Q & A with Menas Kafatos, Dean of the School of Computational Sciences

Posted: August 28, 2003 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Robin Herron

Editor’s note: The Daily Gazette is publishing interviews with 11 deans, 2 institute directors, and the vice president for University Life focusing on what was successful in their departments last year and what the George Mason community can expect this year. This is the 10th article in the series, which will conclude with an interview with President Alan Merten.

What are some of the major accomplishments of the School of Computational Sciences (SCS) over the past year?

We have two new Ph.D. programs we initiated this fall, in bioinformatics and climate dynamics, and three new master’s programs, in computational science, earth systems science, and bioinformatics, so the school went from one Ph.D. to a total of three Ph.D.’s and three master’s degrees. At the same time, we have moved forward to work jointly with the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) on two new degree programs, one in neuroscience and one in physical, chemical, and space sciences, and we’ll be going forward this fall to the BOV [Board of Visitors] and then to SCHEV [State Council on Higher Education for Virginia]. We’ve just started on those but we have some draft proposals, and we have reached agreement on the basic way that the programs will be working.

Menas Kafatos
Menas Kafatos

Our student FTE went up appreciably this year, as it has in the past, and our external funding grew by 25 percent. We have moved into several new areas of research. We’re working closely with the Center for Social Complexity, and we are starting some research initiatives in quantum computing and space weather. They eventually will lead to new courses and possibly new degree programs.

We’ve had the first of eight additional faculty members join us from COLA [Center for Ocean-Land-Atmosphere Studies]. Four of them became full-time this past year, and we’re staging them to come in over the next few years, first starting as part-time, then going to full-time. We’ve had active recruitment for seven new positions, at junior and more senior levels, which will in an innovative way be funded primarily from external grants for the first few years and eventually become 50 percent supported from state funds.

We continue to establish international relations and now have some active recruitment of students from universities in India in a major way, and continue with China, which was always strong for us, and more recently with Greece, where we have some collaboration with the University of Athens. The quality of our students is very high and in some areas we have to turn students away and only take in the best, as demand exceeds what we can possibly supply.

We have won some major grants. For example, Liping Di won two very prestigious national competitions. One of them had a less than 10 percent acceptance rate, so that was highly competitive. Our faculty tends to be very productive.

We have a new chair of the Advisory Board, Supriya Ganguli, corporate vice president of SAIC, whose expertise is, among other things, in space and weather, so we’re revamping and expanding the role of the Advisory Board.

Last but not least, we have moved to reorganize the structure of the school by having semiautonomous programs; the first five of them have already been formed, and we’re in the process of forming two more, neuroscience and data sciences. These are equivalent to departments but they’re not departments. They each have a chair, and we’re now beginning to give them indirect [funding] as departments would get their portion. Faculty members choose to be in one of those programs–they don’t have to be, but actually most of them now belong to one of those programs. Those programs have their own faculty meetings. We have a requirement that there has to be a minimum of three full-time SCS or GMU faculty with substantial SCS FTE to form a program. Several of them are much larger than that, and some of the smaller ones, we’d like to grow them. They sort of function as the academic portion of the research side. We have a chairs council, and we also have done the final appointment of an assistant dean, so we now have a Dean’s Office that has five deans. The last appointment was John Grefenstette, as assistant dean for PW [Prince William] operations–that’s brand-new. Now we’re looking to essentially consolidate our research and assure that we are indeed in a healthy state in terms of grants coming in, and work with our colleagues in other schools, particularly in CAS and IT&E [School of Information Technology and Engineering]. We have done several appointments at the courtesy level, and they’re participating in our meetings. We also have brought in several senior visiting faculty from overseas or from other universities.

The school has grown quite a bit. In summary, I would say all our metrics are up– number of students, number of new faculty, funding. No matter which metric you look at, it’s up by at least 10, 20, or 30 percent.

Have the budget cuts affected the school much this past year?

Budget cuts are always painful. Even a few percent cut in a unit where all the budget is for salaries can have a big effect, and my main concern is not to pile more work on the already productive faculty we have because at some point it becomes a point of diminishing returns. We have tried to shield the faculty from all that, but it does concern me. I believe that we have reached bottom in terms of budget cuts, so from this point on I’m looking forward to the future rather than the past. This past year our total funds from external sources were $11 million, and from the state it was a little more than $3 million. So it’s roughly between 20 and 25 percent that we’re funded by the state; the rest we’re funded from grants and contracts. We’ve been able to survive, we didn’t fire anybody, but we’ve had to cut back a lot of services. The most visible effect on the school is that we’ve not been able to replenish our computing at the rate we should have. Also, we’ve had to slow down in terms of accepting graduate students, which is a double whammo–if the workload for faculty keeps increasing, but you can’t get as many students in, that means that they have to do more work themselves. The other thing is it affects the student FTE.

We are making some long-term strategic decisions, for example, to eventually have the school support two years of incoming graduate students and then have them picked up by grants and contracts–the students will have to then move on in terms of their work with the faculty who can mentor them and provide support for them. This way we’ll be able to control how much we want to grow.

Looking ahead to the new academic year, does the school have any new initiatives or goals?

Besides putting together the two new degree programs, we have started talking about an additional program at the Ph.D. level that will be Earth and Geoinformation. That will be in our school, and our understanding is that CAS will have a degree in mathematics that would be in their school. We would support each other to make those degrees happen, but one would be in our shop and another one would be in their shop. We’ll be working on these degrees in the coming year to submit them in the spring.

We’re looking at the variety of homeland security options and opportunities. We have already a big presence in the area of national defense, and by some extension, one can call it homeland security. Our general work in that area tends to be high-end computing or state-of-the-art such as Rainald Lohner’s work with fluid dynamics, or Zafer Boybeyi’s on atmospheric release, or CEOSR’s [Center for Earth Observing and Space Research] work on remote sensing. We are now actually getting into combining our strong areas such as dispersion and remote sensing applications for homeland security. The space weather will be put in place–we’re very excited about that project. It’s a new opportunity of great interest to the Navy, Air Force, and NASA. We’re bringing in a well-known scientist who was in charge of the Living with a Star project at NASA headquarters, George Withbroe, and several other senior scientists from NASA and from NRL [Naval Research Laboratory], including Art Poland.

We are also doing a lot of applications now, and I anticipate we will continue to do a lot of applications.

Sheryl Beach is heading a committee to look at diversity in the school, making sure that we have enough appropriate memberships across the school–faculty, students, and research faculty. I’ve told her and the faculty that I’ll take her committee’s input very seriously.

Other than funding, are there any other challenges for the school?

Space. We’re in space, but we’re not in space! We’re crowded. We are distributed too much. In terms of space and moves, we moved our people to PWI, we have moved CEOSR–at least the lab and research faculty and students–to David King Hall, and we have moved CAMP [Comprehensive Atmospheric Modeling Program] and MLI [Machine Learning Inference Lab] to University Drive [offices]. We’re quite spread out. It’s difficult for a small school. On the other hand, we cannot do without space. Between a choice of no space and distributed space, we’ll take distributed space. But we’re looking forward to Research I.

Our international initiatives, particularly with China, have slowed down this past year for an obvious reason–it’s called SARS. We’re going to aggressively pursue some new initiatives but we just had to step back a few months. We were working on an initiative with the city of Hefei [in China]. It includes a very new research/applications initiative with the government of the city. That has had to come to a standstill.

Are there any other new outstanding faculty coming on board this year?

Zafer Boybeyi, who was research faculty, has now become a full-time faculty member. Kirk Borne is from NASA, and is very well known in the area of astrophysics, astronomy, and databases. We’re in the process of hiring four others.

Where do you see the school five years from now?

I see us as moving from national prominence to international prominence–we’re already going in that direction. I see us with several new degree programs and moving more into the master’s level and professional training. We started from a pure high-end Ph.D. and are moving now to so-called lower level degree programs. We have started some good initiatives with industry, and some MOUs [memorandums of understanding] have been written up, one very recently with Boeing. We’ll see more of those.

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