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Featured Faculty

Q&A with Chris Skalka

Chris SkalkaSPIRE: Tell me a little bit about where you are from...
On the heels of his receiving the prestigious 2008 Air Force Young Investigator Research Program (YIP) Award, we asked Associate Professor Chris Skalka a few questions about how he got interested in computer science and more.

Chris Skalka: I always find this a difficult question, as I've moved around a lot and don't think of myself as being from a particular place. I was born in Manhattan and spent my early years in NYC and northern New Jersey. I went to high school in Waitsfield, VT, at Green Mountain Valley School. All this makes me a Northeasterner I suppose, though since high school I've also lived in New Mexico, Texas, Pennsylvania and Maryland. These days, I proudly introduce myself as being from Vermont, though as we know I cannot claim to be a Vermonter since I wasn't born here.

SPIRE: What kinds of things were you interested in as a child?
CS: I have always been a strange combination of geek and jock. 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.

SPIRE: When you were in high school, what did you think you were going to end up doing "when you grew up"?
CS: I played guitar and sang in a rock band in high school and fantasized about being a professional musician, but deep down I think I always expected to be a writer or a professor. Of what, I was not at all sure.

SPIRE: Where did you do your undergrad and MS studies, and why did you go there?
CS: I did my undergrad at St. John's College in Santa Fe, NM. St. John's is a small school with a Great Books curriculum; it's very structured, with a set course of study — no electives, no transfer credits — and moves through the Western canon beginning with Euclid and ending somewhere around Wittgenstein. 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, and focuses on original source material — I found that reading Newton's Principia was far more compelling than learning differential calculus from a textbook, for example. This is where I began to love math as opposed to just being good at it.

After St. John's I worked at Los Alamos National Labs on a database for the human genome project. There I became interested in computers. I found that computer science provided a fascinating perspective on many issues I had long been interested in. Also, the Internet was just beginning to blossom, and it was exciting to be with the Zeitgeist and I saw a lot of professional opportunity. This led to an MS in logic, computation, and methodology at Carnegie Mellon University, a degree that allowed me to transition from a philosophy and mathematics background to a computer science career. Doing this at CMU, especially during the mid-90s, was incredibly exciting. I got to do things like work for Nobel Prize and Turing Award laureate Herbert Simon.

SPIRE: How about the PhD?
CS: I did my PhD at Johns Hopkins University 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. 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 an ongoing collaboration that is still going strong.

SPIRE: Does your research fit under the umbrella of Complex Systems? How?
CS: I have recently branched out in my research to explore wireless sensor networks. These networks are based on tiny computing devices that fit in the palm of your hand, called motes. They're 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, 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.

SPIRE: In layman's terms, tell me about some of your current research projects and the grants that fund them.
CS: In addition to my work on environmental monitoring with wireless sensor networks described above, I continue to work on computer science theory that supports software security. This research is performed under a grant from the US Department of Defense, Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

SPIRE: How would you characterize your teaching philosophy?
CS: 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 to inspire interest in it. And while it is certainly my role to impart knowledge to students, I believe that focusing on underlying issues allows me to convey an understanding of principles that will be useful years down the road, rather than just collections of facts that tend to be forgotten. As the saying goes, "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.

SPIRE: What was it about UVM that made you want to apply for your current position?
CS: UVM has a well-earned reputation for academic excellence. I was excited to join the Computer Science Department in particular because it promotes a balance of teaching and research in faculty activities. And I knew the smaller size of the department would allow me to contribute more to its development.

SPIRE: Tell me about some of the things you like to do in your spare time.
CS: When I'm not working or spending time with my wife Susan, I'm in the mountains one way or another. I like to do extended trips, such as a 100-mile self-supported whitewater kayaking trip I recently did in northeastern Quebec, almost in Newfoundland, through a roadless wilderness we had to fly into on floatplanes.

I have also gotten into alpinism and ski mountaineering in the past few years. Alpinism is basically mountain climbing with elements such as rock and ice climbing, and ski mountaineering is alpinism where you ski down to descend. These are good sports for older, technically oriented guys such as me, since they favor experience and abilities like logistics and route planning. I've done some interesting 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.