Rising Stars 2020:

Yu Huang

PhD Candidate

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Areas of Interest

  • Software Engineering
  • Medical Imaging
  • Mobile Sensing


Towards An Objective Measure of Developers' Cognitive Activities


Understanding how developers carry out computer science activities can help to improve software engineering productivity and guide the use and development of supporting tools and environment. Previous studies have helped explore how programmers conduct computing activities, such as code comprehension and code review, but they rely on traditional survey instruments, which may not be reliable, rather than an understanding of fundamental cognitive processes. Advances in medical imaging and eye-tracking have recently been applied to software engineering, supporting grounded neurobiological and visual explorations of computing activities. This work is among the first that leverages various objective measures to provide a systematic solution to understand user cognition in programming activities. By examining the relationship between data structure manipulations and spatial ability, the cognitive processes in code writing and prose writing, and stereotypical associations in code review, with medical imaging (fMRI and fNIRS) and eye-tracking, we find that: (1) data structure and spatial operations use the same focal regions of the brain but to different degrees; (2) the neural representations of programming languages vs. natural languages are distinct; (3) biases and differences exist in how humans review code based on its apparent author and the gender of the reviewers when controlling for code quality. We demonstrate best practices and describe the implication and tradeoffs between fMRI, fNIRS, eye tracking, and self-reporting for software engineering research.


Yu Huang is a PhD candidate in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan, advised by Prof. Westley Weimer. Her research expertise lies in the intersection of software engineering and human factors. Her work spans software, hardware, medical imaging, open source software, and mobile sensing, collaborating with researchers from Psychology and Neuroscience. She is particularly interested in understanding and improving software activities and developers' behaviors. Prior to to Michigan, she received her Master's degree from the University of Virginia and her Bachelor's degree from Harbin Institute of Technology in China. She was a research intern at Microsoft Research, Redmond and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Yu Huang has received multiple grants to support both her research and her efforts to improve diversity in computer science. Her work has been published in over 20 peer-reviewed publications including a best paper award.

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