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Wine bar on 2200 Penn opens doors
By Ella Mitchell, Contributing News Editor • June 14, 2024

New computer science chair plans to grow department

Robert Pless, the computer science depatment chair, started in the position this semester. He has plans to increase the department’s enrollment and faculty size.

After three years of searching, GW has a permanent computer science department chair who said he plans to expand the department to meet growing national interest in the field.

Robert Pless, who left Washington University in St. Louis to become chair of the department this semester, said he wants to develop the department with both more faculty and students. He said he came to GW because of the department’s strength and unique D.C. location, and that he plans to use both to support and grow programs.

“Part of the reason I am so excited about being in the computer science field is because computing is so integrated into all parts of society and, from a personal research perspective, that’s why I was so excited to come to GW,” he said. “I’d love to figure out directions where the educational and research mission of the department can best support and work in the context of GW and D.C.”

Though Pless has been at the University for less than month, he said he wants to make sure that the dual missions of research and teaching are both supported. The department has already been successful in producing programs that combine learning and research with real-world applications, and those programs should serve as templates for future ones, he said.

“There are a lot of programs here that already are high-impact. The cybersecurity program here is nationally known, and it’s exciting to be here and part of that,” he said. “I am excited to understand any directions that are missing or have the highest impact.”

Before his arrival at GW this year, Pless founded and directed a center for the teaching and research of machine learning, robotics, human computer interaction, graphics and vision at Washington University in St. Louis.

Pless said interest in computer science is growing nationally and that computer science departments are often hard-pressed to meet the teaching demands of increasing enrollment. There are currently 187 undergraduate computer science students at GW, compared to 118 in 2012, according to University enrollment data.

Pless plans to also hire more faculty to meet student demand, he said.

“We are hoping to grow the department to better focus on the education and research missions of the University,” he said. “We have a current search for faculty and expect to have searches in coming years as well.”

There are currently three open faculty positions in the computer science department, two of which are tenure-track positions. The other open position is for a visiting computer science professor, according to GW’s jobs website. There are currently 16 full-time faculty in the computer science department, according to the department’s website.

Pless said he applied for the position last spring and, after an interview, came to D.C. in the winter. Specific plans for the computer science program will come after he spends more time getting to know and working with other professors in the department, but Pless said he hopes the department can attract students who are interested in computer science as well as other disciplines.

“I think computer science should be a field that accepts people from many different backgrounds,” Pless said. “On the flip side, the technical work of computer science has its own challenges, but I think that those two principles are the ones we have to balance.”

Rahul Simha, a professor of computer science, said it is not uncommon for there to be a three-year vacancy for a chair position or for a department chair to be hired outside of the University.

Pless is uniquely fit for the job because he is young and his research in computer vision, which is how technology captures and presents the visual world, with applications to environmental science, medical imaging, robotics and virtual reality will be helpful, Simha said.

“Recently there’s been much discussion about artificial intelligence and robotics as part of our future,” Simha said. “This is a great time to welcome a new chair who is energetic, has lots of ideas and is a first-rate researcher.”

Ron Cytron, a professor of computer science and engineering at Washington University and Pless’ former colleague, said attracting high-quality doctoral students is difficult given the strong and lucrative hiring climate in computer science. Cytron added that the lab Pless directed at Washington University encouraged innovation in computer science students.

“His lab has produced a continuous stream of our most creative students, and I believe that is attributable to Robert’s open mind about new problems suggested by his students,” Cytron said.

Cytron added that Pless does not shy away from challenges in computer science education.

“Robert is also keen on getting to the center of issues that deserve attention, and I and others could count on him in numerous ways for that kind of leadership in our department,” he said.

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