By JENNIFER BOSCIA-SMITH and JANE STOYLE WELCH
Published January 23, 2023
Atri Rudra, professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, has been named the first Katherine Johnson Chair in Artificial Intelligence.
The prestigious endowed chair was created by D. Sivakumar (Siva), PhD ’96, and Uma Mahadevan, PhD ’98, in support of the university’s Boldly Buffalo campaign. The couple, who studied computer science at UB, co-founded Tonita, an AI startup that is building a new paradigm for commerce search using natural language understanding.
“Gifts such as this one are incredibly important, as they support our core values of providing an inclusive and equitable educational experience for all our engineers and scientists,” says Kemper Lewis, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “We are extraordinarily grateful to both of them for their generosity.”
For Sivakumar, who was born into a family of teachers and recalls his CSE professors as outspoken advocates for his career and education, making a contribution that ultimately supports teaching excellence at SEAS was a key driver in the decision to endow this chair. “To deliver the best education, we need top-quality professors, and we need to create the right recognition, not just with the named professorship but with all the funding that goes along with it.”
Sivakumar named the chair in honor of Katherine Johnson, a mathematics pioneer featured in the movie “Hidden Figures.” In one inspiring scene, Johnson was leading a team struggling to compute spacecraft reentry, when she suggested using a computation instead of a formula. For Sivakumar, who has dedicated his career to computations — including pioneering work in the field of information complexity while a researcher at IBM — this was a thrilling moment.
“The movie portrays how, as an African-American woman, she was probably an unlikely candidate to be doing this kind of work,” says Sivakumar, referring to her as an inspirational figure. Johnson passed away in 2020 at the age of 101.
“I came a bit late in my career to giving back to UB, but I hope that every graduate will support the university; this is the best way for a public university to get better,” Sivakumar says. “And I am delighted that Professor Rudra is the first person to hold this chair and am especially happy about his commitment to great education at UB,” he adds.
Jinhui Xu, professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, calls Rudra “a particularly appropriate recipient.”
“He is a passionate advocate for increasing and supporting diversity in computer science and engineering,” Xu says, “and is committed to teaching students about the impacts of computing on society, both negative and positive.”
“It is an absolute honor to receive the Katherine Johnson endowed chair position,” Rudra says. “While I am nowhere near the caliber of mathematician that Katherine Johnson was, I do feel a kinship in that I’m also a mathematician. In fact, being a mathematician is also something that I share with Siva. We have both written papers on similar topics, although not with each other.”
Rudra is a member of UB’s Computing for Social Good group, where he is involved in a research project on how computing can help decision-making in the U.S. foster care system, as well as an effort to incorporate more responsible computing and ethical thinking into the undergraduate curriculum. More broadly, his research interests include issues at the intersection of society and computing, structured linear algebra and database algorithms. He is the faculty mentor to UB’s Society and Computing Club and DivTech, a student club that aims to increase diversity in STEM fields.
The gift and his appointment to the chair will enable Rudra to better support student activities in numerous ways, including funding for projects that incorporate responsible computing and take a holistic view of how computing is situated within society. In addition, it will facilitate opportunities for students from multiple disciplines and lived experiences to talk together about computing and society. It will also support traditional research and teaching activities, such as visits and talks by scholars whose multidisciplinary work may be harder to support with funding from traditional sources.
Finally, Rudra hopes to be able to pilot small but high-risk projects that may eventually be funded more broadly.
“Specifically, I’m very excited that the gift will also help bootstrap some of the new efforts that I’m involved in with Dalia Antonia Caraballo Muller, an associate professor in the Department of History, to adapt her amazing Impossible Project framework to some of our computer science and engineering courses in general, and specifically in some of my courses,” Rudra says. “Unlike most of my previous work that tends to fall somewhat exclusively either in the research bin or teaching bin, this work combines both teaching and research, which makes it especially close to my heart.”
Rudra is a co-editor of the Mozilla Teaching Responsible Computing playbook, a guide on how colleges and universities can update curricula to place more emphasis on ethics when designing technology products. His numerous awards and achievements include an ACM Principles of Database Systems (PODS) Symposium Test of Time Award (2022), SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching (2022), ICML Outstanding Paper Runner Up award (2022), UB Exceptional Scholar: Sustained Achievement Award (2022), UB Teaching Innovation award (2021), SEAS Senior Teacher of the Year (2020 and 2015), Best Paper Awards from ACM Principles of Database Systems (PODS) Symposiums (2012 and 2016), IBM Faculty Award (2013), UB Exceptional Scholars-Young Investigator Award (2011), HP Labs Open Innovation Research Award (2010), Best Paper Award from the 18th Annual European Symposium on Algorithms (2010) and an NSF CAREER award (2009).
His work has been funded by the National Science Foundation, Mozilla Foundation, IBM and the National Institutes of Health, among others. He has published more than 75 papers in refereed journals, and conference and workshop proceedings.
Rudra earned his PhD from the University of Washington and joined the UB faculty in 2007. Previously, he was a research staff member at the IBM India Research Lab in New Delhi, India.