Department Head Update

As I begin my first semester as department head, I want to first say “thank you” to the many alumni, students, and friends of the department who have sent words of encouragement and support. I am honored to take up the task, and I am very grateful to be leading a department that is in such good shape, due in no small part to the leadership of Barbara Ryder over the last seven years.

There are many reasons why I am enthusiastic about the situation CS@VT finds itself in today, and our prospects for the future. The paragraph below is borrowed from a vision statement I wrote when contemplating becoming head. It summarizes some of the reasons I am so optimistic about our opportunities.

“Locally, we should work to be a spire of excellence and a catalyst for growth in the college and university. Computer science is still a relatively young discipline, and CS@VT’s membership in the College of Engineering is just over a decade old. During that time we have progressed from being a new arrival to a familiar neighbor. Now we are poised to become one of the leading departments in the college, and indeed, in the entire university. Our department’s size, alumni base, and culture are important advantages that can be leveraged locally as well. But by far the most powerful strength we have with respect to the college and university is the centrality of computer science to so much of what is happening in education, society, commerce, innovation, science, entertainment, health care¾the list goes on and on. The incredible opportunity to identify problems and create impactful solutions in so many application areas makes this an exciting time to be in computer science!”

 I am confident that many of you share this enthusiasm as well—both for the centrality and impact of our field, and for the role that CS@VT can play in educating future leaders in our field. We will try our best to let you know what is happening with us as we pursue this vision. We look forward to hearing from you as well!


Dr. Ribbens


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CandyBot Educational Game for iPad

Dr. Osman Balci (CS) along with his Ph.D. student Serdar Aslan and Dr. Anderson Norton (Math) and his Ph.D. student Steven Boyce developed the CandyBot educational app for iPad  as part of their NSF grant project. Read More

The work was done through the Learning Transformation Research Group (LTRG) at Virginia Tech. The LTRG group aims to significantly enhance the learning and teaching of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in K-12 curricula. Read more about the LTRG.

CandyBot was awarded the Best Educational App of 2015 by Balefire Labs. According to Balefire Labs, “Only 16 of the more than 1,200 apps reviewed won the Best Educational App of 2015 award.” Additional information about the Best Educational App award can be viewed here.


Dr. Balci
Dr. Balci

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Personal reflections from senior faculty member Layne T. Watson

Layne T. Watson
Departments of Computer Science, Mathematics, and Aerospace and Ocean Engineering

As the current senior member of the department, regarded with bemusement by the new young faculty (“I heard he writes programs in FORTRAN?”), and dismissed by the newly anointed full professors (“I know he says this was tried and abandoned by the department 20 years ago, but I’m sure it will work this time.”), I get to write essays like this one on the changes in the department and the world of computing.

I joined VPI&SU in 1978, having served on the mathematics department faculties at Michigan and Michigan State.  I was hired to teach numerical analysis and bring “rigor” to the department (to the great dismay of the thousands of students who would rather not have been bothered with proofs of anything, including correctness).  I was thrilled to join a friendly, welcoming department, as numerical analysis was considered by mathematics departments as not “real mathematics” and by computer science departments as “too mathematical”. In the 1960s Michigan was the number one ranked overall university in the U.S., although this place out west called Berkeley was reportedly buying its way to the top.  An indication of the no-man’s land in which numerical analysis found itself was that my advisor (who later went on to create MATLAB), was not retained by one of these top “pure” mathematics departments.

At VPI&SU, I had the good fortune to be mentored by Roger Ehrich, Donald Allison (later our department head), George Gorsline (the department founder, and the ultimate friend of the undergraduates), and Ali Nayfeh (a University Distinguished Professor, Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics, College of Engineering—CS was in the College of Arts and Sciences then). The department did a marvelous job of mentoring, nurturing, and encouraging its young faculty, and continues to do so to this day.  A truly unique aspect of the university then, and still true today, was the interdisciplinary collaborative nature of the faculty.  At one time I had joint published work with almost every member of CS, and an even greater number of people outside the department and even outside the college. In the 1970s and 1980s promotion depended on research, but faculty raises depended on student teaching evaluations, a not entirely logical situation,
but it was what it was.  Suffice it to say that current criteria for promotion and salary raises are more rational.

One of the first computers I worked on in the 1960s was a RPC 4000, which had a revolving drum memory of exactly 8192 32-bit words and hardware base 2 integer arithmetic; this was considered significant at the time, because the contemporary IBM 1620 had exactly 20,000 memory locations each of which held a single decimal digit, and all (decimal) arithmetic was done in software. The RPC 4000 was programmed in machine language, and besides program correctness, the programmer had to optimize the placement of the instructions on the revolving drum so as to minimize rotational latency. (This was probably the seed of my interest in optimization.)  The input/output medium was paper tape (the chad from the punch holes in colored tape was fantastic wedding confetti!)—each of the employees where I worked dropped a 100 ft. roll of paper tape (imagine what the snarled line from a fishing rod looks like, and think 1 in. wide paper tape) exactly once, and never again! I was involved in the construction of a compiler for an accounting language called ABLE (Account Balance and Ledger Entry), and we did the entire payroll and taxes
for companies with over 1000 employees on that 8K system—when I tell students today what can be done with 8K, they simply don’t believe me!  This feat was repeated (with me as lead designer) for the IBM System 3 (a system with 96 column punched cards and BCD integer arithmetic), producing a compiler for an accounting language called PROFIT (Periodic Reporting Of Financial
Input Transactions).  Punched cards (I still have boxes of programs on cards in my office) soon replaced paper tape as the input/output medium, and the IBM 360 here at VPI&SU in 1978 was a card based system. Also by that time magnetic tape secondary storage was available, as well as “hard” disk drives.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s I was fortunate to use the Michigan Terminal System (MTS, a time sharing interactive OS, every bit as good as UNIX, in my opinion) and the Merit Network (a precursor of ARPAnet) connecting Michigan universities and research laboratories.  The fundamental principle behind the MTS user interface is the “principle of least surprise” —command and option names, and functionality should be what you would guess.  This principle is apparently unknown to most app authors and Web form designers now!

In the 1970s and 1980s the CS undergraduate experience at VPI&SU was totally different that it is today.  There was an (input) card reader, card punch machines, and (output) printer on the first floor of McBryde for running batch jobs overnight on the 360, and on the day before an assignment was due, the entire hallway floor of the first floor of McBryde was lined with student
bodies waiting for a card punch, debugging, or sleeping. (Former students at the department’s 40th anniversary reunion said friendships formed on the first floor of McBryde lasted a lifetime.) More than once the department was warned that the student bodies lining the hallway floor of McBryde was a fire hazard—use your imagination.  During much of this time I was a freshman
advisor (along with “Dr. G.”, as the students called George Gorsline).

Technology then, as now, was rapidly changing.  Roger Ehrich had the first CRT graphics terminal on campus, and a large CALCOMP plotter in the Computing Center in Burruss Hall could make beautiful color plots.  Donald Allison graciously gave me his (fanfeed paper) DECWriter, which could be used as a remote terminal to connect via a telephone modem to the new Honeywell 68/60
timesharing system replacing the Amdahl 470 (IBM 370 clone). I used that DECWriter as a line printer for over 20 years, until it was no longer possible to find paper for it.  In the mid 1980s the department instituted one of the first “computer requirements” for CS majors in the country, rotating between Apple, DEC, and Amiga machines.  “Interactive” computing had begun, and with
machines in students’ rooms, the McBryde queues (and the accompanying social interaction and personal bonds) were no more.  Whether the students’ technical stills from that era (reading and thinking about their programs while waiting on the floor, discussing their code with other students, only having a small number of “shots” to get their program correct) are better or worse than those from this interactive era (debugging only by test failures, fixing one bug at a time, hundreds of often random change-recompile-rerun cycles) is moot.

Next timesharing DEC VAX machines became available on campus for student use, followed by a clever “decentralization” of computing facilities on campus, i.e., the university shifted the burden of providing computing capability from a central university facility to the individual departments and colleges. CS, of course, was well ahead of the game, having had the second (Geology had
the first!) DEC VAX 11/780 on campus, and the first computer network (in 1980, between VAXes in McBryde and Sandy Hall) on campus.  The battles with Physical Plant about running cables, power, cooling, etc. were legendary.

Interestingly, the university has now returned, somewhat, to a central computing model, at least for high performance computing.  Another major milestone at VPI&SU was the creation of “academic” computing facilities specifically for education and research.  In 1978, all computing facilities were for administrative computing, and whatever cycles were left could be
used for coursework and research; that state of affairs continued for way too long. Circa 1987 I brought the first parallel computer to VPI&SU, a Sequent Balance 21000, followed a few years later by an Intel Paragon, and the university’s stature in parallel computing peaked in 2003 with the Apple Mac G5 based System X, seeded by an NSF grant by Srinidhi Varadarajan, Cal Ribbens, and myself.  System X, the third ranked supercomputer in the world at the time, was created by a rare confluence of investment by CS, the College of Engineering, and the university, perhaps never to be repeated.

In the early 1990s, the department had about 1,300 undergraduate majors and about 20 faculty; now we have about half that number of majors and about twice that number of faculty, a good trend!  The number and quality of Ph.D. students and new faculty has increased significantly, another good trend!  I wish I could be as positive about the current technology trends—the internet and Web technology, as currently deployed, seem diametrically opposite to computer and personal security and privacy, not a good trend!

Ending on a personal note, I’m a farm boy from Indiana, and in 1987 my family moved to a 17.1 acre farm in Blacksburg, raising cattle, and growing fruit trees, blackberries, raspberries, gooseberries, blueberries, currants, and a large garden.  Putting a MX6 bushhog on a John Deere 4700 field tractor, cutting and splitting firewood, clearing fence rows, etc. are physically demanding, and my wife and I could no longer manage.  In 2015 we sold the farm, and moved to a small abode in town reminiscent of our first zero bedroom apartment as graduate students in the 1960s.  Recalibrating to this new lifestyle will take a while.

Pergite Veneti!


Layne Watson

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Madhav Marathe named VT Scholar of the Week

The Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation recognized Madhav Marathe, as its VT Scholar of the Week. Dr. Marathe, a professor of Computer Science and director of the Network Dynamics and Simulation Science Laboratory at the Biocomplexity Institute, was recognized for his work in modeling complex systems to help solve tomorrow’s problems.

The citation recognizes Dr. Marathe as “An expert in interaction-based modeling who advances computing as a science and a profession. He and his colleagues simulate large, complex biological, information, social, and technical systems to build understanding that may solve pressing problems.”

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Dr. Marathe
Dr. Marathe

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Eli Tilevich showcases the relationship between music and technology

Eli Tilevich, associate professor of CS and a College of Engingeering Faculty Fellow, has been pursuing a parallel career as a professional clarinetist, engaged with various orchestral and chamber music ensembles nationwide as well as in solo performances. He is currently active in Manhattan Symphonie, a NYC-based professional orchestra comprised of “musicians that are eager to play music without any limitations.” During the 2015-16 Christmas and New Years season, Tilevich joined the orchestra as co-principal clarinet to perform a series of concerts throughout China. They visited 14 cities and performed 15 concerts, which were enthusiastically received by Chinese audiences on all occasions.

Even though Tilevich’s intent was not to bring up his CS academic side during the tour, things turned out differently. One of the concerts was performed in the auditorium of the North China Electrical Power University (NCEPU). When the hosts discovered that a member of the orchestra was a tenured professor of Virginia Tech, they asked if Tilevich would be willing to meet with the university’s computer science community. The meeting took place right before the concert and involved vigorous intellectual exchange on the latest CS research and education topics in a cordial and relaxed atmosphere. The university’s newspaper later published an article about the meeting. Read More


EliNCEPU EliOrchestraEliShaghaiHall

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Alumni Rob Capra and Dong Li receive 2016 early career awards

Recent CS@VT alumni Rob Capra and Dong Li have received prestigious early career awards.

Rob Capra, an Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science (SILS), received a National Science Foundation CAREER Award in 2016 to support his research for the next five years on a project titled “Knowledge Representation and Re-Use for Exploratory and Collaborative Search.” Capra graduated with his Ph.D. in computer science in 2006 under the guidance of professor Manuel Perez. Read More

Dong Li, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, University of California, Merced, also received a National Science Foundation CAREER Award in 2016. Dong’s research focuses on high performance computing (HPC), and maintains a strong relevance to computer systems. Dong completed his Ph.D. in 2011 under the guidance of professor Kirk Cameron. Read More

Capra and Li join two other recent Ph.D. graduates of the department who have received prestigious early career awards.

Rong Ge, an Associate Professor in the School of Computing at Clemson University, received the NSF CAREER Award in 2015. Her research interests include parallel and distributed systems, energy-efficient computing, high performance computing, data intensive computing, and performance analysis and modeling. Rong graduated in 2007, also under the guidance of professor Kirk Cameron. Read More

Emil Constantinescu, an assistant computational mathematician in Argonne’s Mathematics and Computer Science Division, received a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science Early Career Research Program Award in 2014. His research focuses on predictive modeling of complex systems such as climate and the power grid. Emil completed his Ph.D. in 2008 under the guidance of professor Adrian Sandu. Read More



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Virginia Tech’s FutureHAUS unveils new bathroom in Las Vegas

Denis Gracanin, associate professor in the Department of Computer Science, is co-leading the FutureHAUS bathroom project. Gracanin and professor Joseph Wheeler (Architecture) were part of the team behind the LumenHAUS, which won the International Solar Decathlon competition in Madrid, Spain, and received a 2012 National AIA Honor Award for Excellence in Architecture.  They are also partnering with Virginia Tech’s Institute for Creativity, Arts and Technology and the Macromolecules and Interfaces Institute as they pursue research in integrated technology and new materials for buildings of the future.

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FutureHAUS bathroom: Faculty and students from the FutureHAUS team in Las Vegas, from left to right: Mohamed Handosa, Brandon Lingenfelser, Joseph Wheeler, Andrew Ciambrone, Denis Gracanin, Clive Vorster, Kelsey Werner, Miles Navid-Oster, Kimberly Jusczak, Thanhthao Le, and Marquis Reynolds.
FutureHAUS bathroom: Faculty and students from the FutureHAUS team in Las Vegas, from left to right: Mohamed Handosa, Brandon Lingenfelser, Joseph Wheeler, Andrew Ciambrone, Denis Gracanin, Clive Vorster, Kelsey Werner, Miles Navid-Oster, Kimberly Jusczak, Thanhthao Le, and Marquis Reynolds.

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Anomaly Detectors Catch Zero-Day Hackers

Danfeng (Daphne) Yao and collaborator Naren Ramakrishnan, both professors in the department of computer science , think they have devised a technique by which any program can be protected from even the slyest hacker “by observing a program’s execution traces and/or analyzing executables.” Yao explained, “In our work entitled “Unearthing Stealthy Program Attacks Buried in Extremely Long Execution Paths” presented at the ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security [CCS 2015, held in October in Denver], we constructed such a behavioral model through data mining and learning methods on function- and system-call traces.”


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Dr. Yao
Dr. Yao



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