Five months ago, Chat Wacharamanotham strengthened our Department of Informatics as Assistant Professor for Interaction Design. In a short interview he explains what he finds exciting about this field of studies, what he would like to convey to students and why he chose to join the University of Zurich.
What fascinates you about your field of studies?
If you have a set of numbers e.g. 22, 25, 24, 92, 27, 23, 21, 72, 20, the average is 36.22 … or is it 24.22? When reading this sequence don’t the numbers “92” and “72” seem a little odd from the others? Could they be typos? When statistics is used to make decisions, such as to determine the efficacy of a new medicine, misinterpretation can be very harmful. A spreadsheet software such as Microsoft Excel would make it easy to calculate the average, but it is still up to the human to meticulously avoid mistakes when using statistics.
My research focuses on understanding how scientists conduct and read statistical analysis, which is far more complex than the example above. The goal is to design computer systems that will aid scientists to avoid mistakes and improve their efficiency.
From the example above, a computer equipped with an eye tracker might detect that what most of the readers skipped when reading the numbers; therefore, it can automatically plot a graph to make the extreme values immediately pop out. Such system may save users from problems down the line, when this statistics is used to make decisions, such as to determine the efficacy of a new medicine.
What would you like to convey to your students?
Just like a graph can help you spot errors in numbers, making the ideas alive in the physical world can help students to see potential problems early and address them. Low-cost prototypes are helpful because they free up the brain space to allow better thinking. I’d encourage them to prototype their ideas fast and frequently so that they can learn and improve them faster.
What were the decisive factors for you to join the University of Zurich?
The Department of Informatics at UZH emphasizes on people-oriented computing as well as big data. These are apparent matches for my research interest explained above. Having the Department of Psychology situated in the same building also gives me a rich source of potential statistics users and collaborators. However, I have to admit that a walk in the old town and along the lakeside played a big role in my decision as well.