Former CNT summer program participant, Hannah Werbel, receives Dean's Medal

Aleenah Ansari

Former CNT summer program participant, Hannah Werbel, and CNT undergraduate research assistant, Hannah Martens (not pictured), both received the UW College of Arts & Sciences Dean’s Medal this year. In this article, learn more about Werbel, her educational background and how her experience at the CNT sparked her interest in computer science.

Hannah Werbel, a class of 2019 graduate from the University of Washington (UW) Department of Computer Science and 2014 participant in the Center for Neurotechnology’s (CNT’s) Young Scholars Program (YSP), has her foot in many doors. Her involvement in college reflected her commitment to interdisciplinary thinking, collaboration and lifelong learning. During her time in college, Werbel worked with the CNT as a scholar for the UW Office of Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology (DO-IT) and as a researcher in Howard Chizeck’s CNT-affiliated UW BioRobotics Lab. As recognition for her academic achievement, campus involvement and leadership at the UW, Werbel recently received the UW College of Arts & Sciences Dean’s Medal in the natural sciences division.

Hannah Martens, a class of 2019 graduate from the UW Department of Philosophy and the UW Department of Law, Societies and Justice, also received the Dean’s Medal this year. She was recognized for her research on the ethics of deep-brain stimulation and brain-computer interfaces under the supervision of CNT member Sara Goering, research in the UW Technology Policy Lab, and work as a writing tutor at the UW Philosophy Writing Center.

 “Hannah Werbel and Hannah Martens have been important members of the CNT community, and it is great to see their work recognized by the University of Washington,” said Eric Chudler, executive and education director of the CNT and a research associate professor in the UW Department of Bioengineering.

I sat down with Werbel to learn more about the award and her time in college. The conversation is recapped below in a lightly edited Q&A.

Q: Can you start by introducing yourself?

A: I’m Hannah. I’m a senior at the UW majoring in computer science (CS) and minoring in Physics and Math. I’m also in the Interdisciplinary Honors Program.

Q: Congrats on getting the Dean’s Medal! Why do you think you were chosen this award?

A: Hmm… great question! I think I was chosen for this award because I genuinely love to learn and I’m not afraid to ask questions or come up with the wrong answer, which has helped me get good grades throughout college. I am also engaged in several activities outside of the classroom, like marching band and working with the DO-IT program. I think that the connections I have across computer science, physics, honors, math and band demonstrate how I’ve made the most of my time here.

Q: I know you’ve been involved in a range of activities from Husky Marching Band to being a teaching assistant  in the UW Department of Computer Science. You also participated in YSP prior to starting college and conducted research in Howard Chizeck’s lab during your freshman year. What role did those things play in your college career?

A: YSP was my first exposure to computer science. I was in the UW BioRobotics Lab, where I used MATLAB software to analyze data and create pretty graphs. I loved that I could type a few lines of code and get a graph that would explain why the data was the way it was. It was the first time that computer science was interesting to me.”

Q: Now, you’re graduating this spring with a degree in computer science. Why did you choose that program?

A: One of the most formative classes I took in college was CSE 142, an introductory programming class at the UW because it opened my eyes to what computer science actually was. I initially thought that computer science was boring and monotonous, but I took it because my dad wanted me to. After taking it, I realized how much creativity and ingenuity the field required. You have to be creative, analytical and collaborative in order to solve the problems. I also liked that there wasn’t always one correct solution.

Q: That’s a really important part of computer science – recognizing that there is no “right” way to solve problems. Are there other things you applied to your YSP experience?

A: I also enjoyed the classes about neuroethics. Doing research or projects, it’s important to remember that what you make will be put out in the world. It will impact people in some way, shape or form, and it is important to think about this impact during all phases of the project. Getting introduced to this awareness in high school was a great foundation for when I entered college. It reminded me that there was a bigger purpose than getting my code to work or solving a physics problem.

Q: It’s always important to think about the impact of your work, especially in engineering. What else are you working on right now?

A: I’m currently taking the virtual reality (VR) capstone course through the CS department. I’m working with a team of four undergraduates to design a “Cosmic Symphony,” music/rhythm-inspired VR experience  that’s loosely inspired by the Disney movie Fantasia. We have tried to combine music, color, graphics and movement in a way that isn’t possible in a 2D game. The player must travel to different sections of an abstract orchestra while completing rhythm-based mini-games. Completing a section unlocks a song component, and both the music and visuals build on themselves as the game progresses. In the end, you get to be a Fantasia conductor and direct the song.

Q: How has studying computer science, physics, math and interdisciplinary honors courses informed your time in college?

A: All knowledge is interdisciplinary and interconnected. You can learn things in a history class and apply them to computer science. A lot of honors classes are focused on people and community and those lessons can be applied anywhere.

Q: Outside of computer science, what’s been one of your favorite classes that you’ve taken during your time in college?

A: I took a class with Kenneth Pyle on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It opened my eyes to what history actually is. Before that, I had thought that history was black and white. After taking that class, I realized that history is more of an art form. You infer from evidence, and that inference goes through your own biases and perspectives. There are so many different opinions about why the bombings happened and whether they were necessary. It’s amazing that people are still studying it today.

Q: How has that class informed your perspective in other coursework?

A: It’s very rare that there is one correct answer. You’re always learning new things and finding new facts, especially in CS where the field is evolving so quickly. This class was very different from what I usually study, and it gave me a different perspective.

Q: What interdisciplinary research interests are you pursuing now?

A: Right now, I’m most interested in quantum computing, which combines physics and CS. A normal computer uses bits (0 or 1), but a quantum computer uses a qubit, which takes advantage of quantum mechanics. Instead of just being 0 or 1, it can be any combination of 0 and 1. You can solve some problems, like factoring prime numbers, faster.

Q: Have you been able to take classes about quantum computing?

A: Microsoft’s quantum computing department taught a class through the CS department in the winter. It was really cool to learn from some of the people who had developed the algorithms we were discussing. This summer, I have a research internship with the quantum computing department at Microsoft. That will be a cool opportunity to see what it’s like to work in industry research, ask questions and see if it’s something I would want to do in the future.

Q: What are you most looking forward to?

A: I’m excited to work on cutting edge technology. That’s one thing I like about research – you are creating the solution. There is no answer key or TA to ask for help. The solution has not existed before now and you get to be the one to uncover it!  I’m also excited to see what it’s like to do research in industry because I’ve only ever done it at a university.

Q: Congratulations! During your time in college, where have you found community?

A: DO-IT has been a place of community for me. I haven’t met anyone else in CS that is visually impaired like me. There are things you can talk about with people who have been through the same struggles that you can’t discuss as easily with others. It’s nice to have that supportive community and those connections. I’ve also found a lot of my community through marching band. When you spend so much time together at rehearsals every week, it’s only natural that you’ll make connections. Band is kind of like one big family, and it has been a huge source of support throughout my time here.

Q: A lot of your projects center around working with other people. Why is collaboration so important to you?  

A: Everyone has unique ideas that deserve to be heard. Everyone has the potential to solve the next grand challenge or big problem. That can come from anyone. When you combine ideas, you can come up with something that’s better than what people can think of by themselves. In school, we’re supposed to be learning and making mistakes. There’s more to doing assignments and projects than getting it right.

Q: Thank you for taking the time to reflect on your college experience with me. Is there anything else you want to share?

A:  Learning itself is such a gift, and being able to attend a college like the University of Washington and learn from professors who are so knowledgeable is incredible. Once I learned to take advantage of that and be less afraid of looking stupid in class for asking questions, I feel like I was able to learn a lot more.

Read more about Werbel’s undergraduate experience in the GeekWire’s Geek of the Week article, Allen School News’s blog post, or Werbel’s honors portfolio.