Professor Christian Skalka, an associate professor in the College's Department of Computer Science, recently received a prestigious Young Investigator Program (YIP) award, administered through the Department of Defense Air Force Office of Scientific Research. The YIP is a highly competitive award available to scientists in the early stages of their career.
But before Dr. Skalka began his award-winning career at UVM, he did his undergraduate studies at St. John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. St. John's boasts a "Great Books" curriculum with a set course of study, no electives, and no transfer credits accepted. "I went there because it is very intellectually serious, catering to misfits such as myself who don't want to stop talking about the reading when class ends," Skalka says, "and the curriculum moves through the Western canon beginning with Euclid and ending somewhere around Wittgenstein. This is where I began to love math as opposed to just being good at it."
From there, Skalka worked at Los Alamos National Labs on a database for the Human Genome Project, and it was there that he became interested in computers. He found that computer science provided a fascinating perspective on many issues he had long been interested in. This led to a master's degree in logic, computation, and methodology at Carnegie Mellon University, a degree that allowed him to transition from a philosophy and mathematics background to a computer science career.
Skalka was then accepted as a PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins University, working with Dr. Scott Smith. "At this point my research expertise had become mathematical theory for supporting security in software systems, and Dr. Smith and others at JHU are world leaders in this area," Skalka says. "My interest in this area was and is motivated by an interest in the convergence of computer science theory and practice. This perspective was shared by Dr. Smith, and this shared interest has established a collaboration that is still going strong." Chris received his PhD from John's Hopkins in 2002.
Before he was "Dr. Skalka," young Christian Skalka was born in Manhattan and spent his early years in New York City and northern New Jersey. His prowess as a ski racer led him to attend the Green Mountain Valley School (GMVS) in Waitsfield, Vermont. "I have always been a strange combination of geek and jock," Skalka says. "My father got me on skis when I was 3 and got me racing at 10, and I always loved to ski, but at the same time I was precocious in my intellectual tastes and I began enjoying literature and philosophy, especially Eastern philosophy, starting when I was about 11 or 12."
At GMVS, Chris played guitar, sang in a rock band and fantasized about being a professional musician, but deep down, he always expected to be a writer or a professor. Of what, he was not at all sure. But after his successful undergraduate and graduate work was concluded, he knew that he wanted to return to Vermont, and did so as an assistant professor in CEMS in 2002.
"UVM has a well-earned reputation for academic excellence," Skalka says. "I was excited to join the computer science department in particular because it promotes a balance and of teaching and research. And I knew the smaller size of the department would allow me to contribute more to its development; this is especially true given the exciting new directions of the College in the last few years, challenging all of us on the faculty to evolve as researchers and educators. Of course, just living in Vermont has provided my wife Susan and I with lifestyle opportunities, especially access to the outdoors, that we could only dream about before."
As Professor Skalka notes above, the University of Vermont has a well-earned reputation for academic excellence. When asked about his educational philosophy, Skalka's motivation is crystal clear: "I believe that any academic subject worth its salt has at its core a set of compelling, controversial issues that motivate interest in the subject. My goal is to introduce students to these issues in the subjects I teach, in effect allowing the inherent excitement of the subject matter inspire interest in it." Skalka believes that focusing on underlying issues allows him to convey an understanding of principles that will be useful years down the road. "As the saying goes," Skalka says, " 'teach a man to fish, feed him for life': in the same manner, teach a young person how to think critically and honestly within their discipline, and you provide them with a key to lifelong success in their career."
As noted above, in October 2008 Dr. Skalka was awarded the prestigious Young Investigator Program (YIP) award, administered through the Department of Defense Air Force Office of Scientific Research. His research has recently branched out to explore wireless sensor networks, which are based on tiny computing devices called "motes" that fit in the palm of your hand. Designed to be embedded in the environment to monitor relevant conditions, their monitoring capabilities are truly a difference in kind, since their extremely low cost, ease of deployment, and networking capabilities allow coverage of larger areas with greater spatial resolution and real-time data recovery, and they don't affect the environment they're monitoring.
"Here at UVM, we're using them to investigate mountain hydrology," Skalka explains, "specifically how snowpack varies as a result of tree cover, and how that affects stream flow. This interaction of flora, snowfall, and spring runoff is an example of a natural complex system; my research provides methods to retrieve better data for the study of it much better, hopefully. In other words, my research provides basic computational tools for the direct study of complex systems. This work is funded by the VT NASA Space Grant Consortium."
Though Skalka is no longer a ski racer, he continues to participate in outdoor activities as much as his busy teaching and research schedule allows. He recently completed a 100-mile self-supported whitewater kayaking trip on the Magpie River in northeastern Quebec, from a headwater accessed by floatplanes. "When I'm not spending time with my wife, Susan, I like to do big trips in the mountains involving logistic and technical challenges. In addition to whitewater, I've done some interesting rock climbing and ski mountaineering routes in the northeastern and western US and the Alps in the past few years, and I have a good trip to the Tetons planned for this winter."