“We offer a great combination [of] departments under one roof,” says Marios Papaefthymiou, new dean of UCI’s Donald Bren School of Information & Computer Sciences. “We enable what medicine does, we enable what social science does, physical sciences, engineering – you name it.” Steve Zylius / UCI

New ICS dean hopes to spur spirit of discovery

Marios Papaefthymiou also seeks to strengthen school’s central role on campus

Over the past 20 years, Marios Papaefthymiou has earned recognition for helping design energy-efficient, high-performance computers and as an academic leader at the University of Michigan. This year, he came west to serve as dean of UCI’s Donald Bren School of Information & Computer Sciences, taking the reins of a school regarded as an international powerhouse and as a vital resource and focal point throughout the campus.

A native of Greece, Papaefthymiou studied computing and computer science as an undergraduate at the California Institute of Technology and as a doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before embarking on a career in academic research in the design and analysis of algorithms. At that time, in the early and mid-’90s, gigahertz processors were all the rage, and companies including Digital Equipment Corp. and Intel were battling it out to see who had the fastest microprocessors. To help accelerate the technology, Papaefthymiou created mathematical recipes to enable microprocessors to run as fast as possible given whatever design constraints were imposed upon them. Later in his career, Papaefthymiou pioneered innovative approaches to the design of energy-efficient microprocessors, some of which have been deployed in commercial computer chips through his startup, Cyclos.

Now, as dean, he plans to spur that same spirit of discovery in today’s hottest fields, such as big data and computing for healthcare. Here are his thoughts on the transformational role computing plays and how he plans to address this evolution of the high-tech environment.

What drew you to the Bren School?

The whole positioning of the school was really attractive. It’s a school, a stand-alone unit, which means a lot. When you’re part of a larger organization – an engineering school, for instance – you don’t have the same agility, the same versatility or the same freedom to do things. There are certainly engineering aspects in computer science. We build things. Software systems are engineering artifacts, really. But it’s not only engineering. It’s much more, and the dynamic of computing as a discipline is way different.

What do you see as the school’s core offerings?

There are outstanding strengths in this school in the broader area of data science (a.k.a. big data), ranging from methods and algorithms to systems and human factors. This field already has enormous impact on many aspects of our lives, and its significance will only increase in the future. Data of all sorts is collected from numerous sources – from our phones, for example, but not only. If you look at a modern hospital, the intensive care unit is just a gold mine of data. For every single patient, data is collected through dozens of channels – different sensors and modalities. And this data is not static; it’s dynamic data that’s continuously streaming in at high rates, with great potential for offering life-saving insights.

 So you see health sciences as a big area of opportunity in computer science?

Absolutely. Consider the field of predictive analytics in a hospital setting. In addition to the data collected for an individual patient, we now have information on thousands of other patients with similar genetic make-up and medical conditions. In the hospital, increasingly powerful and sophisticated computing techniques enable us to draw meaningful comparisons and help medical professionals make decisions, often in real time. In our everyday lives, these computing technologies can help us make the choices that prevent disease and keep us healthy. The power of these predictive techniques, derived from the ability to process vast amounts of data efficiently and effectively, is just enormous. In particular, in the health sciences and life sciences spaces, it’s going to be the next transformation, in my view. And here in ICS, we have world-class research across the entire spectrum of data analysis technologies for health sciences. This ranges from the front-end human-computer interfaces that collect data to the intelligent back-end that manages this data and drives decision-making through machine learning algorithms, relying on information about our environment, lifestyle, and genetic make-up that is obtained with the help of advanced computing techniques.

Beyond data and computer science, what are other areas of strength for the school?

Look at our statistics department, for example. It’s not your typical statistics department; it’s really a modern, dynamic, 21st-century statistics department that’s very much sensitized to application domains, such as biostatistics. About half of our statistics faculty are biostatisticians, who have a lot of strong ties with the medical school. Our statisticians also work closely with our machine learning experts in computer science.

And then, consider informatics. Beyond traditional strengths, such as software engineering, the informatics department allows us to expand into areas that are often left out of typical computer science departments, especially when it comes to learning, social sciences, and the human-facing part of computing. There’s all sorts of data-centric social sciences research at this point. Analyzing Twitter feeds, Facebook postings, and other available data, for example, one can suddenly start explaining social phenomena in a very concrete and quantitative way. Now you can have hard data. You can track trends. You can point your finger and say, “Here’s some hard evidence for the trends we’re observing.”

How do you view the Bren School in relation to other units on campus?

With these three departments under one roof, we offer a great combination of expertise in all aspects of computing. We’re a stand-alone, independent unit that’s positioned at the center of the whole campus. Everyone on this campus wants to work with us, because computing is an enabler in medicine, biological sciences, social sciences, physical sciences, engineering, education, you name it. At this point, we are not opportunity-limited; we’re resource-limited. We certainly don’t have the bandwidth to capitalize on all the opportunity. And one of the stories for ICS going forward will be growth. We will be growing the school in a deliberate and strategic manner, hiring the best researchers we can find. But we will have to grow – and grow strategically, in the directions that will be having an impact on society.

Is there a role for entrepreneurship in the school?

Certainly. There is such a great ecosystem around UCI for entrepreneurship, startups, spinoffs, licensing and overall engagement with industry. It’s a very sophisticated ecosystem. Some of the most successful companies in high tech operate right here in Orange County, and many want to work with UCI. External and corporate relations are top priorities. I think that one of the main advantages of being in Orange County is that there’s room to grow. For companies, it’s a compelling place to do business, because there is a lot of talent (with ICS being a major contributor), and the market is not as expensive or competitive as in Silicon Valley. There’s much more opportunity down here to expand.

How has the transition to this new position affected you personally?

It’s a process, as I keep telling people. Moving across a continent with a whole family is a serious undertaking. We have three boys; the two younger ones are still in high school and middle school. So, we’re working out all these stages of transition. And there’s a certain element of homecoming. I was an undergrad at Caltech – a few miles north of here – 30 years ago, so there is certainly some reminiscing about those days. It’s exciting to be here, for sure.