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Published: 22 Jun, 2021

Master Student from Umeå university receives Women's STEM Awards

NEWS Adna Bliek receives the Women's STEM Award in AI for her Master's thesis titled "Backchanneling in Human-Robot Communication" at Umeå University. "We are very proud of our student and her contribution to our research,” says Thomas Hellström, professor at the Department of Computing Science, Umeå University.

Text: Victoria Skeidsvoll

Female STEM students (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), from all over the world took their chance to apply for the Women's STEM Award 2021 with their Bachelor's or Master's thesis. The winner in the category AI this year is Adna Bliek, a former Master's student at Umeå University, Sweden, who received the award with her master thesis “Backchanneling in Human-Robot Communication”.

“My thesis incorporates research from a lot of different research fields, such as AI, human-robot interaction, psychology, and linguistics. I always wanted to do interdisciplinary work incorporating knowledge about human psychology into the field of computing science and I am very happy that this interdisciplinary work is rewarded with this award”, says Adna Bliek.

Crucial communication

Adna Bliek did her Master's project under the supervision of Suna Bensch, Associate Professor, and Thomas Hellström, Professor at the Department of Computing Science, Umeå University, which is internationally well-known for its research in the field of AI and Robotics.

 "Multi-modal backchanneling is crucial during human communication, we use it all the time to signal to one another. It is conducted with facial expressions, gestures, or body language, and makes communication more efficient. For example, a speaker may pause and ask "are there any questions" if a listener backchannels non-understanding or disagreement “, says Thomas Hellström.

In robotics research, backchanneling by a robot, and its effects on humans are well studied, but Adna Bliek and her supervisors work pioneers backchanneling behavior by a human listener, triggered by a robot speaker. 

"A robot with the capability of triggering backchanneling by humans and then reacting or adjusting to it will lead to human-centered and improved interaction," says Suna Bensch, Associate Professor at Department of Computing Science at Umeå University.

Tough Competition

The Women's STEM Award is organized by the GDW Global Digitial Women GmbH and Deutsche Telekom.

"In total 157 Master's thesis was submitted out of which 100 were in the category AI. “It was a tough competition and we are very happy for Adna" says Suna Bensch.

Continuing her research

Adna Bliek is now a doctoral candidate at the University of Erlangen-Nuernberg in Germany where she continues researching the field of HRI with an emphasis on the human user and how to improve the interaction for them.

“I enjoyed my time at Umeå University and happy that Thomas and Suna allowed me to work on my thesis abroad. They provided a topic to me that was exactly what I wanted to be working on in human-robot interaction, and helped during the process of designing and conduction the experiments, writing my thesis, and even publishing a paper at RO-MAN together about my thesis”, says Adna Bliek.

 “We are always looking for talented students to join our projects in the Intelligent Robotics lab, and we are very happy for Adna and always proud when our Master students' projects receive this kind of international attention," says Thomas Hellström.

Further information

The Master's thesis resulted in a joint publication presented at the International Conference on Robot and Human Interactive Communication (RO-MAN) in 2020. Read and download it here.