Susan Davidson: Inspiring Leadership in Computer Science

Susan DavidsonSusan Davidson comes to Computer and Information Science (CIS) honestly. She is in it, she muses, because her father was an applied mathematician. “Computer science has a very mathematical basis…and a sense of relevance,” she says. “Today, with the growth of interdisciplinary research, it has become crucial to many fields.”

When she began at Penn in 1982 as an assistant professor fresh from obtaining a doctorate in Computer Science from Princeton, Davidson says she found it to be an exhilarating and special place. “You had the sense that you were at the beginning of a new discipline.”

The department is still evolving and the changes are huge, she says. When she began, the computing environment had just moved from punch cards and punch card readers to CRT monitors connected to large VAX machines. Now, her computing environment fits in her briefcase.

Like the department, Davidson has also progressed. She rose to professor in 1998. In 2004, she became the inaugural George A. Weiss Professor and was named Fulbright Scholar. She became the Penn Engineering Deputy Dean in 2005, a position she held until 2008 when she took on the mantle of department chair.

A key area this year is the Market and Social Systems Engineering (MKSE) program—at the intersection of computer science, engineering and the social sciences—to be led by Michael Kearns (CIS) and Ali Jadbabaie (Electrical and Systems Engineering). “Just as computation and high-throughput technologies have enabled a new way of doing biological experiments like genomics and computational biology, computation and the World Wide Web have enabled a new way of doing sociological experiments. The program will not merely juxtapose technology and business; it will synthesize disparate ways of thinking about how the technological world is changing and changing us,” Davidson explains.

Joining them will be Andreas Haeberlen, who comes to the department from Rice University. “Sociological and economic researchers in this area rely on advanced computational platforms and technologies currently available at places like Yahoo! Research or Google, which are being designed and created by distributed systems researchers like Andreas. He has taken the socio-economic notion of accountability to counter intractable failure modes and govern good behavior in computer systems,” Davidson says.

A precursor to the MKSE program remains popular. The course CIS 112 Networked Life, looks at how our world is connected—socially, economically, strategically and technologically—and whyit matters. It addresses numerous issues including how Google finds what you are searching for, how Google makes money, and what we mean by the “economics of spam.”

This fall, the department also embarked on a new master’s program in Embedded Systems, an outgrowth of the new Penn Research for Embedded Computer and Integrated Systems (PRECISE) Center led by Professor Insup Lee. The program introduces students to the scientific foundations of cyber-physical systems (CPSs) and integrates the theories of  computing and communication systems, sensing and control of physical systems, and the interaction between humans and CPSs.

Associated with this new program, a new course, CIS 540 Principles of Embedded Computation, is being offered. Professor Rajeev Alur teaches students the principles underlying design and analysis of computational elements that interact with the physical environment.

Moving ahead, Davidson foresees a time when CIS has a strong focus on how to prevent people from using computers malevolently. “There is motivation for controlling how computers are being used,” she says, “as well as how you access them. The desire for a kind of control is influenced by what we do in regulating markets and what people do to regulate good behavior in society.”

Credit: Penn Engineering Magazine, “Susan Davidson: Inspiring Leadership in Computer Science,” by Nan Myers.

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