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Myths about computer science cause missed opportunities for students

In the past two decades, computer technology has fueled the growth of the world’s economy and, in the process, touched almost every aspect of our daily lives.

It entertains us with feature animation on the big screen and hand-held computer games.

Ming Lin

Above, Professor Ming Lin, right, talks with graduate students Zhimin Ren, left, and Hengehn Yeh, center, in a computer science lab in Sitterson Hall.

Below, Lin’s students produced “Real-time Crowd Simulation in a Virtual Town” as a conceptual or “stylized” version of a Franklin Street scene. The image was selected for the cover of the July 2007 issue of “Communications of the ACM” (cacm.acm.org/magazines/2007).

It instantly connects us, via the Internet and the social networks it fostered, to information – and people – wherever we are, whenever we want.

Once, shopping malls were built as a better mousetrap to capture consumer dollars. Today, with online banking and e-shopping, a few mouse clicks can become a shopping spree.

From imagining analysis tools to drug design to computational biology, computing technology has added a dimension to medical diagnosis and treatment that could not have been imagined by doctors of a bygone era who carried most of their tools in one black bag.

But even as the computer continues to transform the way we work, learn and play, a dwindling number of students from within the United States are choosing computer science as a career, said Ming Lin, John R. and Louise S. Parker Distinguished Professor of
Computer Science.

When Lin first arrived at Carolina in 1997, the ranks of graduate and doctoral students teemed with students from all over the United States. Today, domestic students have become almost the exception, with the vast majority of students seeking advanced degrees in computer science coming from China and India.

Carolina – whose computer science graduate program ranks 20th in the country and first in computer graphics and human-computer interaction, Lin’s area of specialization –
is not alone in trying to attract talented domestic students into the field.

Lin wants to begin to reverse that trend at Carolina with the introduction of a degree program that will allow students to complete their course of studies for both a B.S. and M.S. in computer science within five years.

The program is designed to attract students who intend to go into the information technology industry and need the in-depth knowledge that a master’s degree can provide, she said.

“With this dual-degree program, students can chart a faster, simpler path to pursue these opportunities,” Lin said.

Lin said the goal is not to squeeze out talented international students, but rather, entice capable domestic students into an ever-expanding field.

Students from other countries will continue to be recruited aggressively because of the intense competition for the best students among other top computer science programs in the country.

But the University’s primary charge, as the first public university in the country, has been to serve North Carolina by educating its sons and daughters. And too many of them are simply not taking advantage of the advanced education in computer science that Carolina offers, she said.

Boom and bust
Lin, who was born in Taiwan and grew up in California, attended another top
computer science school, the University of California, Berkeley, where she received her B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer science in 1988, 1991 and 1993, respectively.

After teaching in California and in North Carolina, Lin joined the Army Research Office in Research Triangle Park as the program manager overseeing more than $5 million in university-led projects in computer science and discrete mathematics.

It was an invaluable experience for her, she said, because it allowed her to gain a broader perspective of the entire field of computer science during a period when the Internet boom was only beginning to gain momentum.

Throughout the 1990s, smart, creative, talented students flooded into the field of computer science to stake a claim on this new virtual frontier. During this same period, the world of computer-based entertainment was also taking quantum leaps forward.

In 1994, for instance, the first of the ubiquitous PlayStation series of console and hand-held computer game devices appeared. A year later, Disney joined with Pixar Animation Studios to produce “Toy Story,” the first feature film ever created entirely by computer-generated imagery.

But in 2000, what has come to be known as the “dot-com bubble” burst, causing stock values to plummet and thousands of tech jobs to disappear almost overnight. This dramatic shift of fortune in such a short period of time caused students and their parents to seriously question whether a career in computer science was a sure bet.

A decade later, those doubts remain, now coupled with the fear that most technology jobs will be outsourced to Eastern Europe or Asia.

Alumna finds her niche at Pixar Animation Studios

Fong
Photo by Deborah Coleman/Pixar

Coaches like Roy Williams accept it as a matter of course that they will lose star players to the NBA before they earn their degrees.

Ming Lin, as an adviser to Ph.D. candidates in computer science, is learning to accept the loss of some of her star performers as well.

Among them was Susan Fisher Fong, who received a job offer from Pixar Animation Studios in 2002 shortly after completing a summer internship with the company. Fong actually turned the job down and returned to Carolina to begin her third year as a doctoral student before she talked to Lin, her adviser, about whether she had made a mistake.

Working at Pixar was her dream job, Fong said. Getting her degree was supposed to be the means by which to land it. Instead, it was getting in the way.

As much as it pained her, Lin could not disagree. “I hated to see her go, but it was a tremendous offer and an opportunity she needed to take.”

Eight years later, Fong is still with Pixar and has amassed many movie credits – and no regrets.

Her work has been credited on every Pixar film since the 2001 release “Monsters, Inc.,” including “Finding Nemo” in 2003, “The Incredibles” in 2004 and “Ratatouille” in 2007. She served as the rendering supervisor for the 2008 film “WALL-E.”

Lin points to the success of former students like Fong to illustrate opportunities that too many American-born students, particularly women, pass by.

Fong, who is originally from Southfield, Mich., went to Georgia Tech to major in computer science. Her first year, Fong said, nearly 30 percent of the computer science majors were women. When she graduated (it was not a spring semester and had fewer graduates overall), she was one of only four women who earned computer science degrees.

Fong said she does not really understand why.

“I think many of the foundation computer science classes can consist of challenging, and sometimes dry, material,” Fong said. “This may scare away people because they can’t see the fun application down the road. I think it is important to identify the end goal, and for me, that was Pixar.”

When she was a sophomore, for instance, she took a physics course on particle dynamics that she could not imagine ever using in her life. “Turns out I use that material every day, as it is the foundation for computer simulation.”

It also helps to be good at math – and to like it.

“Math was no deterrent to me; it was a draw,” Fong said. “Graphics makes math fun. It was no longer just equations
on paper, but visual, tangible results in the form of simulations and animation. If you asked me to do accounting, though, I’d probably shoot myself.”

During this same period, the state of North Carolina and the University put resources into emerging fields such as biotechnology and bioinformatics, attracting many smart students.

As a profession, biotechnology requires a master’s degree in biology, but as the name makes clear, Lin said, it heavily relies on technology as well. She also points out to prospective students that while an abundance of biotechnology jobs may await in the future, lucrative jobs in computer science are there for the taking right now.

Opportunities abound
No other profession currently offers as many opportunities to do well – with either an undergraduate or graduate degree, Lin believes. And she offers as Exhibit A the list of her former students posted on her website.

Jason Sewall, a Computer Science Alumni Fellow from Maine who graduated this year, went to work for Intel earning a six-figure starting salary plus very generous stock options, she said.

Canadian Maxim Garber, who earned his master’s degree in computer science in 2002, has since co-founded Balanced Worlds, an independent developer of socially connected free-to-play games. The company is based in Beijing, China, where Garber serves as the chief technology officer.

Closer to home, Mark Foskey has put his background to work for Carolina. He earned a master’s degree in computer science at Carolina in 2001 in addition to his B.A in mathematics from Princeton University, and both a master’s degree and doctorate in mathematics from the University of California, San Diego.

Foskey was a research assistant professor in the Department of Radiation Oncology and an adjunct research assistant professor in computer science. Among his projects is ConStruct, a software tool he is developing for image analysis in radiation therapy. He recently joined a start-up company in medical imaging to aid the transition of Carolina research on medical imaging into the market place.

Finally, there are former doctoral students like Kelly Ward and Susan Fisher Fong, who claimed their dream jobs even before they finished their degrees.

Walt Disney Animation Studios hired Ward in 2005 based on the strength of her ability to generate realistic-looking appearances in animated characters in virtual environments, particularly her work in creating lifelike hair for them. Most recently, Ward served as the lead software architect for “Tangled,” a twist on the classic fairy tale “Rapunzel” that is set for release in November.

Fong (see story at right) beat a similar path to Pixar Animation Studios where she worked on the rendering team for the 2006 movie “Cars,” the seventh computer-animated film produced by Disney and Pixar. She also served as the rendering supervisor for the animated film “Despicable Me,” released last month.

Meeting the need
Although the five-year bachelor’s/master’s program in computer science is just getting under way and no students have yet been admitted, Lin is hopeful that over time it will generate a growing number of names to add to that list.

“Jobs in these areas pay very well,” Lin said. “These jobs already exist in this country, where there is a shortage of domestic talent with the training and advanced education needed to fill these positions in computing and technology sectors.

“I think this is generally true for all science and technology, but computer science definitely suffers from a poor image that is mostly based on stereotypical perceptions and misconceptions. Too many prospective students have heard about IT jobs lost to outsourcing, but they have not heard about the wonderful new opportunities in IT that are being created in this country every day.”

Lin knows Carolina’s new program cannot solve this problem overnight, but she believes it can be a start.

“I am hopeful that with time it will begin to entice more domestic students to sharpen their talents in computing to meet the needs of the growing IT industry in the United States that now serves our society is so many different ways,” she said.

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Aug. 11, 2010

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