing patterns on smartphones and improving the autocorrection accuracy with new interaction design,” Zhang explained. “People type with their smartphones frequently and we want to make the experience smoother.”
Abdullah Ali was a designer and researcher at Apple. “I conducted participatory design studies with about 16 participants, designed novel interactions for a future technology, and built a prototype to implement and test these novel interactions,” he said.
Students concentrating on data science for their Ph.D. also found valuable opportunities to take their academic experience to industry.
Orson (Xuhai) Xu, who is interested in how HCI and data science work together, put his skills to the test at Microsoft.
“I focused specifically on using data science techniques to understand how users interact with document recommendation panes in Microsoft Office products,” he explained.
Other Ph.D. students who interned with major tech companies included Luke Rodriguez, who focused on the machine provisioning process for Azure, Microsoft’s cloud computing service; Stephanie Ballard, who analyzed outcomes of an ethics review process at Microsoft; and Yim Register, who spent the summer at RStudio creating a series of machine learning tutorials for aspiring software engineers.
Aside from making a positive contribution to the companies, the internships gave iSchool Ph.D. students a chance to learn more about the information technology world and their place in it.
“This played a big role in my decision to pursue a career as a research scientist at a place like Apple upon graduating,” Ali said.
Zhang said his internship not only gave him new insights and ideas for text entry technology, but connected him to well-known researchers doing HCI in industry, which is a space he hopes to eventually work in.
For Rodriguez, the experience aligned particularly well with his career goals. He plans to start full-time at Microsoft this summer.
As for Register, they found their experience to be an opportunity to further delve into their passion for teaching and creating.
“The most surprising thing was how much the Ph.D. student title gives access to internships,” Register said. “This access is something we should all humbly keep in mind. The internship has shown me how I want to relate to my mentors, the kinds of audiences I want to reach, and reminded me how much I love to code!”