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4/16/2004
11:18 AM
Chris Murphy
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Cream Of The Science Crop

New dean of Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science faces challenge of how to continue attracting the best and brightest to the field

As Randal Bryant takes over as dean of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, one of the country's most prestigious IT training grounds, he might have to consider something his predecessors spent very little time worrying about: recruiting students.

Applications for Carnegie Mellon's computer-science program this year are down more than 40% since 2001. Concerns that the career path is less promising because of competition from lower-cost offshore locales and the end of the dot-com boom appear to have caused the drop. "If you map out our number of undergraduate applicants, it maps out pretty closely to the changes in the Nasdaq," says Bryant, who took over the job April 1.

Bryant doesn't need to worry about filling seats in Carnegie Mellon's computer-science program. The school remains incredibly difficult to get into, turning down nine out of 10 applicants before filling its roughly 130 freshmen spots each year. And its application decline is lower than at many computer-science schools. Yet Bryant is aware of the challenge the school faces in attracting the best teenage scientific minds. "It's clear if public perception is that IT is dead, or all the jobs are going overseas, we risk losing the best and the brightest," he says.


Randal Bryant, dean of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University

Bryant is aware of the challenge in attracting the best teenage minds
Bryant replaces James Morris, who takes on other duties at the university. Morris had been dean of the computer-science school since 1999. Bryant has been on the Carnegie Mellon faculty for 20 years and is recognized for work such as developments in modeling tools for integrated circuits.

Lost in all the talk of IT being on the decline are the challenges that remain in researching still-emerging fields such as robotics, data mining, spoken-language recognition, automation, and sensor technology. "The technology part isn't over yet," Bryant says. "There's still tremendous work to be done to exploit the computing power we're creating."

To get undergraduates more interested in computer science, Bryant says he and his colleagues will consider whether the school needs to expose students more to that kind of emerging technology, instead of focusing as much on the technological foundations of programming languages and operating systems.

The computer-science school also needs to figure out how best to work with other departments, which increasingly see their futures tied to computer technology. The clearest example is the biology department, which five years ago approached the computer-science school about closer collaboration and started hiring computer-science Ph.D.s. Why? It recognizes that future discoveries in areas such as genomics will rely on computational biology.

But Bryant says the effect also will increasingly work the other way: Computer scientists will need to think like biologists to work in more-dynamic, less-stable network and data environments. "The interesting part is, biology will start driving a lot of computer science," he says.

Like all college administrators, Bryant will do his share of fund raising. Carnegie Mellon receives extensive funding from the U.S. Defense Department, particularly its research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. While that money hasn't dried up--and the university's share has been growing--much of it is needed for short-term, goal-oriented research. Bryant wants to make sure the school also has funding sources for the most basic, least-understood, and long-term questions for which the answers--even the eventual purpose of the research--can't be known.

"That's what makes it university research instead of industrial research," Bryant says. "If we don't do that, we're only duplicating, and probably not as effectively, what industries already do."

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