Over the past year, I have been ruminating the seismic shifts rocking public higher education in the United States. The compact between our society and its public research universities is being renegotiated in ways that are as deep as anything seen in the past forty years. State support continues to decline, accelerated by the economic downturn. In turn, a public backlash is building against rising tuition. There is an increasing need for lifelong learning and skills refresh, and new technologies are challenging historical modes of content delivery.
There are also new expectations for research discoveries to stimulate innovation, coupled with often-unrealistic hopes for short-term economic payoffs from basic research. Amidst all of this, globalization and rapid technology shifts are forcing us to address complex societal issues in new ways. Finally, the nature of scientific discovery itself is in flux, with high-performance computing and big data reshaping research in the physical, biological and social sciences, and even in the arts and humanities.
Late last year I decided it was time to return to academia, taking what I have learned at Microsoft back to the university and laboratory world to help address these challenges. Since that time, I have been working quietly to ensure a smooth transition within Microsoft and working with the leadership of several universities and institutions to define the roles I would take on this fall.
Reflecting on Change
Our personal and professional lives are defined by a series of inflection points – graduation, marriage, career choices – shaped by shifting technology and societal norms. Each of us also faces the age-old question. How and where can each of us most make a difference in addressing the big issues and the complex problems surrounding them? How do we build on our experiences while also challenging ourselves to learn new things?
Before I came to Microsoft in late 2007, for me it was nearly twenty-five years of academic roles at the University of Illinois and the University of North Carolina, first as a computer science professor, then department head, supercomputing center director (NCSA), founder of a multidisciplinary research center (RENCI), and finally as a vice-chancellor. Where and how could I best build on that experience, plus insights gained at Microsoft? Was it technology or policy centric, or some combination of both?
Iowa: Research and Education
After weighing several university offers, spanning big data, HPC and policy, I am delighted to be returning to the Midwest. In October, I will be joining the University of Iowa as Vice President for Research and Economic Development and holder of Iowa's inaugural University Computational Science and Bioinformatics Chair, with joint appointments in Computer Science, Electrical and Computing Engineering and Medicine. For details on this, see the University of Iowa announcement.
Many things attracted me to Iowa. First, it is one of this country's great public universities, spanning, as all great universities do, the arts and humanities, science and engineering and associated professional schools. The university is also home to the famed Iowa Writers Workshop, something the aspiring writer in me prizes greatly. It also has a large and highly ranked health care system and a great medical school. (More on that research opportunity in a bit.)
Finally, the University of Iowa is anchored in the Big Ten, where I spent most of my academic career (Illinois) and time in graduate school (Purdue). Yes, it is football season in the U.S., but the Big Ten is more than an athletic conference. The Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC), which consists of the Big Ten schools plus the University of Chicago, is a collaborative vehicle for shaping national higher education policy and helping define the future on research issues ranging from institutional data repositories to intellectual property management.
In addition to my role in the university leadership team, as my new title suggests, I will also be delving into computational science and big data, helping the campus address research opportunities and health care futures. It is no secret that the rising cost of health care in the United States, coupled with an aging population and the not yet fully realized potential of personalized medicine, are both challenges and major opportunities. In that spirit, I am delighted that the chair of the University of Washington Department of Anesthesiology, Dr. Debra Schwinn, is joining Iowa as the new Dean of the Carver School of Medicine. I am looking forward to working with her and the rest of the campus.
Whether identifying predictive patterns from clinical records (e.g., predictors of hospital readmission), correlating and extracting insights from massive amounts of new bioinformatics data, or leveraging new sensors and devices for disease and lifestyle monitoring, large-scale data analysis and machine learning are crucial. Likewise, multidisciplinary computational models of biological processes with predictive power are now realizable. Simply put, these are big data and technical computing problems par excellence.
Finally, I will also be keeping my hand in high-performance computing and national policy. I will be spending time in Washington, DC, as a consultant, focusing on issues related to big data and exascale computing.
For me, all of this is very exciting. It is a new adventure and an opportunity to help define higher education in the 21st century. As Theodore Roosevelt said, it is an opportunity to "dare mighty things," working together.
Finally, Thanks to Microsoft
I want to express my deep thanks to Craig Mundie, Rick Rashid and a host of friends at Microsoft for a great five years. When I first joined Microsoft Research, it was to work on new technical approaches to cloud computing hardware, software and applications, drawing on ideas from technical computing. Seeing the scale and scope of truly large-scale infrastructure, far larger than our research high-performance computing systems, was amazing. That eXtreme Computing Group (XCG) activity later morphed into an equally exciting technology policy agenda that has spanned topics as diverse as the application of clouds to scientific and engineering research through telecommunications to Internet governance and digital privacy.
My time at Microsoft has been a truly wonderful experience, working on important problems with talented and passionate people. I have made new friends, built new relationships and learned an incredible amount.