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Graduating doctoral student explores human-computer interaction

Portrait photo of Piyum Fernando

Piyum Fernando

November 18, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2020 graduates.

Piyum Fernando always thought he would pursue computer science throughout his higher education, but that all changed after reading a book. 

Fernando, who received his bachelor's degree in computer science and engineering from University of Moratuwa in Sri Lanka, said he had an "aha" moment after reading Don Norman’s “Design of Everyday Things” during his last year of engineering school. 

“Like most of my colleagues from the undergraduate batch, I was initially thinking of pursuing my higher education in a more computer science related domain,” he said. “However this book made me fall in love with design. Eventually, I ended up doing a PhD in human computer interaction, which is related to both design and computer science.”

He joined the School of Arts, Media and Engineering, a collaboration between the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, and will graduate this December with a PhD in media arts and sciences, with a research focus in human computer interaction. 

During his time at ASU, he engaged in various research projects on studying the way humans interact with computer systems, including a project called “The Dream Drones.” 

“My work explores crowd-driven design fiction as a means of understanding people’s collective aspirations, delights and fears related to emerging technologies, and in turn use them as inputs to critically shape future technology design processes,” he said. “By selecting drones as my topic of interest, I developed a web-based design fiction platform for lay public to collectively envision future drones and conducted an interview study with drone domain experts to evaluate how such community inputs can affect their design and decision-making processes.”  

He received more than $2,000 in funding for the project from the Herberger Institute’s Creative Constellation Grants 

In addition to the grant for the project, Fernando also received the ASU Graduate College Completion Fellowship and said both the grant and the fellowship benefited his research. 

Because of the graduate college fellowships, I didn’t have to TA in my last semester. So I was able to put my 100% to my dissertation. And a grant is also an acknowledgement from the outside world that the work you are doing is impactful. It gave me confidence too.”

Piyum hopes to continue his research in New Zealand. He accepted a research fellowship position at University of Auckland, but final plans depend on COVID-19 restrictions. In addition to his research, he also plans to continue running a UX research startup named “XD STUDIO” with his wife, who is an industrial design masters graduate from ASU.  

“I hope to be an academic and a practitioner simultaneously,” he said. “Some call them “pracademics.” 

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

Answer: I joined ASU as an international student in mid-2015 in a time when the U.S. political landscape was undergoing a lot of changes. Throughout the last five years we all have seen and experienced things that were unprecedented in recent history. No matter what happened outside, ASU was always warmer, safer and welcoming. The ASU charter, “measured not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes and how they succeed” is something that touched my heart and something I hold dear. It definitely changed the way I see the world. 

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: Around 2014, I was looking for PhD opportunities. I came in contact with my adviser Stacey Kuznetsov who was just starting at ASU as an assistant professor. I liked her research and the multidisciplinary nature of the School of Arts, Media and Engineering. And I liked the mountains and hiking trails around ASU.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Assistant Professor Stacey Kuznetsov taught me how to communicate your research clearly, concisely and effectively. During my first two years, she worked very closely with me to improve my academic writing. I will always be indebted to her for that.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: This is my advice to current and future PhD students. In my opinion, there are two pillars of a successful PhD: thinking and expertise. Obviously, you should become an expert of your particular field of research at the end of your PhD. It is equally important that you have a developed point of view about your own research as well as the world around you. Your thinking is what separates you as an academic from someone who has worked in the same domain in the industry for a long time. So, always critically question your research and ask, “Why is it important to do what I’m doing?” Try to learn about other intersecting domains that can shape your research. Expertise without thinking is too narrow, thinking without expertise is too shallow. You should have both in balance.  

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Start a new multidisciplinary research group aimed at designing sustainable models for universal free healthcare.

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