Q&A with the iSchool's next dean, Anind Dey

Anind DeyAnind Dey will soon join the University of Washington Information School as its next dean, succeeding Harry Bruce. Dey comes to the iSchool from Carnegie Mellon University, where he has been a professor since 2005 and has led CMU’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute since 2014. We asked Dey a few questions to introduce him to the iSchool community.

Q: What about the UW iSchool sparked your interest in the job?

A: There were a number of things that excited me. I know several of the faculty in the iSchool (a couple who are graduates from my program at CMU), and have always been impressed with the quality of the faculty and students, and their research. As I did research for my job application and interviews, I became really excited about the breadth of backgrounds and research that exist in the iSchool, with its strong core in library science, information management, and informatics, but also its work in digital curation, data science, health and wellness, ontology construction, and indigenous studies. I was excited by the incredible amount of interdisciplinary work that happens in the iSchool, and the culture that focuses on doing work that has real-world impact. The opportunity to be a part of that was too good to let pass by.

Q: You're a Simon Fraser grad. Can you tell us a little about your background? Did you grow up in the Northwest?

A: I did! I grew up in a small town in British Columbia called Salmon Arm, with my parents (public school teachers), an older brother and a younger sister. I left the small town for the big city for college, and got my undergraduate degree in Computer Engineering at Simon Fraser. My wife gives me a hard time when I say I grew up near Vancouver, even though it was five hours away. We would often go to Vancouver for the weekend — my dad taught at the University of British Columbia for a while — so it was a home away from home. I'm so excited to be returning to the Pacific Northwest — mountains, lakes, oceans!

Q: You once were a rocket scientist and are now an expert in human-computer interaction. Can you tell us about your path as a scholar?

A: My path was nontraditional and has involved an amazing amount of being in the right place at the right time. I did my computer engineering degree at Simon Fraser and thought I would get a job in Vancouver as a practicing engineer. I was involved in student government and attended an engineering student leadership conference in Montreal about a year before graduating. One of the demonstrations at the conference was from an aerospace company that made full-motion, six-degrees-of-freedom flight simulation platforms. It was the most amazing "video game experience" I've ever had. I asked what it would take to get a job at their company, and they said to leave Canada and go get a Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering. So I applied to the best aerospace programs in the U.S., and miraculously (because I had zero training) got into the country's best flight simulation Ph.D. program, Georgia Tech.

After a year, I was a little disheartened — I enjoyed the work, but much of it was military-oriented, which I was not particularly excited about. I decided to pursue computer science and got accepted into Georgia Tech's Computer Science Ph.D. program, to work in virtual reality. That was great, but the technology really wasn't good enough to support the experiences I was excited about, so I started looking around again near the end of my first year. I had worked with a new professor, Gregory Abowd, on a short project, and he encouraged me to work on a few more short projects with him. He worked in the areas of software engineering, human-computer interaction, and ubiquitous computing, all of which were fascinating to me. Gregory quickly became my mentor, my friend, and has been the person with the most significant impact on my professional life. I was very fortunate to get my Ph.D. with him.

For me, the third time (attempting a Ph.D.) really was the charm. I met my wife in that research group, and she has also played a huge role in my professional life and is my closest research collaborator. We went to Berkeley, where I worked for Intel Research and was an adjunct professor. I quickly learned that my heart was in academia, not industry research, and after three years, we moved to the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. I've been there for 13 years, the last three as department head.

Q: What gives you the biggest thrill as a scholar and educator?

A: Do I have to pick one? :-) I absolutely love mentoring students, staff and faculty. I love helping individuals find the best in themselves, and identifying opportunities for growth and success. I love teaching — being in a classroom with bright students, and engaging with them on a wide range of topics. I also identify very strongly as a researcher. I have a passion for tackling problems where I work with a great team to develop new technologies and create solutions that will positively impact the world.

Q: As a society, we're swimming in data and "fake news." What role do you see for the iSchool in facing such challenges?

A: I think the iSchool has an incredible mandate to help the world make sense of the growing amount of conflicting data and information that is out there. That has already taken many forms inside the iSchool, in approaches for categorizing and managing mass amounts of data, visualizing, analyzing and understanding complex data, using data to tell a compelling and honest narrative, and processes and approaches for determining when data is being used to spread fake news. The iSchool is already a place where these challenges are being addressed. There are opportunities now to help the rest of the world see the role that the iSchool is playing.

Q: What are some of your initial priorities when you arrive at the iSchool?

A: The iSchool is already an amazing place, and there's lots to build from, and that makes my job much easier. My three priorities are to continue the efforts in making the iSchool 1) an intellectual leader in information science with world-class quality research and education, and help the world to see the iSchool as such; 2) a great place to work with work-life balance, opportunities for personal and professional growth, and increased diversity in perspectives; and 3) a financially healthy place, where both physical space for the iSchool is consolidated and high quality, and where funds are widely available for new student-, staff- and faculty-driven initiatives. My plan when I start is to meet alumni, board members, faculty, staff and students as part of a listening tour, where I can learn about additional needs of the iSchool, and about the culture that makes the iSchool the unique institution that it is.