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Sean Smith

Photo of Sean Smith

 What's your research area?

My research is in Human Computer Interaction. Specifically, I'm developing a context-aware cognitive testing system for older adults.

In traditional cognitive testing, a lot of times a person will go into a clinician or examiner's office, maybe once a year, and this one exam is determining their cognitive status for their entire life. Imagine taking a final here–you're usually stressed–but at the end of this final, they say "hey, you have a cognitive impairment" or "you have dementia" or "you have Alzheimer's." A lot of times the individual might have been stressed or nervous, maybe they didn't sleep well, or maybe there are other factors in the environment. Observing other clinicians' tests, one thing I've noticed is that humans can take these factors into account. More and more tests are being automated, though, and whenever the clinician sees these results they think "oh, you had low performance" but they have no other context around that. Were they happy? Were they stressed? Was the weather affecting them? Was there a noise in the environment?

What I'm doing is using mobile devices, especially ones with censors, to see if we could use these devices to get some of that context back and empower the diagnosis and interpretation of the results. Clinicians can see that a patient had low performance today but [they] were in a super loud environment or didn't sleep well or didn't eat that morning. Maybe it was these things, not necessarily your own cognition. Maybe they're fine but it's just that time that they tested was not ideal.

How'd you get into this field of study?

Originally I was pursuing game design and game programming. I do love games. Coming here, I was interested in education and how I could use games or engagement for educating or teaching people. I became interested in cognition and how our brains work and how the environment can affect us. I wondered, "How can I combine neuroscience and technology and all this other stuff?" Going back and forth with my adviser, we came up with this idea a long time ago for a system that can test you just in time–for example, when do you know when you're going to have a seizure? Maybe there are factors in your environment that your phone can detect, or a certain type of movement, that could test you at the right time. How do we even know what the right time is? We need to understand the context, so then I wondered 'What is the context around cognitive testing right now?"

I did a lot of reading and saw that there are a lot of factors that affect cognition and a lot of it isn't really being studied or explored, especially within this domain of newer computerized testing. When you're using a computer or tablet that has all these censors, why not capitalize on that and empower the clinician doing the diagnosis with so much more data to help them in their diagnosis? Maybe there are factors that they missed, like it was really cold in the room, or the lighting is bad, or the patient didn't sleep or eat. So it kind of evolved from my experience with education, then looking at cognition in general, then learning the technology and trying to make this platform that's also engaging–bringing in some of my game design background to make it fun for older adults–so that's how this project came to be.

Are you surprised that you're doing something related to the medical field?

It is funny to look back five or ten years go from "I want to make video games!" to now working in medical technology. But it's using game elements! I love what I do and I'm so so thankful that this road has led me here and given me the skills to be able to conceptualize, design and develop this, and I'll be able to test it. Another thing I learned from my background with video games is considering the player or the user, and understanding them has helped me with human computer interaction. How do we interact with this, and how do we make that engaging and meaningful? I think that has definitely influenced where I am now.

I'm still a gamer at heart! I'm a giant nerd and I love video games.

As humans, we like to be engaged and we like to have fun. Play is a natural, innate thing in us. Why not adapt it to the evolution of other tools and technology that we're engrossed in?

What do you want to do when you're done at UC Santa Cruz?

I want to go into industry. More and more, especially with my project, I'm looking at opportunities in the medical field or medical technology. I think that would be something really cool and interesting. It's funny, I went to the dentist the other day and the dentist was complaining about the software he's using that's outdated. I see opportunities to automate a lot of this. Even at the nursing homes where I volunteer there are some opportunities for improvement, especially with low-cost stuff. This [gestures to smartphone] can do so much.

My mom is getting older. We're all getting older. Planning for the future, we need to think about these technologies for the aging population. We're all living a lot longer

Why did you choose UC Santa Cruz?

One of the biggest factors is the location. I didn't know such a beautiful place could exist. I'm more of an outdoors person, not a city person. I got accepted to UCLA as well. It's a nice campus, and it's a very prestigious school. But when I came to UC Santa Cruz, I thought the campus was amazing and I liked the connection this school has with Silicon Valley. Interacting with the professors and the students here, it seemed like there was a lot more collaboration than competition and I really liked that.

What skills have you learned here?

I've learned a lot! The main thing is independence and time management, as well as project management. Time management is probably the most paramount skill that I've learned. I'm not naturally that way but I've had to become so organized and plan my weeks in advance and days in advance because there's so much you have to get done. I also learned how to network and interact with people better. A lot of computer science is sitting in front of a computer alone but what's cool about my field of Human Computer Interaction is that we get to test it with humans and interview them, do think aloud protocols and focus groups and get all this data and qualitative analysis. I get to interact with people and get their feedback, plus code and develop which I also love, so it's a bridging of those too. The university has definitely fostered those interpersonal as well as professional skills.

What do you like to do outside of school?

When I do have free time, video games. I'm a video game nerd. I like to play multiplayer games. I don't get to hang out with my brother or some of my friends back home, so video games are a nice way for us to hang out again, virtually, and catch up. 

I'm also a big outdoors person. Camping, hiking, and I've learned to surf since I've been here. That's a necessity in Santa Cruz. You have to learn to surf or else they'll kick you out of town.

Computer Science and Engineering
Degree Program: 
PhD, Computer Science
Place of Birth: 
Bakersfield, CA
Undergraduate Institution: 
University of Advancing Technology in Tempe, AZ