Professor Magdalena Balazinska has long been considered a leader in data management and data science at the University of Washington’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. Balazinska is also a well-regarded researcher and educator, and she was just named the next leader of the prominent and rapidly-growing UW computer science school.
After 13 years at the UW, Balazinska will take over as director of the Allen School, it was announced Wednesday. She succeeds Hank Levy, the computer scientist who has held the position since 2006, the year Balazinska arrived.
“We are on this amazing trajectory,” Balazinska said of the Allen School during an interview with GeekWire this week. “Our goal going forward is to keep working on this excellence, making sure we continue to recruit excellent faculty, continue to produce excellent research and continue to have this spot as one of the top programs in the country.
“This is something that requires constant attention and constant work,” she added. “Because it does help — it serves the community, it serves the state of Washington, it serves the country if we can attract great people and do great work here at the UW.”
Balazinska has had a storied tenure at the UW, where among other things she led the creation of the Data Science and Advanced Data Science Ph.D. options, and later co-led the creation of the Undergraduate Data Science option. She also co-founded the Northwest Database Society (NWDS), which brings together researchers and practitioners focused on databases and database management systems working in the Pacific Northwest.
“Magda brings to this new leadership position not just a wealth of experience, but the type of vision and ability to work with people that will help keep the University of Washington and our entire tech community on a successful path,” Microsoft President Brad Smith told GeekWire.
A STEM kid
Born in Communist Poland near the end of the 1970s, Balazinska said her parents moved away from a “pretty bad situation” when they got the opportunity to go to work in Algeria. Balazinska attended a French elementary school before the family relocated again, to Montreal.
As a teenager, she liked math, science, programming and playing video games. But she didn’t really know what she wanted to do. So she relied on encouragement from her parents.
“My dad basically said, ‘If you don’t know what you want to do in life, you should do engineering,'” Balazinska. “And my mom said, ‘It doesn’t matter what you take as a major, you will be programming when you graduate.’ So I ended up taking the two pieces of advice and going into computer engineering.”
Balazinska did her undergraduate studies at Polytechnique Montreal and went on to get a Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she fell in love with the database community because the ideas and people made her feel like she belonged. When she joined the UW, Balazinska wanted to work with “real users” and professor Ed Lazowska was just starting the school’s eScience Institute, a hub of data-intensive discovery on campus.
Balazinska got the opportunity to collaborate with faculty who were astronomers, working with large amounts of data. She called it the beginning of a journey, and today her research spans data management for data science, big data systems, cloud computing, and image and video analytics — including data management for augmented and virtual reality systems.
Two years ago she succeeded Lazowska as director of the eScience Institute and she’s been spending time at Google’s Seattle-area offices working on the BigQuery team, the tech giant’s enterprise data warehouse.
When Balazinska first came to the UW as a junior faculty member, Levy was just beginning his tenor as the director of the Allen School. Last month on the GeekWire Podcast, he discussed the massive changes he oversaw and that he witnessed in the tech industry.
“It was very obvious from the beginning that he was a person who really personally cared about the success of every single person in the department,” Balazinska said. “And that was just amazing that we could come to him with any kind of crazy problem or anything that was happening and he would provide great advice, and you could tell that he really wanted everyone to be successful.”
Balazinska credited Levy with being instrumental in helping secure necessary space for the school’s growth, including the new Bill & Melinda Gates Center for Computer Science & Engineering. And she said that he was great about focusing on the need to recruit top faculty, who come from around the world to do research at the school.
Balazinska joked that she put a “curse” on Levy when she first started. She used to hope he would remain director until she received tenure, and then she received tenure. She then wished he would remain until she became a full professor, and then she became a full professor.
“I finally told Hank, ‘OK, I’m lifting the curse, you’re now allowed to step down,'” she said. “But really, the department is his baby and it shows and he really cares and he put a lot of time and effort into making sure we are a great school and we continue to make progress.”
For his part, Levy told GeekWire that he feels really good about how far the Allen School has come and the direction it’s headed for the future.
“We have an outstanding organization and culture with tremendous potential,” he said. “Magda is an accomplished leader, gifted researcher, and forward-thinking educator who understands how computing can have a significant, positive impact on the university and on society. I am excited to see the school thrive with Magda at the helm.”
Demand, capacity and focus
Balazinska inherits a school with 75 faculty members — 65 of whom are tenure-track and 10 who are lecturers. A large number, particularly those in areas of artificial intelligence, are on partial leave at Seattle-area companies and engineering offices such as Apple, Google, Facebook, AI2, Nvidia and Amazon, according to Lazowska.
The Allen School is rapidly expanding toward awarding 620 degrees annually, thanks to the Gates Center, which makes it possible to accomodate additional students at a university where demand around computer science far outpaces capacity. UW Seattle and UW Bothell were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 among the top 25 public universities that “pay off the most” in a CNBC report on Tuesday.
Balazinska won’t take over until Jan. 1, as she needs time to disengage from some of her other obligations. Levy has agreed to remain as director until then. And while Balazinska said that future growth at the Allen School is a huge area of focus, she said beyond that she doesn’t want to rush into what’s next before having the chance to discuss it all with faculty.
“It’s a good time for us to pause and reflect,” said Balazinska, who has two daughters ages 8 and 11 and whose husband Michel Goraczko works at Microsoft Research. “We have a faculty retreat in September, so we want to talk about it as a team to see what large scale initiatives we want to pursue because there are so many potential options.”
She did say that she’d like to see some focus on how computer science is intertwined with so many aspects of society — from the way social media is impacting our lives to the way sensors are deployed everywhere.
She wants to continue to build bridges between the Allen School and other schools and departments on campus, citing for example students’ need to learn about the ethics of machine learning or ethics of computer science. People on campus who think about those things from the perspective of social sciences or the law school are partners with whom she would like to engage.
“We want to produce students who will go on to do great things and they will go on to do great things thinking about society, thinking about the world as a whole and how we can make the world a better place and not just produce graduates who can think, ‘How can I make more money?'” Balazinska said. “I think this is a challenge. I think each generation is facing many great challenges, so we definitely want to keep focusing and making sure that we as a school work on problems that are of modern importance. And we’ll educate students who will be thinking beyond just themselves.”