A vice president for research at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Francine Berman was recently awarded the inaugural Ken Kennedy Award from ACM and IEEE Computer Society for “her influential leadership in the design, development, and deployment of national-scale cyberinfrastructure.” Despite her busy schedule, Berman graciously took the time to conduct an email interview with Communications of the ACM to discuss her work, career, and advice for computer science students.
What excites you about what you do?
I am tremendously excited about the opportunity to work with the next generations of societal and scientific leaders. These individuals are today’s college and K-12 students. In 20 years they will be our political leaders, CEOs, scientists, artists, and community leaders. It is an opportunity, and indeed the responsibility of our generation, to help them develop the skills, creativity, integrity, and discipline of thought to deal with an increasingly complicated and interconnected world. For me, it is tremendously exciting to go to work every day with the opportunity to make a real impact on the future through their education and experiences.
What are the reasons for your success?
It’s hard to tease out individual reasons. I think most of our successes are a contextual synergy of passion, perseverance, innovation, courage, opportunity, and an ability to navigate the prevailing professional environment. It also helps to be comfortable in your own skin and clear about who you are and what is meaningful to you.
What are the most important lessons you’ve learned during your career?
That in the most fundamental sense you own the integrity of your professional trajectory as well as its outcomes; that leadership is critical and most important things take a village; and that ultimately your career can be a great and wonderful part of your life, but it’s not your life.
What’s your advice for today’s computer science students?
I think it’s critical for today’s students in computer science to understand the context in which we do our work: the statistical underpinnings of the behavior of large groups of sensors, the power implications of building high performance computers, the applications that utilize information technologies as an enabling tool, the policies and regulations that govern the privacy and use of digital data, the economic models that support the deployment of useful cyberinfrastructure, etc. All of these provide critical context for computer science as a discipline and impact the kinds of breakthroughs that can be achieved. My advice to CS students would be to seek out a well-rounded curriculum and practical experience to complement their computer science studies.
What’s next for Francine Berman?
After heading up the San Diego Supercomputer Center for nine very satisfying years, I’ve taken on a new role as vice president for research at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. I’m enjoying the opportunity to work with a university-sized palette that spans all research domains and to interact with a wide spectrum of constituents—including faculty, students, partners in the private and public sectors, community leaders--to promote research impact and success. I continue to be very involved in the national discussion on data cyberinfrastructure and digital access, preservation, and sustainability. I am working to increase recognition among a broader audience of the importance of stewardship of the information on which the Information Age is grounded, and to craft a national agenda that promotes responsible and reliable data cyberinfrastructure.