Regents’ Professor Richard Fujimoto is the founding chair of the School of Computational Science & Engineering (CSE), having served as CSE’s leader since it was formally created as a division in 2005 and continuing as chair after it was elevated to school status in 2010.
Fujimoto has been at Georgia Tech since 1989. He earned his Ph.D. in computer science from the University of California at Berkeley in 1983, after earning an M.S. degree from the same institution in 1980 and two B.S. degrees in computer science and computer engineering from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign in 1978.
In this interview, Fujimoto talks about the rewards and challenges of blazing a new disciplinary trail in computing.
Why did you want to chair a School?
Not long before I was asked to become the chair of CSE, I was approached by another university and asked to consider becoming the chair of their computer science department. My response at the time was, “Well, department chair is probably the last job I’d ever want to do!” Less than two years later I found myself chair of CSE.
What made me change my mind? When I was asked to take the lead in starting up CSE, I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I simply couldn’t pass up. It was an opportunity to create an entirely new department from scratch, and to create an academic home for individuals like myself interested in modeling and simulation and closely related fields like data analytics (a.k.a. “Big Data”) and high-performance computing. I said yes and never looked back. That was back in 2005. I can honestly say I have never regretted this decision.
When you meet non-computing people and tell them about your School, what do you say?
I like to say that we, folks in universities, are in the knowledge business. We create new knowledge—that’s called research. We transmit knowledge to other people—that’s called teaching. Of course, there’s more to it than that, but fundamentally we are about knowledge.
In CSE we create and transmit new knowledge about computation that enables people to attack important problems facing society today, problems like building more sustainable cities or helping to understand and treat cancer. We develop algorithms to extract knowledge and insight from the mountains of data becoming available from the Web, for example, or from video cameras that are appearing everywhere. Our faculty develops ways to harness the power of the world’s most powerful computers (i.e., supercomputers) to solve real-world problems. We give students an education in computing in order to give them new ways to think about and solve important real-world problems by exploiting computation.
Georgia Tech prides itself on exploring the full breadth of computing. How does the School of CSE fit into that picture?
CSE is a discipline that lies at the intersection of computing, mathematics and applications in science, engineering and the social sciences. We develop advances in computing—through the creation of new algorithms, for example—that enable discovery and innovation in other domains.
Our work is inherently interdisciplinary and cuts across many different fields. If you’re going to develop algorithms to, say, help scientists understand and treat cancer, you better be working closely with domain experts in biology and medicine.
In 10 years, how will the School of CSE be different than it is today?
There are many opportunities for CSE to make a difference in the world. In 10 years, the CSE school will be much bigger and impact a broader range of disciplines. Today, we pick and choose the areas where we can pursue collaborations and have impact. As the School expands and grows, we will be able to pursue collaborations across a much broader set of areas, to attack new problems and make a difference in many more fields. Our work can touch and impact virtually every other school and department on campus.
What can Georgia Tech—and the School of CSE in particular—offer master’s & Ph.D. students that other universities can’t?
First, we are really unique in bringing together work in modeling and simulation, Big Data, machine learning, visualization and-high performance computing in one unit. There are tremendous synergies that can be realized by housing these areas under one roof. Further, the CSE school itself is unique; aside from Georgia Tech, there are very few universities where CSE has been elevated to become a formal academic unit. This allows us to really concentrate our efforts and resources into the research areas I mentioned.
How does the School of CSE contribute to undergraduate education at Georgia Tech, and what more would you like to see it do in the future?
We have two very important roles. First, within the Threads curriculum, we teach computer science undergraduates about computational modeling, data analytics and high-performance computing through the modeling and simulation thread. Second, we have a broader role in providing advanced computing education for students outside the College of Computing, particularly students with a background in mathematics, science or engineering. We are in the process of developing undergraduate minor programs, in collaboration with faculty in other colleges, to help fulfill our mission in this role. I think this is really important, not only to give students computing knowledge and skills, but to provide a new way to think about problems and how one might solve them.
What do you consider the single greatest advance—technological, sociological, economic, etc.—in computing since you were an undergraduate?
When I was an undergraduate, computer science had limited impact on people’s everyday lives and was not widely appreciated. Computers were stashed away in special, air-conditioned rooms, and the only way to interact with them was unnatural: typing cryptic statements on punch cards. For most people, computing was something someone else did and not part of one’s daily life.
All that has changed. Nearly everyone carries at least one computer with them and interacts with computers every day via cell phones, digital watches and smart cars. Computing has changed the way people live, work and play. Computing has reached the public consciousness through inventions such as the Internet and mobile computing. That’s a huge accomplishment—and responsibility—for those of us in the computing industry.
In your spare time, what do you do for fun?
Good question. When I find out, I’ll tell you.
Where's the best place to hang out with friends and colleagues at Georgia Tech?
Workplaces and the environment they create are important. Innovation and creativity often arise from serendipitous interactions and the collision and transplanting of ideas across different disciplines. For example, a key idea in the invention of the printing press was the adaption of the wine press used to crush grapes for use in the mass production of printed documents. I’m a strong believer in creating spaces and organizing activities to encourage casual interactions that can lead to new, breakthrough ideas.
I’d like to think the first floor of the Klaus Building, where the CSE school resides, is becoming a great place to hang out. We’re working toward this. We’re not there yet, but we’ve been developing our spaces to encourage casual interaction, and we’ve been creating activities to get faculty and students out of their cubicles and offices to interact with each other.
"If I had it to do over again, I’d be a _______________."
To be honest, I’m not sure I’d do things much differently if I had to do it over again. I’ve been pretty lucky in life.