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Summer Research Spotlight

Testing, Testing

"I love making new things and solving problems. Computer science is perfect for that," said Azmain Amin, a junior from Dhaka, Bangladesh, who is spending his summer doing research with Professor Sara Sprenkle and fellow junior Mina Shnoudah. The team is scoping out the world of web services, a relatively new technology. Information technology makers are trying to provide businesses with the best of these products. That is where Shnoudah and Amin's specific research applies. They are looking for ways to automate the testing of these systems.

"Imagine a team of engineers trying to build a project with each speaking in a different language," Amin explained. "Without a common communication platform, they would likely never achieve success. Web servers can be the same way. Different technologies speak different languages, and so they need a common tongue to enable all servers to understand each other. This is the function of a web service — a system by which a machine can interact with another machine."

"Testing is an integral part of developing web services," Shnoudah said. "Before you release a web service to your client, you must test it to make sure it runs smoothly in every situation. The goal is to find a way to test these services automatically, as opposed to the way it is traditionally done with the user or the developer doing the testing, which is a lot of just sitting in front of the screen and clicking the button a bunch of times."

To learn more about web services, Shnoudah and Amin took on a practical project close to home. They created a web application that gathered information about adoptable pets at the Rockbridge SPCA, aggregating local data from the PetFinder.com database. Then they looked for processes to automatically test their application, which could easily be expanded to other organizations. An app like this would make it easier for people to find a perfect pet adoption locally. For Sprenkle, the project involved one of her passions. "Professor Sprenkle loves pets," said Amin. "She is very involved in new animal advocacy group, Rockbridge Animal Alliance, and so this is a personal connection for her, as well."

Like their mentor, Amin and Shnoudah have also found ways to apply computer science to their passions. With broad interests in social entrepreneurship, Amin said he is always looking for projects that incorporate problem solving and inventive design. At W&L's Social Entrepreneurship Summit last year, he addressed the issue of plastic bag waste with a pitch for PolyGreen bags - reusable shopping bags made of jute, a natural fiber that grows plentifully in his home country of Bangladesh but has limited markets there. His idea grew into a company, which is now partnering with W&L's University Store to sell PolyGreen bags on campus.

For this year's Summit, Amin is partnering with Shnoudah to use the knowledge they gained through summer research and pitch an app that would help environmental activists around the world network with each other. For guidance, they rely on the support of professors in their own computer science department and also the marketing and management expertise of professors in the business school.

Shnoudah said gaining this knowledge was the most valuable part of the research experience for him. "I know all about web services and web apps now, which I had no clue about before. I know how to build my own app and write my own Application Program Interface," he said.

When they arrived on campus, neither Amin nor Shnoudah planned on pursuing computer science. Amin had set his path for biochemistry, and Shnoudah thought he would be a physics major. After taking one computer science class in their first year, both students became fascinated with its problem-solving challenges and decided to pursue the major. Shnoudah couples his major with a math minor, and Amin is also a biology major. "It's an uncommon combination," Amin said. "But I love this. W&L is one of the only places I can do this."

Meanwhile, they are enjoying their research on campus. "Lex is really different in the summer," Shnoudah said. "It is quieter and calmer. I'm enjoying hanging out with friends and playing Frisbee. I'm also learning how to cook," he said.

As for their web service research with Sprenkle, Amin said much of it is still about gathering and exploring existing systems to understand the testing challenges. "We're redefining the questions we're asking ourselves," he explained. "All the hours of coding and research are worth it when a design comes to life and starts working."

- by Laura Lemon '16 and Jinae Kennedy '16

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