Andrew Lilja ’13: Pursuing Master’s Degree in Human-Computer Interaction

Posted on September 23rd, 2014 by

Andrew Lilja '13  inside Iowa State's Howe Hall. Lilja is standing in front of the C6, a 10x10x10 foot room in which images can be projected on all four walls, the floor, and the ceiling.

Andrew Lilja ’13 inside Iowa State’s Howe Hall. Lilja is standing in front of the C6, a 10x10x10 foot room in which images can be projected on all four walls, the floor, and the ceiling.

During his time at Gustavus, Andrew Lilja ’13 never imagined he would be working in the field of human-computer interaction, let alone that the field even existed. But through psychology classes, research opportunities at Gustavus and Iowa State University, and influential faculty members, Lilja became interested in decision-making and computers, ultimately bringing him to Iowa State University to work on his master’s degree at the University’s Virtual Reality Application Center.

Lilja is now in his second year of his master’s degree work at Iowa State. He says his four years at Gustavus left him fully prepared to jump head first into the human-computer interaction (HCI) program.

While at Gustavus, Lilja asserts that he learned the value of hard work and how to be an effective student. He appreciates the opportunities Gustavus gave him to learn about a wide range of topics, but also opportunities to drill down into specific areas of interest.

“I spent a lot of my time learning about decision making, and that was a huge benefit for me when I was applying to graduate schools,” Lilja said. “I knew about current research, and I could speak the language of researchers, which was incredibly important. Instead of just being a kid with big dreams, I was a kid with big dreams who had the knowledge and abilities to back them up.”

Lilja credits Associate Professor of Psychological Science Kyle Chambers with teaching him how to read and write academic articles, effectively communicate in class, and conduct research. Associate Professor of Biology and Psychological Science and Director of Neuroscience Mike Ferragamo also had a large impact on Lilja’s time at Gustavus.

“A lot of what I learned in Dr. Ferragamo’s classes is still shaping my work today,” Lilja said. “I was able to pursue topics I found interesting because he let us self-direct a lot of what we did in later classes. It was thanks to this that I was able to learn a lot about decision making and use it in my current research.”

During his junior year, Lilja was accepted into an undergraduate summer research program at the Virtual Reality Application Center (VRAC) at Iowa State University, where he now studies. Lilja credits Associate Professor of Political Science and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies Alisa Rosenthal with helping him get into the program, giving him valuable insights into the application process, and helping him think critically about what he wanted to do.

Lilja inside Beck Hall at Gustavus.

Lilja inside Beck Hall at Gustavus.

During that summer, Lilja’s research team worked on a study involving search and rescue robots where their goal was to improve the robots’ usability. Most search and rescue robots are quite cognitively demanding to use, and the team wanted to see the effects of automation on reducing cognitive load.

“The program was really intense. It felt like a full year of a master’s degree compressed down into three months. It was a lot of work and a lot of fun, and it helped me figure out what I wanted to do, and that I wanted to do it at Iowa State University,” Lilja said.

During his senior year at Gustavus, Lilja worked with visiting professor Choong-Soo Lee and Dr. Guarionex Salivia at Minnesota State University, Mankato to develop models of computer input devices used by people with motor impairments, such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s.

In addition to research experience, Lilja’s time at Gustavus was also influenced by his involvement in student organizations. As a member of the Epsilon Pi Alpha fraternity, Lilja honed his leadership skills and learned how to work in groups. He was assistant director of the fraternity’s annual Take the Hill triathlon for two years, and executive director his senior year.

Lilja also participated in the Campus Activities Executive Board for a year. As a publicity executive, he learned how to work professionally with other people and how to take charge in challenging situations.

Being able to communicate clearly is an important skill to have, and Lilja was able to learn the importance of this during his two years as a biology lab teaching assistant.

“When someone is asking you a challenging question because they’re confused, you really have to know how to explain the concept clearly so they don’t get even more confused,” Lilja said.

Lilja now works in the VRAC at Iowa State, the very place he conducted his undergraduate research between his junior and senior years at Gustavus.

The VRAC is where everyone interested in HCI winds up. The research here ranges from enhancing production lines using augmented reality to fully-immersive simulations and wearable technology. The center has a 10’ cube called the C6, which has screens on all four walls, the floor, and the ceiling – a fully immersive virtual experience. Lilja’s research group uses the C6 to assess the naturalistic decision-making processes of firefighters.

Lilja’s research focuses on the differences between decision making in novices and experts, and how technology can be used to improve the decision making of novices.

“Experts make decisions fast and efficiently, and I want to develop a system that can help teach novices what things to look for and do to enhance their decision making. I’m still in the very early phases of working on it, but it looks like this holds a lot of promise,” Lilja said.

Andrew Lilja with GusThe field of HCI combines many of the things Lilja is passionate about.

“I’m passionate about design, technology, and psychology, so once I found out that the field existed, it was a natural thing for me to get into. I’ve been doing design for a long time, and I’ve been interested in computers and programming for even longer. Getting to bring all that together with psychology is pretty much a dream come true. I feel like I’m building the cutting edge things of the future, or devices from Star Trek and science fiction,” Lilja said.

After taking a number of introductory classes during the fall semester of 2013, Lilja started to delve into the really exciting aspects of HCI last spring. His favorite class, computational perception, turned out to be one of the hardest classes he’s ever taken.

“It covered how to make computers see, hear, and feel, and what to do with that information. We talked about face recognition, tracking space craft, and lots of other things. It’s pretty intimidating when your homework is what was cutting-edge research five years ago – when I started at Gustavus – but  it’s immensely satisfying and rewarding to understand all the concepts,” Lilja said.

This semester Lilja is taking two seminar classes and another class called Cognitive Engineering, which focuses on developing automated systems that work harmoniously with humans, both trained operators and untrained novices, and determining best practices for displaying alerts.

“In October, I’ll be working with firefighters to develop cognitive workload analysis models of the jobs, figuring out where they experience high cognitive, behavioral, and physical demands,” Lilja said. “This will feed directly into my research and will inform my knowledge of what areas of the system are important for helping novices think like experts.”

Lilja is not sure where he sees himself in five years, but knows that it will involve HCI and decision making.

“I’m interested in HCI consulting, where I’d work with other companies to help them develop effective designs and interfaces, but depending on where my research goes, I may wind up working for a company with a focus on decision making,” Lilja said.


Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin


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