Graduating doctoral student explores human-computer interaction

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.  Portrait photo of Piyum Fernando Piyum Fernando Download Full Image

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.

Megan Patzem

Multimedia specialist, School of Arts, Media and Engineering


New ASU engineering program supports a sustainable energy future

November 18, 2020

Innovation is transforming the energy industry as new technologies enhance power generation, storage and transmission. Alongside these improvements to components and systems, new human skills are required to convert the potential of scientific advances into commercial reality. 

Meeting this challenge is the purpose of a graduate program that began this fall in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. The master’s degree in modern energy production and sustainable use offers the multidisciplinary training necessary to realize a more sustainable energy future. A geothermal power station ASU's new master's degree program in modern energy production and sustainable use prepares engineers to expand the use of solar, wind, hydrological and other power sources, such as that harvested by this geothermal plant. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock Download Full Image

“Significant indicators from the U.S Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Labor are pointing to a critical need for talent with broad understanding of energy-related industries and technologies,” said Terry Alford, professor of materials science and engineering and associate director of the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, one of the six Fulton Schools. “We see this trajectory as an opportunity for a new graduate program in which our students receive training across a combination of disciplines that will make them very attractive for emerging careers.”

Alford led the effort to design the new 30-credit-hour degree over the past two and a half years. His goal is to equip students to “speak several different engineering languages” as opposed to the traditional focus on a single specialty.

“The future of energy is going to be so diverse,” Alford said. “We need people who can draw on chemical engineering, materials science, mechanical engineering and more to create new ways to harvest energy from different sources, as well as to innovate in energy storage and energy transmission.”

Achieving that breadth includes offering two elective courses from ASU’s School of Sustainability. Alford says students have the flexibility to augment their technical expertise or to branch out and incorporate related social sciences such as energy policy or law.

“We expect this multifaceted approach will motivate students and enable our graduates to get out there in the field and hit the ground running,” he said.

Martin Flores started the new program this fall, after earning his bachelor’s degree in physics at ASU in May. His current coursework includes classes in wind energy, applied photovoltaics and sustainable energy policy.

Flores says his interest in the energy sector accelerated while completing the undergraduate Energy and Sustainability Certificate through the School of Sustainability alongside his primary major. When he saw the option to join the Fulton Schools’ new graduate program in modern energy production and sustainable use, he enthusiastically enrolled.

“I’ve actually been trying to recruit other students into the program,” Flores said. “The energy sector represents such an exciting opportunity right now. There are so many options. In fact, one of my primary motivations for pursuing this particular master’s degree is that I’m not yet certain where in the energy sector I want to proceed. I’m interested in research and engineering, but also the policy side of things. So, I look forward to a well-rounded experience that will allow me to choose from among many different directions.”

Flores says he reviewed master’s degree programs in energy at multiple universities, but he could not find anything like this new offering at ASU.

“On the one hand, that surprises me,” he said. “But the energy sector is evolving quickly. The field is not what it was even a few years ago. So, this kind of training is really important. It will yield excellent opportunities.”

Gary Werner

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering