Say Good Bye To The Computer Geek

Tunnel-vision types are out; multidisciplinary thinkers are in

The pioneers of computing brought the world the PC, the Internet, Windows, and dozens of other amazing advances. They created the field and gave rise to the cult of the geek--the researcher whose life is lived in front of a computer, pocket protector firmly in place.

Now there's a new generation, and it is looking past the computer screen. Today's rising research stars want to solve problems such as language translation or neurological imaging by combining a host of disciplines well beyond computer science. They're not all at top labs, either. Now that research can be done as easily on a PC as a supercomputer, scientists can work anywhere--and relish the chance to do so. Plenty of the best minds of this generation can be found at out-of-the-way places such as Mississippi, Utah, and upstate New York.

Or Iowa State University, where you can catch a glimpse of the future with Carolina Cruz-Neira, a 32-year-old assistant professor of computer engineering. Her dream was to dance, and she started studying ballet in her native Spain at age 5. But Cruz-Neira's parents weren't keen on a stage career. They reached a compromise--if she studied engineering and kept her grades up, she could take ballet. So, at the Universidad Metropolitana in Venezuela, "I got straight A's just so I could keep dancing," she says. "To tell you the truth, when I got my bachelor's degree, I wasn't so thrilled with engineering."

But a scholarship at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an injured knee changed her mind. Now, she is a co-designer of CAVE, a virtual-reality room that viewers can walk into and experience, say, flying a space shuttle. Ballet though, still informs her work. "I am used to being on a stage with other dancers," she says. She wanted to develop a virtual-reality environment in which several people could participate.

BIG SCIENCE. Today's researchers see computer science as a tool, not an end in itself. "We are no longer limiting ourselves to internally focused research," says Jonathan S. Turner, 43, chairman of Washington University's computer science department. Joseph Jacobson, a 31-year-old member of MIT's Media Laboratory and a physicist, is trying to invent a programmable book. His physics background, he says, helped him consider the problem at an organizational level: "It's a much more elegant approach to problem-solving." He has come up with "digital ink"--millions of two-toned particles spread over a sheet of paper coated with a grid of flexible, transparent electrical conductors. When electrical charges are applied, the text changes.

It is these kinds of massively complex endeavors--big science--that engage the new generation. The old guard applauds the trend. "People in the labs have been too focused. They almost have blinders on," says Glenn Tenney, 48, a consultant who organizes an elite annual gathering called the Hacker Conference. "Where we're headed requires an integration of multiple technologies and multiple experiences."

Anthony Skjellum is the embodiment of the shift. The 34-year-old got his master's and PhD degrees at California Institute of Technology in chemical engineering. His bachelor's is in physics. But he gravitated toward high-performance computing, and his pioneering work in the field--he is a co-developer of a key software program called Message Passing Interface (MPI)--is being done at Mississippi State University in Starkville, Miss. Skjellum chose MSU for its interdisciplinary approach. He works closely with the companies that use his software and with computational scientists. And do not assume that being off the beaten path has compromised his work. "Our top students here are as good as anywhere," says Skjellum.

The rising reputation of labs such as MSU's is helped by the growing demand for computer-science education. A 1996 National Science Foundation (NSF) study found that the number of master's degrees in computer science increased 9% a year from 1979 to 1993, compared with 2.3% for all science and engineering degrees. The field is also getting more diverse: According to the NSF, women, Asian Americans, and foreign students account for the increase.

YOUNG TURK. These newcomers bring a new set of interests as well. Sidel Adali, 28, an assistant professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., earned her master's and PhD in computer science at the University of Maryland, and she was an undergraduate at Bilkent University in her native Turkey. She is developing standardized software that pulls data out of huge distributed networks, but she also maintains a Web site on Turkish poetry.

Her path was paved by women such as Bonnie J. Dorr, 35, who teaches computer science at the University of Maryland at College Park. Dorr knew she was breaking barriers when she began: She was the only woman in her MIT lab. "I think a lot of the guys were confused and even irritated by me," she says. She claims a distinction none of her old lab partners can match: She gave birth the same week she submitted her doctoral dissertation.

Last year, Dorr was one of just two women out of 20 scientists honored with an NSF Faculty Fellowship. She was recognized for her work in machine translation--developing programs that understand several different languages simultaneously. She chose Maryland over MIT, despite the latter's famous linguistics program, "because I've never seen a place with such intense collaboration between the linguistics and computer-sciences staffs."

Others in the new guard are making their mark in industry. Michael D. Almquist, the 29-year-old co-founder of F5 Labs Inc., hangs out in Seattle. He's the inventor of BIG/IP, a device that allows myriad computer servers to connect together as one giant brain. It can distribute thousands of requests for access to a Web site to an array of servers to prevent bottlenecks.

Almquist has a bachelor's in computer science from the University of Delaware and did some post-grad work at the University of Maryland. Then he decided he had had it. "My temperament and grad school did not match," he says. He landed at the Human Interface Technology Lab at the University of Washington as a researcher, but felt the lab lacked focus. So he started his own company 18 months ago. Since then, F5 has sold about 40 BIG/IPs, at $20,000 a pop. "I don't give a damn about machines," he sneers. "I never wanted to be a computer scientist. I wanted to be something bigger." He's not alone.