Twenty-three years after earning his Ph.D. in computer science from Rice University, Amr Sabry is chairing the Computer Science Department in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University.
He works at the center of “computer science plus everything” in a school created to bring together diverse disciplines to act as catalysts in the application of technological advances to non-technical problems.
“In 2000, the idea of informatics was expanding and everyone seemed to be realizing that computing would pervade every aspect of society,” Sabry says. “The founding dean of a new school in IU met me and said they would hire 50 faculty members and start this new school devoted to how computing interacts with music, art, engineering, etc. He told me, `This is where computing is going, and it is so exciting. It will no longer be that geek bubble it was in the 80s.’ He was right. The school features faculty members with degrees in physics, law, anthropology, social sciences, everything.”
Sabry uses security as an example of how law and computer science are connected in his school.
“We don’t actually teach law courses in our school,” Sabry says. “But when you are thinking about computer security, you realize the legal system is lagging behind because the online environment is so new that a lot of the laws were enacted without consideration for such a different set of circumstances.”
The interdisciplinary security group in the school is focused on aspects of cyber-crime, cyber-security, and the application of law to online communications, transactions, and services. When creating protocols, it’s important to know the legal system and how people will adapt.
“Students who take our classes study mathematics, protocols, and legal and economic aspects,” Sabry says. “They emerge well-rounded in all aspects of security. People are the weakest link, so students explore ways to manage cyber-security around human behavior. You have to consider the full spectrum of the problem.”
Sabry encountered his own problem with scope when he arrived at Rice. His training in computer engineering at Cairo University in his native Egypt was thorough, and, although he had worked for a software company, he had not studied the theory and principles of programming languages in depth. It was a programming language guru who invited him to Rice.
“Rice was my first choice,” Sabry says. “Even though it was a small department, it was already known to be good in 1989. One of the students a year ahead of me at Cairo University had been accepted, and I met with him when he came back during the winter break. He talked about the students, the faculty, the environment, and he encouraged me to apply. When Matthias Felleisen called me at home to offer me admission, I accepted immediately on the spot.”
Felleisen was a member of the graduate admission committee, but Sabry had no idea he would take on programming languages and eventually ask Felleisen to become his adviser.
“Our class of Ph.D. students had about seven people in it, and five or six of us didn’t have the background in programming languages we needed to pass the qualification exam,” Sabry says. “We took the senior-level class taught by Matthias, who is inspiring. It was all new to me, and I struggled in the beginning, but one day it clicked. I realized how beautiful it was. I asked Matthias if he would be my adviser, and he said `If you take my grad class and do well, then you can work with me.’ He did accept me after that.”
When Sabry talks about the beauty of programming languages, he admits that the historical name for the area is somewhat misleading.
“We are not studying the syntax of languages or how to write things in a language, but what it means to compute,” Sabry says. “It is like the difference between taking a linguistics course and learning to speak Spanish in an online course. The linguistics course will go deeper and explore the structure of the language, how the language shapes thought.
“The way we think about computation, the way we understand nature – because nature is all about big data and computing – is shaped by the way we use our language. The way the programming languages we study and the way nature computes, it is the same language. It is beautiful when you see the structure unfold.”
He described a common analogy from a group of physicists, including Feynman and others in the late 1980s, who argued that the laws of physics are computational.
“The great majority of these laws is formulated as an equality between different physical observables such as F=ma or E=mc2,” Sabry says. “But these equalities are not just mathematical symbols; they can be interpreted as physical processes that take one side of the equation to produce the other. Well, that is what a program is.
“This is how everything moves. You take a force and you produce an acceleration. They thought physics, math, everything is computational. Thirty years later, we have computational finance, computational biology, computational economics. What do all these things have in common? What they have in common is the structure of programming – the language, or what it means to compute.”
Although Sabry loves exploring what it means to compute, his current challenges are not usually solved with programming languages. As department chair, his perspective has changed.
“People are the most important part of my day,” Sabry says. “I get a lot of people with various kinds of problems who come and talk to me. From students to colleagues, nothing else matters if the people are not taken care of. It is not always easy to resolve their conflicts. But sometimes you are successful in helping someone resolve their problem, and helping people is extremely satisfying and gratifying. Sometimes you make tough decisions, but if you make them in a way that is sensitive and caring, people do understand.”
He relishes the intellectual stimulation driven by the interaction of colleagues in his school, which spans computer science, informatics, information and library science, and a new intelligent systems engineering program. He describes the faculty at SoIC as “intellectually thirsty and intrigued,” and he says he sees a new generation of assistant professors and grad students who have completely absorbed the new kind of computing.
“They inspire the older generation,” Sabry says.“I can feel an amazing kind of relationship developing between me and the students. I have a broader historical perspective that I use to decide that ‘this is the right thing to do,’ but they have their own perspectives and bring new energy and ideas, so that I and my colleagues also learn something new. Making the students succeed is what drives us.”