Originally Printed in Winter/Spring 2008 Newsletter
Sara Sprenkle is an assistant professor of computer science at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, VA. She teaches undergraduates and researches automated techniques to test Web
applications’ functionality. Learn more about Sara.
Sara received her Ph.D. in computer science from the Uni- versity of Delaware under the advisement of Dr. Lori Pollock. She earned her M.S. degree in computer science from Duke University and her B.S. in computer science and mathematics from Gettysburg College.
Q: In your research, you have developed techniques for testing and debugging Web- based applications. How did you first become interested in this topic?
During my second internship at IBM, I developed a prototype Web application that allowed mobile device users to manage and download software updates. Excited and nervous, I demonstrated my prototype to my group, and an internal IBM library I was using failed with the error message “You shouldn’t be here… That’s all folks!” I was mortified, but the group had a good laugh, discussing the humorous but unhelpful error message. As I tried to repro- duce the error, I realized how difficult developing correct Web applications can be. You have to deal with many different factors: other people’s code, Internet connectivity, distributed users, various browsers, etc. You need to test for a lot of different problems because they will always show up during a demo!
Q: Did IBM ever hire you again?
Yes, I interned two more times at IBM, so I guess that minor disaster didn’t go in my permanent record.
Q: Your research could provide significant improve- ment in the expense of testing and debugging for these applications and in the quality of the software. How will you ensure that the results of your work can be applied in industry?
The techniques are designed to be general so that they require only slight modifications for similar technologies. I have evaluated the work on several different kinds of applications that represent common applications. I also have talked to industry people to keep up on the technology they are using for Web applications. I plan to collaborate with some area industries to ensure that the problems I am addressing and the techniques and tools are in line with industry needs.
Q: You are also interested in using innovative educa- tional techniques in your courses. What techniques have you used in the introductory course you taught last fall?
I love computer science, and I want my students to enjoy it too and to continue on to be majors. Students are often turned off from computer science by their misconceptions about what computer science is and how it applies to their lives. I try to make basic programming assignments relevant, but that doesn’t give students the big picture. So, once a week, we read an article that addresses the “broader issues” of computer science. We have read articles about the One Laptop Per Child project, the challenges of elec- tronic voting, the DARPA Urban Challenge, and Facebook’s NewsFeed algorithms and privacy issues. We talk about what you can do with computer science help researchers learn more about zebras migration patterns, help underprivileged students get an education, and create a social network. The students get a broader view and ap- preciation of computer science and can see how these projects are bigger versions of something we’ve done in class. For example, after we’ve covered “if” statements, we read the DARPA Urban Challenge, where a competitor is quoted as saying “We were just one IF [statement] away from success.” The students love making that connection.
Q: Do you have plans to integrate some of your re- search results into the software engineering courses you teach?
I am teaching a Web applications course this spring that will definitely have a strong testing component. We’ll use state-of-the-art testing tools, including some my research group has developed, and discuss the strengths, weaknesses, and limitations of the tools.
Q: How do you think working with undergraduates on research will differ from what you experienced as a graduate student at Delaware?
I worked with undergraduates at Delaware during two summers actually, three of those students came to Delaware through CRA-W’s DMP. I have learned to propose very concrete, tangible projects for the students to work on, with opportunities for their own creativity. Working with students at W&L will be a little bit easier because I will know their background better what courses they’ve taken and what material has been covered in those courses. I’ve had success working with undergraduates in the past, for example, the development of several tools that have increased research productivity and a conference publication with undergraduate coauthors.
I will be at Delaware for a month this summer with a W&L student. The student will get a mini DMP experience seeing what graduate student life is like and interacting with other students, while I will have the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues and get feedback on ideas.
Q: What’s the most difficult aspect of your career right now?
This is my first year as an assistant professor, and I’m figuring out what kind of professor I want to be. While my vision is pretty clear, I can’t do everything I want to do right now. My list of research, education, and service projects is much larger than I can accomplish in even the next three years. I need to prioritize, focus on a few projects, and keep in mind that I can work toward the other goals later.
Q: What do you enjoy most about your career right now?
I have a lot of freedom and flexibility to do what I want to do which is why it’s hard to decide what I should do. In teaching, I’m having fun finding different ways to pre- sent computer science concepts, like talking about different ways to represent the NCAA basketball tournament games in a program. And, of course, I get to work with students. One reason I searched for jobs at small schools is so that I’d have a big impact on a small set of students, and I’ve already started to have that kind of impact.
Q: What keeps you sane, outside of work?
I go to the gym and read about pop culture in TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly. I know a lot about movies and TV shows that I have never seen. I also enjoy playing ultimate and being outside. I have a fun boyfriend and a nutty cat, who keep me entertained as well.
Q: You participated in the CRA-W’s DMP (Now referred to as DREU). How many times did you participate? Were you working with the same mentor each time? What made you apply for the program in the first place—a teacher at your school, another student, an ad you saw, other?
I participated in the DMP during the summer of 1998 between my junior and senior years at Gettysburg College. My advisor Rod Tosten knew of Lori Pollock at the University of Delaware from a Gettysburg alumnus who went to Delaware for graduate school and really liked Lori. Rod knew about the DMP and contacted Lori on my behalf, inviting her to give a talk at Gettysburg and to meet with me. Lori visited and agreed to work with me, so we applied to the CRA-W together. Looking back, I now see that it was important to Rod that I have a female mentor that he could trust to guide me in the next step of my career in a much bigger pond than at Gettysburg. He had really good judgment!
Q: What do you remember most about your DMP ex- perience?
The people. Lori is an amazing person who somehow balanced her career and raising three young children. I went to Lori’s house for dinners several times. I watched her daughters and young son perform Spice Girls’ songs.
Lori’s husband Mark made us “restaurant-style” desserts with fancy syrup swirls. Every day, I ate lunch with then graduate students Amie Souter Greenwald (who now does testing research at Alcatel-Lucent) and Chris Brown (now an associate professor at the US Naval Academy). Amie and Chris answered my endless questions—CS-related and everything else. Chris taught me to throw a disc correctly. On nice days, we threw on the quad. Oh, and I analyzed parallel programs and created control flow graphs to aid in testing them.
Q: How did the DMP experience help you make your decision about pursuing a graduate degree?
I had no idea what graduate school was before I went to Delaware, and I had never seriously considered it. Learning that I could get teaching or research assistantships to pay for tuition and earn a stipend helped alleviate my money concerns. Through the DMP, I got a glimpse of various stages of graduate school Amie was a second-year gradu- ate student, starting to figure out her thesis topic. Chris was finishing his thesis about computer algebra. Amie and Chris were teaching summer courses too. The combination of Amie, Chris, and Lori gave me a clear picture of what I would be doing in the next 3, 6, and 10 years, and I liked what I saw: I could solve interesting problems, work with students, and have a life outside of computer science. And, the research I did that summer gave me confidence that I would be able to succeed in graduate school.