Supporting Career Development in Academic Research

NSF-funded Computing Innovation Fellows Kathryn Cunningham, Sami Davies, and Fumeng Yang are completing postdoctoral research projects with Northwestern CS

Computing Innovation Fellows (CIFellows) Kathryn Cunningham, Sami Davies, and Fumeng Yang are collaborating with Northwestern CS faculty and students to pursue their research goals and launch successful careers in the academic research community.

Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the CIFellows program is managed by the Computing Research Association (CRA) Computing Community Consortium (CCC). The two-year postdoctoral fellowship program was designed to support computing PhD graduates facing continuing disruptions to the academic job market and economy related to the COVID-19 pandemic. CIFellows’ research focus aligns with the NSF Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) mission to accelerate advancement in computing, communications, and information science and engineering.

2020 CIFellow cohort

Kathryn CunninghamKathryn Cunningham
Adviser: Eleanor O'Rourke

Through her CIFellow project, “Improving Novice Programmer Self-efficacy with a Purpose-first Programming Learning Environment,” Cunningham aims to develop human-centered programming approaches that enable novice programmers to create and understand authentic code quickly through real-time feedback connecting the code with the goals it achieves.

To study inequities and barriers in computer science education, Cunningham conducts research that incorporates concepts from program comprehension, cognitive science, and educational psychology. She strives to support learners that have increasingly diverse goals, backgrounds, computing interests and experience, and academic confidence.

Cunningham, her postdoctoral adviser Eleanor O'Rourke, and undergraduate computer science students Yike Qiao and Alex Feng won a Best Paper Award at the 53rd Association for Computing Machinery Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education for the position paper, “Bringing ‘High-level’ Down to Earth: Gaining Clarity in Conversational Programmer Learning Goals.”

The work focuses on conversational programmers, who do not want to write code, but rather seek to learn programming to collaborate more effectively with developers. Drawing from research on the self-expressed needs of conversational programmers, the paper presents a set of learning goals. The team also applies a theoretical framework to suggest that "top-down” instructional approaches supported by purpose-first programming interfaces may work best for teaching programming in a way that meets this particular set of learning goals.

O’Rourke is the June and Donald Brewer Junior Professor in Computer Science and the Learning Sciences in Northwestern Engineering and the School of Education and Social Policy and co-director of the Delta Lab, an interdisciplinary research lab and design studio at Northwestern focused on social and crowd computing, human-computer interaction, learning sciences, civics, and innovation.

Cunningham will start a position as an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in fall 2022. She received her PhD in information from the University of Michigan, her master’s degree in computer science (human-centered computing) from Georgia Tech, and her bachelor’s degree in computer science and molecular and cellular biology from the University of Arizona.

2021 CIFellow cohort

Sami DaviesSami Davies
Adviser: Samir Khuller

Davies investigates solutions to combinatorial optimization problems that balance practical interests in light of computational hardness constraints. She is developing scheduling models that balance wait time and energy consumption.

“I’m currently most excited about algorithms that are augmented with machine learned predictions, or learning-augmented algorithms, as they can surpass theoretical lower bounds in a practically relevant manner,” Davies said.

Davies collaborated with her postdoctoral adviser Samir Khuller, Peter and Adrienne Barris Chair of Computer Science at Northwestern Engineering, and visiting scholar Shirley Zhang on a batch scheduling model that provides dynamic programs which minimize flow time subject to active time constraints. The paper, “Balancing Flow Time and Energy Consumption,” was presented by Zhang at the 15th Workshop on Models and Algorithms for Planning and Scheduling in June. Davies will present the work this month at the 34th ACM Symposium on Parallelism in Algorithms and Architectures.

Davies’s CIFellows project, “Moving Beyond Worst-case Analysis in Scheduling,” centers around designing scheduling algorithms with alternative approaches to traditional worst-case analysis that consider structured inputs likely to occur in practice or machine learning predictions available to practitioners.

She earned a PhD in mathematics from the University of Washington, an MS in mathematics from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a bachelor’s degree in mathematical sciences from Carnegie Mellon University.

Fumeng YangFumeng Yang
Adviser: Matthew Kay

Yang studies visualizations of probabilistic forecasts to support decision-making in times of uncertainty for practical scenarios. Her research interests include model explanation, user modeling, adaptive and automatic design, perception and cognition, and augmented reality/virtual reality/mixed reality.

Yang is a member of the MU Collective Lab, a research lab working at the intersection of information visualization and uncertainty communication directed by Matthew Kay, assistant professor of computer science, and Jessica Hullman, Ginni Rometty Professor of Computer Science at Northwestern Engineering.

Yang’s CIFellows project, “Supporting Decision-Making in Times of Uncertainty: Visualizing Probabilistic Forecasts over Time,” involves the design and evaluation visualizations of a single forecast and multiple probabilistic forecasts, all updated over time, to support individual-level decision-making under uncertainty. Fumeng aims to assist the general public in understanding probabilistic forecasts and improving decision quality by developing visualizations for election forecasts that address issues of anxiety, trust, and perception.

Yang earned a PhD in computer science from Brown University, a master’s degree from Tufts University, and a B.Eng. degree from Shandong University, China.

2009-11 CIFellows

Northwestern Engineering alumni and postdoctoral fellows also participated in the original 2009-11 CCC/CRA's CIFellows program, launched in response to the economic decline of the Great Recession.

CIFellows 2009 cohort

Deidra Morrison Wells (MS ’05, PhD ’09) earned a PhD and master’s degree in computer science from Northwestern Engineering. She completed the CIFellowship at Clemson University. She is a technical research and development consultant.

Emilee Rader completed her CIFellowship with adviser Darren Gergle, John G. Searle Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern’s School of Communication and (by courtesy) of computer science at Northwestern Engineering. Rader is an AT&T Scholar and associate professor of media and information at Michigan State University.

Ioan Raicu was mentored during his CIFellowship by Alok Choudhary, Henry and Isabelle Dever Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and (by courtesy) computer science at Northwestern Engineering. Raicu is an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science (CS) at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT).

CIFellows 2010 cohort

David Choffnes (MS ‘06, PhD ’10) earned a PhD in computer science, advised by Fabian Bustamante, professor of computer science and director of graduate admissions. Choffnes also earned a master’s degree in computer science from Northwestern Engineering. He completed the CIFellowship at the University of Washington. Choffnes is an associate professor in the Khoury College of Computer Sciences and executive director of the Cybersecurity and Privacy Institute at Northeastern University.

Arifa Nisar (PhD ’10) earned a PhD in computer engineering from Northwestern Engineering, advised by Choudhary. She completed her CIFellowship at University of California, Santa Cruz, and is a lead technical staff member at

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