May 2023 ushered in an exciting milestone for the computer science department at William & Mary: the 35th anniversary of the first Ph.D. in computer science, which was conferred to Randall Meyer ’83, Ph.D. ’88.
Since 1988, the department has granted 174 Ph.D.s, 103 of those since 2010. The 2023 computer science class includes nine doctoral, 20 master’s, and 94 bachelor's graduates. For computer science, 35 years of Ph.D.s is a meaningful milestone. Building on the strong legacies of these alumni and many more, department faculty believe it is only the beginning.
Words of praise for the department’s alumni, who are “scattered throughout the world,” came from Evgenia Smirni, department chair and S.P. Chockley Professor of Computer Science. “They are doing incredible work, building rewarding careers that give back to humanity. We are so proud of them."
Randall Meyer '83, Ph.D. '88, the inaugural doctoral graduate from the department, had an undergraduate degree in Biology. This unique pairing of interests laid the groundwork for a distinguished career in computing. After graduation, Meyer’s first position was with Special Systems Division of Concurrent Computer Corporation in New Jersey. His career included roles at Convex Computer Corporation, later Hewlett-Packard, as a compiler writer for its mini-supercomputers. Now employed with Micron Technology, Inc., Meyer remembers his transformative years on campus.
“William & Mary announced its new graduate program in computer science just as I was completing my undergraduate degree in Biology,” said Meyer. “I had taken several computer science electives and enjoyed the subject. I had thoughts of combining the two disciplines to do scientific research, so I applied and was accepted to the first student class of the computer science graduate program. Ultimately, the knowledge and experience I gained from the computer science graduate program led me to a rewarding career as a computer engineer developing compilers for emerging high performance computer architectures."Since obtaining her Ph.D., alumna Tracy Camp Ph.D. '93 has focused her research on wireless networking. She is most known for improving the credibility of wireless networking simulation. She was a member of the faculty at the Colorado School of Mines 24 years and the founding department head of computer science there. Camp is now executive director and CEO of the Computing Research Association (CRA). Her time at William & Mary prepared her for a remarkable career applying machine learning techniques to understand real-world systems.
“I learned how to present difficult information in an understandable way,” she shared. “I improved both my oral and written communication skills during my time at William & Mary. I also learned how to be critical of both research processes and results. One paper I’m most known for in my technical field is called ‘MANET simulation studies: the incredibles,’ where we are critical of the published simulation studies that had been done in the mobile ad hoc network (MANET) field.” Tracy remains proud of the fact that so many other researchers around the world use simulation code that she and her team developed.
Camp and her husband, Glen Oberhauser ’92, M.S. ’94, met at William & Mary and now have two children. “My career would not have flourished without his support at home,” Tracy shared.
Camp is a fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), and of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). She was also an ACM distinguished lecturer for years. She has received over 20 grants from the National Science Foundation, including a prestigious CAREER award. In total, her projects have received over $25 million dollars in external funding.
Core to the student experience at William & Mary are the rich research and experiential learning opportunities both in and out of the classroom. Beverly Thompson Ph.D. '99, now a senior scientist at Leidos, largely attributes her success in the graduate experience to participating in a NASA Langley graduate research program. She recalls the important influence of then-department chair Dr. Steve Park (who passed away in 2001), and Dr. Zia-ur Rahman (who passed away in 2011) as dissertation co-chairs.
Through the program, and an associate engineering internship at GDE Systems, Inc. (now BAE Systems), she developed a broad array of skills in data analytics and imaging science that she applied to the field of agricultural remote sensing and land cover analysis.
According to Thompson, her graduate degree, supported by internship experiences, formed the basis for a 20-year technical career at SAIC/Leidos. But she has intentionally expanded her career beyond the technical to improve the human experience.
“My technical career is reflected in my passions as a humanitarian, storyteller, and peacebuilder. I have studied the effects of climate change and soil erosion in eastern Kenya. I have presented to the Department of State on using satellite imagery to help reach nomadic settlements in the Lake Chad Basin in Africa to support vaccination campaigns. And finally, I have served as an advocate for experiential STEM education as a board member for CareerGirls, working with partners to deploy mobile learning center solutions in limited or no-internet access rural communities. These learning centers teach computer science and empowerment lessons to girls in Africa and empower young female African entrepreneurs to become impactful leaders through mentorship and leadership training.”
Thompson was interviewed by William & Mary’s oral historian in 2017 for Living the Legacy, a Special Collection series recorded as part of the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of African Americans in residence at William & Mary.
For many students, the William & Mary community is just as important and meaningful as the curriculum. Although he obtained his master’s degree in China and now lives in New York, Lingfei Wu Ph.D. '16 calls Williamsburg his hometown. “My wife also went to William & Mary. Our daughter was born in Williamsburg,” he said. “We have a deep feeling about the university and about Williamsburg. It’s a very special place for us.”
He recalled with gratitude his experience in the program from 2010 to 2016. “All the professors are outstanding. My advisor was Andreas Stathopoulos and he was able to spend a lot of time with us, every week, to discuss our progress. The work he’s doing requires very strong skills in mathematics. I liked math a lot, and I did very well in his classes. It’s taken me a lot of time to catch up to what Andreas was doing and make a new contribution to the field.”
An internship at IBM was pivotal for Wu’s career. There, he discovered he was passionate about machine learning and published two papers during his internship. He joined IBM and stayed there for five years, receiving the IBM Outstanding Technical Achievement award three times, and the IBM Master Inventor award. Wu holds more than 40 U.S. patents. Today, he is an engineering manager at Pinterest.
“I always joke that a Ph.D. in computer science is so different from the machine learning work I am doing now, but I had a very good foundation from William & Mary, and Andreas’ training. Without my experience there, I do not know if it would have been possible for me to achieve what I’ve achieved today.”
Amanda Watson M.S. '16, Ph.D. '20 has taken an entrepreneurial approach to the field of computer science. She co-founded Luminosity Wearables, a startup focused on developing a noninvasive glucose monitor. Watson, currently a postdoctoral fellow at the PRECISE Center at the University of Pennsylvania, will join the University of Virginia as a tenure-track assistant professor in Fall 2023.
For Watson, internships and hands-on experiences were invaluable. She emphasized her trips to the Grace Hopper Celebration, the world’s largest gathering of women technologists.
“My trips to the Grace Hopper Celebrations and resulting internships in industry gave me experiences with business. This laid the groundwork for my current research and commercial interests where I am creating noninvasive wearable devices for healthcare applications.”
“W&M computer science helped me to develop a foundation of technical skills through my coursework that I was able to apply across disciplines,” said Watson. “During my Ph.D. I found it to be an open and collaborative environment where I was able to explore my interdisciplinary interests across departments. Dr. Zhou and the LENS lab provided me with invaluable guidance and support with my interdisciplinary research as well as when tackling new innovative solutions to difficult problems.”