Washington State University doctoral candidate Sarah Fakhoury is one of 10 students in North America selected to receive the 2020 Microsoft Research Ph.D. Fellowship.

She received the fellowship to support her research in applying techniques from neurocognitive science to software engineering, where she analyzes the cognitive processes of software developers as they interact with source code.

Fellows receive two-years of financial support in tuition, fees, and a stipend, an invitation to a Microsoft Research summit, and an opportunity to intern with researchers at Microsoft who are working on cutting-edge projects related to their field of study.

Fakhoury is a third-year doctoral candidate at the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS). She conducts research in the Software Engineering Lab under the supervision of Assistant Professor Venera Arnaoudova. Fakhoury, who is originally from Beirut, Lebanon, holds an undergraduate degree in computer science from the American University of Beirut. Last year, she spent six months as a data and applied scientist intern with Microsoft.

“Oftentimes in academia we struggle to connect with industry and ensure that the problems that we are solving are relevant to them,” said Arnaoudova. “The Microsoft Research Ph.D. Fellowship is extremely important as it allows us to bridge this gap and ensure that the problems we tackle are practical and have an industrial application.”

Sarah uses a unique combination of brain imaging and eye-tracking techniques to evaluate the impact of programming language paradigms on developers’ cognitive load.  The evidence provided by her research will help guide managers and companies to make informed decisions, using evidence about the cognitive cost of a language and features as actionable items when planning project development. It will also aid computer language designers in designing new languages as well as updating existing languages, allowing them to perform a cost-benefit analysis on language features from a user-centered perspective.

For her part, Fakhoury says receiving the prestigious fellowship is a life-changing milestone in her career.

“The support of this fellowship is fundamental to my research— most notably it provides me with the unique opportunity to work with the wide range of experts at Microsoft who have the skills and experience needed to not only participate in empirical research studies, but to provide diverse feedback on how to improve the tools and language infrastructure they work with on a daily basis,” she said. “Receiving one of these 10 incredibly competitive spots is, not only a tremendous privilege and honor, but a momentous affirmation that the problems I work on daily are relevant and that my research is impactful.”

She is very excited about the chance to work on her research projects as an intern at Microsoft Research this summer.

“Sarah is the most positive, self-driven, and passionate student that I know,” said Arnaoudova. “She always has that right attitude of being motivated and excited by problems that no-one has tackled before. I cannot think of anyone more deserving than her for this award.”

“The number of students graduating from our computer science program at WSU has doubled in the past four years with our graduates working in all of the top 20 high-tech companies in Washington, including Microsoft,” said Partha Pande, director of the School of EECS. “Sarah’s high quality research shows that while we are helping to educate a growing number of next-generation computer scientists and engineers, we are also helping to solve challenges that are relevant to the critically important software and high-tech industries in Washington and beyond. We’re so pleased that she is a recipient of this highly selective fellowship.”