What made you interested in holding the position of Vice Provost for graduate education?
The Vice Provost for graduate education has a really unique opportunity on this campus. We are, nationwide, at a tipping point in graduate education. There are incredible developments and at the same time we see graduate students having greater mental health challenges, more struggles with housing and other types of economic insecurity. Additionally, we have a much more diverse graduate population than we’ve ever had before. I’m just super excited about being able to maintain this excellent high-quality graduate educational experience, and also address the needs of a really modern new kind of graduate population.
You’re obviously no stranger to UCI. You’ve been a faculty member here since 2007, and currently serve as the Robert A and Barbara L Kleist Chair in Informatics. Can you talk a little bit about your research and what it means to you?
I’m a computer scientist so I’m a legitimate nerd. I can write code, and do all of those things but what I really care about is the way we use computers. All that frustration that you have every time something breaks and you can’t send an email, or you can’t turn something on… that’s what I really look at “what is the user experience of operating all of these advanced technologies.
My research has been particularly focused on bringing vulnerable populations; people with chronic illness, disability, much older people, or young children into the design process. We so often think about Silicon Valley technologies being created by young men in their 20s. But, there are a range of experiences that we can bring into technology design and my research pretty much brings all those folks in. This way we can bring really innovative solutions to address issues; anything from cancer to autism. We work on all kinds of different issue so we can address real societal problems with innovative technological solutions.
What have you already done to advance graduate education and what goals are you looking to accomplish in your new role?
One of the things that is great about UCI is that people can advance graduate education in all different types of roles on campus. Personally I have had the opportunity to do that by serving as a faculty member on the graduate council, by starting a new Masters program, spearheading a couple of PhD programs, and serving as Vice Chair of graduate programs in Informatics. Everyone can really get involved in pushing graduate education so for me my biggest goal for this next year is really getting everyone on campus involved.
We are an amazing campus and we’ve done so much for both undergraduate and graduate education. The big push in the strategic plan right now is grad division so let’s get all of these other faculty involved, let’s get grad council involved, get the students involved. We’re really going to take the next steps to create the greatest graduate education environment that we can in California.
Can you talk about your previous role as CEO for AVIAA and what that experience was like?
Running a business and being a professor have a lot more in common, more than people think. A lot of faculty are basically running their own small business all the time, and you don’t necessarily realize that you have employees and they’re really excellent, smart, and independent. They’re employees working under your supervision and you have to bring in revenue. So when I stepped into the CEO role at AVIAA it had only five people at the time. My research lab was actually bigger than the company. But over the time we grew to a couple of thousand people.
A lot of those same skills transfer to my new role. What’s been really exciting to me about grad division is bringing back the skills that I developed as a CEO. In particular a way to service our customers, and I think graduate division is very customer focused. Our customers are our graduates students, and our post docs. Of course the faculty, the Associate Deans, and the Deans. We are very much a service organization. I spent the last couple of years building a service organization from scratch. We have one that’s already running, I’m super excited to be able to take that on.
What’s the biggest aspect of being a CEO that you look to take into your new role as vice provost?
The biggest aspect of being a CEO that I need to take into the graduate division is definitely bringing in revenue. When you start a new company you suddenly have a bunch of mouths to feed and take care of. You raise venture-capital money as in our case, but also by working with your customers and making sure that you have a revenue ready product. We already have a revenue ready product, education. But, we may need more support so I’m super excited to be kicking off a new campaign October 4. We’re going to be bringing in much more of a fundraising kind of mindset to the graduate division.
In my opinion there is no better place for ROI on this campus then our graduate students and post docs. These are people who already reached the top of their high schools, the top of their undergraduate programs. in the post docs case the top of their graduate programs, and now they’re here and they’re doing science and artistry and scholarship that is incredible. So as far as I’m concerned everyone should be donating and supporting our graduate students and our post docs.
I am very excited to bring that kind of fun to the all the graduate programs.
What’s your favorite place to be on campus and why?
Can I have two answers? There are two places on this campus that I love. Actually, let’s make that three places on this campus that I love. My number 1 place is to be in my lab with my students. It is just the most fun generative time, it’s what I came here to do, and it’s what I love. Getting to work on their research and think about their ideas.
Outside of my office and my lab space the two places I love most. One is the 6th floor of Bren Hall. I’m in the school of ICS when I’m not over here being the grad Dean. We have this beautiful patio with a beautiful view and I am now regretting telling all of you about it, because now you’re all going to go to the 6th floor of Bren Hall (laughs). There is patio furniture out there or you can have lunch up there, it’s just a really nice spot to enjoy the California sunshine.
The other place that I really love is the dead center of Aldrich Park. I feel like we are really young campus yet we have these big beautiful trees, and there I really feel like this is college. It feels like I am on campus I want to lay out and read a book, be studious, and just enjoy being at the University.
Anyone who knows you understands you love to make cakes. What’s your favorite cake to make and what’s been your best tasting?
I do love to make cakes. I like to make very elaborate and crazy cakes, and I try to make one every time one of my PhD students graduates. I always think of a themed cake that’s related to their work. It’s been really fun. We have an awesome post doc, Janet Vertesi, now a professor at Princeton and she’s doing research on the Mars rover’s. I made her a Mars cake which was really hard actually because making a giant sphere, that doesn’t fall apart, has some physical challenges. That one was really fun.
My favorite cake right now has got to be my kids superhero cake for their birthday last year. I got to mold a hulk fist, and I got to smash through the cake. It was a big hit as you can imagine with all of the kindergarten set… that was very fun.
Best tasting cake is an interesting question because I have to confess I don’t actually like to eat cake, I just like to bake them. So for me it’s much more about being a designer and being able to express what I want to express. It’s my art if you will. So I would say for me cheesecake is my favorite cake, which is not really a cake. I am told that my lemon buttermilk blueberry cake is a big hit. But as I say I don’t personally like to eat cake so I can’t really say.
What’s the biggest advice you can give an incoming graduate student about graduate school and why?
The biggest advice I give anyone; graduate students, post docs, you name it, is it’s all going be okay. Whatever it is you wind up wanting to be whether it’s to stay here in academia and become a professor, or if you want to go into industry and start your own business, like a crazy person, to become the CEO. Anything you think you might want to do… it’s all going to be okay. I think a lot of times when we’re in this graduate school, post doc, kind of training moment we have a lot of fear of what the future is going to be, and the pathways we can take. All I can say is try to enjoy your time here because whatever pathway you end up going it’s all going to be good.