Geek of the Week

Geek of the Week: ‘Secret superpower’ helps information Hannah Werbel’s success on the Univ. of Washington

(Photo courtesy of Hannah Werbel)

Hannah Werbel’s impact at the University of Washington was recognized early at the school when she was awarded the President’s Freshman Medal as the top student in the UW’s entire freshman class of roughly 7,000 students. Now a couple days from graduation, Werbel is being honored again.

A computer science major minoring in physics and mathematics, Werbel is one of four undergraduates to receive the prestigious Dean’s Medal from the College of Arts & Sciences. She was awarded in the Natural Sciences category — in which there are more than 2,000 graduating students — for her academic excellence, leadership, and service.

On top of all that, we’re naming Werbel our latest Geek of the Week.

“I have always been curious about how things work and interact in the world, which initially led me to pursue a physics degree,” Werbel said. “Later, I switched to computer science.”

On Tuesday at the UW, community members had a chance to check out a VR and AR projects, including this one developed by a team that included Hannah Warbel (far right). (GeekWIre Photo / Taylor Soper)

A graduate of Skyline High School in Sammamish, Wash., Werbel is legally blind, and according to the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, she has made accessibility a centerpiece of her campus engagement. Werbel has served as president of the Washington Association of Blind Students and also worked as a student assistant for the DO-IT Center, which focuses on empowering people with disabilities to succeed through education and technology.

“As a person with a visual impairment, I like to think that I have unique perspective on things,” she said. “I believe that my vision is one of my secret superpowers. I can navigate in the dark and can always tell where my friends are in a crowded room based on the direction of their voices. I also have a unique way of visualizing problems, and am therefore able to provide a different view of the situation that often helps us come up with a solution.”

One of Werbel’s recent projects, a virtual reality game, was featured at a demo day event this week on campus.

She also plays the piccolo in the Husky Marching Band and basketball pep band. Werbel loves to cook and bake with friends and enjoys hiking, reading and traveling.

After graduation she will begin a summer research internship at Microsoft Quantum Computing and will then join Facebook full time as a software engineer.

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Hannah Werbel:

What do you do, and why do you do it? As a computer science student, I am currently trying to learn as much as I can about as many things as I can while I am in college. I love to learn, and therefore love school. I try to take at least one non-STEM class every quarter because I feel like there is a lot more to this world than just computer science (don’t get me wrong, computer science is pretty awesome). I have also been lucky enough to work in industry as a software engineering intern, assist in a research lab, and TA for undergraduate computer science classes.

Even though I am about to graduate and start a professional career, I like to joke that I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up. There are so many things out there that I don’t know about. Thus far, I have made it through college by following my interests and by taking advantage of opportunities as they arise. I enjoy solving complex problems, and ultimately want to make the world a better place. I am drawn to computer science because of the problems it gives me the power to solve.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? I think that a lot of people consider computer science to be coding and only coding. When I started college, the only thing I was 100 percent certain about was that I would never major in computer science. I thought computer science was boring and monotonous. Who would want to sit in front of a screen by themselves all day writing instructions for a machine to execute? Definitely not me. Except … well, here we are.

Related: UW student virtual reality projects demonstrate empathy, education, entertainment use cases

In reality, computer science is a lot more than just coding. It is creative, collaborative and analytical. I didn’t realize this until I actually took a computer science class and fell in love with it. Sure, as a computer scientist I now sit in front of a screen writing instructions for machines to execute. However, coming up with those instructions takes ingenuity and creativity. The tools and applications that people can create with a few simple lines of code are incredible. None of this is a solitary endeavor, either. People are constantly collaborating and talking with each other because often these problems are too big for just one person to solve. Computer scientists are not robots. We are living, breathing, thoughtful people who get to solve really cool problems every day.

Where do you find your inspiration? Nature inspires me because of how beautifully and seamlessly everything coexists. Whenever I am in nature, I am reminded of how big the world is and the scale of the problems I ultimately want to solve. I am also inspired by my friends and all the passion and energy they put into everything they do.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? My iPad. I use it for schoolwork, entertainment, staying connected with friends and family, and pretty much everything else. I may even use it more than my phone. I use the zoom accessibility feature, so I appreciate having the bigger screen on the iPad because then when I zoom in, I can see more than one word at a time. I don’t know what I would do without it.

(Photo courtesy of Hannah Werbel)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? When I work at my desk, I connect my laptop to a monitor that I have mounted on a movable arm. I also use an external keyboard and mouse. I use screen magnification software whenever I use a computer, so I like having the big monitor because it allows me to see more of the screen at one time after I’ve zoomed in. The arm is also nice because I can bring the screen closer to me if I need to. My chocolate stash is also conveniently placed in the drawer next to my desk. Another notable feature of my workstation is the yoga ball I use as a chair. I think better when I move around. I like sitting on the yoga ball because you have to put effort into staying balanced on top of it. This helps me concentrate better on my work.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) One thing I try to do is never eat and work at the same time. This makes me more conscious of what I’m eating so I tend to eat healthier. Also, since I know I’m never going to eat lunch at my computer, I can plan to meet up with friends or go walk around for a bit. It’s nice to actually take a break, and I often find that I am more productive when I come back.

Mac, Windows or Linux? I have no strong opinions to add to this debate. I use each for different things and can’t imagine living without any of them!

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? I’ve never really watched “Star Trek” but I hear about Capt. Kirk all the time so I guess if I had to pick it would be him 🙂

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Definitely cloak of invisibility.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … Most likely invest it in the virtual reality app I am currently working on for my senior capstone. We designed a “Cosmic Symphony” experience that combines music, movement and visuals in a way that isn’t possible without VR. It’s been really fun to work on, so it would be cool to actually get it out into the world.

I once waited in line for … An hour for a ride in Disneyland only to have it break and be shut down for the remainder of the day when I got to the front.

Your role models: My mom is one of my biggest role models. She is loving, passionate, and unashamedly herself every minute of every day. She has taught me to be strong and to never give up no matter what life throws at me. I strive to share as much light and positivity with the world as she does. My dad is my other biggest role model. He is hard-working and persistent, never backing down from a challenge. He will always stand up for what he thinks is right and can see the bigger picture and greater impact of things beyond the immediate future. I hope that I can be as great of a problem-solver and team builder as him.

My introductory computer science professor, Riley Porter, is another one of my role models. Her class was what changed my mind about computer science and ultimately caused me to switch majors. She also sparked my interest in teaching. I want to give back and share with others the same passion for computer science that she originally shared with me.

Greatest game in history: “Werewolf.”

Best gadget ever: Pens that can also be a stylus (so simple yet so useful!).

First computer: Our family’s first computer was a really old PC.

Current phone: iPhone 6s.

Favorite app: Read2Go.

Favorite cause: Empowering those who are often underestimated and discounted. I speak on a lot of disability-related panels and enjoy mentoring younger students.

Most important technology of 2019: Inclusive AI.

Most important technology of 2021: Quantum computation.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: I think that everyone in the world has something they can teach to someone else and something they can learn from someone else. Whenever we meet another person, there is always some bit of knowledge that we can give to them and some bit of knowledge that they can give to us, no matter who they are, where they come from, or their perceived ability. I would encourage people to think about this the next time they interact with someone, whether it is an old friend or a new acquaintance. Be proud of who you are and the things that make you unique. Also recognize that we can always improve and that our greatest teachers are the people around us.

Website: Hannah Werbel Honors Portfolio

LinkedIn: Hannah Werbel

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