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U.Va. Computer Science Department Celebrates 25th Anniversary with 'Father of the Internet'

February 1, 2010 — The University of Virginia Department of Computer Science was formed in 1984, in an era when personal computers were entering the market; a time when the Internet was still in R&D, and a "tweet" was merely the sound of a small bird.

Fast forward 25 years.

Today, 25 percent of the world's population – or around 1.7 billion people – are using the Internet. Children are born "digital natives" and the most basic mobile phones can capture and send videos or help you find your way to a new restaurant in town.

Behind this layer of consumer applications, computer scientists are creating technologies necessary for everything from the real-time monitoring of patient health to the latest advances in cyber-security.

"Computer science is young compared to other fields," said Mary Lou Soffa, chair of the department. "With all that's happened in the past 25 years, it's exciting to think about everything that the next 25 will bring. I'm convinced that we will continue on a path of producing technology that is helpful and vital for society in general, across the world."

The Computer Science Department has not only had a front-row seat for the epochal growth of the field over the last 25 years, but also has done significant work to help push its frontiers. On Jan. 29, the department celebrated its 25th anniversary with a public lecture in the Dome Room of the Rotunda featuring Vinton Cerf, widely acknowledged as the "father of the Internet," as well as prominent computer science faculty.

Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google, is the co-designer of the TCP/IP protocols and the architecture of the Internet. For his groundbreaking work in developing the Internet, Cerf, along with colleague Robert E. Kahn, received the U.S. National Medal of Technology, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Alan M. Turing award from the Association for Computing Machinery, sometimes called the "Nobel prize of computer science."

In his talk, Cerf explained how networks facilitate communication and collaboration, increase the rate of scientific discovery, serve as a key avenue for individual learning, manage our use of energy, promote democracy, influence entertainment and social networking opportunities and transform or create new jobs.

After commenting on trends in cyber security, including issues such as viruses, worms, Trojan horses and denial of service attacks, Cerf called on the computer science students and faculty to help solve a list of imminent problems.

"Today, over a quarter of the world's population is using the Internet, with more than a quarter of the world's population relying on it in some way indirectly," Cerf said. "We can't, as computer scientists, ignore the fact that we have social responsibility for making these systems more secure and more reliable."

Cerf noted the importance of pursuing serious research programs to design more secure and useable operating systems and browsers. He highlighted other essential research areas, including stronger end-factor authentication for more secure online financial transactions; improved cyber hygiene, so computers can be swept of potential hazards; better programming languages that don't invite bugs and mistakes; and more robust analytical and debugging tools to figure out when computers have been compromised and how to fix them.

He described the concept of "bit rot," as an example of one of the challenges that students would be called on to solve. Bit rot will occur when future software applications may not be able to interpret the bits of information that are used in a PowerPoint slideshow, for example. Cerf points out that we use software to create very complex digital objects. In the future, without having the necessary application software to interpret these digital objects, the bits will mean nothing.

"This century we may lose a great deal of information about history, and us," Cerf said. "Our descendants are going to wonder, 'What was the 21st century all about?' And if most of it is ephemeral, or even it is saved away in bits, but the application software is gone, it will just be a big pile of rotten bits and no one will know what this century was all about."

Paul Reynolds, a professor of computer science, gave a humorous history of the department by highlighting some of the more colorful department chairs and faculty from the past 25 years. Soffa spoke about the state of the department and its future, including its fall 2011 move into the new Rice Hall Information Technology Engineering building.

Housed within the U.Va. School of Engineering and Applied Science, the Computer Science Department has 23 tenure-track faculty, 300 undergraduate students (some of whom are also majoring in computer engineering) and 90 graduate students. Examples of the department's research specialties include software engineering, wireless sensor networks, security software systems and computer architecture.

In recent years, the department's faculty has received up to $11 million in grant funding to support these and other research endeavors.

While Soffa classifies the department as small- to medium-sized when compared with others across the nation, she sees benefits of a close-knit academic community.

"The advantage of having a department our size is that there is a lot of collaboration among faculty and with the students," she said. "Most of our faculty members know all the students."

The department also prides itself on fostering a diverse learning environment for students and faculty – 25 percent of its full professors and 50 percent of its chaired professors are female.

"Computer science has a challenge in recruiting women and minorities," Soffa said. "It's vital for the field to do so because we need to have the talent and diverse view points of women and under-represented populations for developing new technologies and products."

Computer scientists at U.Va. have made significant strides to establish the prominence of their department. To name just a few recent accolades, faculty members have netted five National Science Foundation CAREER awards in the past four years, and professors Jack Davidson and Jim Cohoon won the Taylor L Booth Award, the highest honor from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Computer Society, for computer science education.

Over the past decade, along with students in the Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, the department's undergraduate students have won 28 Computer Research Association Awards. Only two other schools, both with more than double the faculty members of U.Va.'s Department of Computer Science, have won more prizes.

This is also the second year in a row that U.Va. computer science students are competing in the world finals of the Association for Computing Machine International Collegiate Programming Contest [link to: http://www.virginia.edu/uvatoday/newsRelease.php?id=10818] – a significant accomplishment considering they were one of 100 teams selected from more 7,000 teams worldwide to compete. The students are now in Harbin, China, for the competition.

These recent accolades are just the latest addition to a foundation built by distinguished faculty including William Wulf, who served as president of the National Academy of Engineering for more than a decade. In 1968, Wulf received U.Va.'s first Ph.D. in computer science – in fact, the first computer science degree of any type granted by the University. Wulf returned to the Computer Science Department in 2007 to teach students about the connections between science, engineering and policy.

While the 25th anniversary was a time for reflection, it also marked a time of change for the department. Soffa told the audience of the department's move into Rice Hall, the school's information technology engineering building, in fall 2011. The new location will allow the entire department – including all of its graduate students, faculty and staff, and also its laboratories, seminar rooms and lecture halls – to be housed under one roof.

— by Zak Richards

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