Ricardo Quintana-Castillo of Mayaguez, P.R., a Ph.D. candidate in computer science in Virginia Tech's College of Engineering, is researching how social networks and social interactions affect the way people manage their personal information. He has received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship, which provides three years of funding.

“Social networks” is an old phrase with a new application in the information age, referring to online communities built around an interest, such as genealogy, or a service, such as dating. The phenomenon is increasingly being augmented by networking applications, such as MySpace and Facebook.

To develop personal information management (PIM) tools that will make life easier and information management better, Quintana-Castillo studies the different strategies and behaviors that people have when keeping and sharing information through these social networking services. “It is human studies as much as computer science,” he said.

PIM, a sub area of human-computer interaction (HCI), is concerned with how people keep, find again, and organize their personal information. “It has been receiving more attention because of the large quantities of digital information each person generates each day and throughout a lifetime. This has become relevant not only for professionals but for people in their everyday lives,” he said. “I want to provide tools to help people deal with this information overload and to provide solutions to problems today and in the future.”

Quintana-Castillo developed his interest in the social aspects of PIM while working as a graduate research assistant on the development of a computer science assignment repository on top of the Facebook platform. “The purpose was to provide a place where professors and students alike could actively store and share assignments so that they could collaborate and improve them over time.”

Facebook, founded in 2004 by then Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg as a communication and interaction site for Harvard students, now has more than 100 million users world wide, making it one of the largest social networks. But university students and faculty members are still the core users.

“It is a neutral place where a lot of people come together so that we may create more of a community across universities, as opposed to a web site identified only with Virginia Tech,” said Quintana-Castillo. “In essence, the value is in the people who are connected socially.”

Quintana-Castillo received his Bachelor of Science degree in computer engineering from the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez in 2003. As an undergraduate, he interned at IBM doing software development and testing. He was also an undergraduate research assistant with the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, where he developed enhancements to the user interface of a particle detector system. After graduating magna cum laude, he worked for three years as an operating systems software engineer for IBM in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

“After working at IBM, I realized I wanted to study how software affects people and how to improve their lives through it,” he said.

So when he returned to school, he shifted his studies from computer engineering to human-computer interaction.

He also decided to return to school because teaching has been a long-time professional goal. “My parents are both teachers so I grew up watching both of them making a difference in other people’s lives,” he said.

He pursued that goal while at IBM by mentoring two co-op students and by participating in other IBM sponsored events like the first Annual Hudson Valley High School Programming Competition. He continues to mentor students, working with two undergraduates from the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez under the HCI-REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) program in 2007 and with two other undergraduate students from Virginia Tech under the Scholars of the Future program from 2007-2008, both sponsored by NSF.

This past summer he worked as a research intern at IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif., where he collaborated with an interdisciplinary team of researchers investigating and prototyping interactive search and information visualization techniques to improve IBM’s IT services. “It made me realize once again that the problems we face with information are not only challenging, but also relevant to the current and future needs of users,” he said.

Quintana-Castillo, whose advisor is computer science Associate Professor Manuel Pérez-Quiñones, is a member of the Golden Key International Honor Society and the Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honor Society.

Quintana-Castillo’s wife, Karla Cintrón-González, and their daughter Natalia Quintana-Cintrón are his inspiration, he said.

PHOTO INFORMATION: Millions of people are flooded with information. National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow Ricardo Quintana-Castillo, a Ph.D. student at Virginia Tech, is developing social network applications to help people manage the information.


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