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Investing in the future

Photos by Mark Stone / University of Washington

Allen School Director Magda Balazinska discusses how major "Be Boundless" campaign gifts will shape the UW's computer science and engineering program for years to come.

Magda Balazinska

Allen School Director Magda Balazinska

In March 2017, a $50 million endowment from Paul Allen and Microsoft established the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, elevating the UW’s computer science and engineering program from a department to a school. Two years later, the Bill & Melinda Gates Center for Computer Science & Engineering opened. The building doubled the space for the program and expanded opportunities for new and diverse research, collaboration, innovation and education.

The College of Engineering’s Chelsea Yates spoke to Allen School Director Magda Balazinska about the impact of these major investments and how they will shape innovation for years to come. A recognized leader in data management systems, Balazinska has been a UW faculty member since 2006. Prior to her current role — which she assumed in January 2020 — she directed the eScience Institute and served as Associate Vice Provost for Data Science at the UW.

The Allen School naming was a tribute to Paul Allen’s vision of the role that science and engineering should play in society, particularly how technology can help solve humankind’s greatest challenges. We have certainly experienced great challenges this year. How is the Allen School living up to its name?

Bearing Paul Allen’s name inspires and challenges us every day.

Hank Levy, left, Paul G. Allen, center, and Ed Lazowska, right

Paul G. Allen, center, with Wissner-Slivka Chair in Computer Science & Engineering Hank Levy, left, and Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering Ed Lazowska, right, in 2017.

We have faculty working to democratize medicine and increase access to technology in underrepresented and rural communities. Our researchers are designing robots to assist individuals with disabilities. COVID-19 created new challenges, and many of our faculty immediately pivoted their research to respond. Our Center for Digital Fabrication, with UW Medicine and campus partners, produced medical supplies for health care workers. In another lab, researchers worked with health care professionals to create a contact tracing app that preserves people’s privacy. Other researchers focused on the spread of misinformation, and others began developing machine learning models to assist with patient triage.

Computer science and engineering should be done for the greater good; the Allen School is full of individuals who are guided by this idea.

How does private support transform research and teaching?

As technology evolves and the need for computer scientists and engineers continues to grow, our program needs to grow, too. It’s our responsibility to prepare the next generation of innovators who will produce ideas and technology that benefit society. We now have wet labs for our computer architects, labs for research in fabrication and accessibility and for hands-on student learning, and spaces for molecular programming, robotics and neural engineering. None of this is possible without partnerships and private support.

Scholarships and fellowships help make education affordable and accessible to students and help us recruit students who are hungry to learn, excel and change the world. Endowed professorships provide recognition and funding that give faculty room to take greater risks.

Because of private support, the Gates Center enabled the Allen School to double the number of students admitted to the program. This helps the community by turning out more highly capable graduates. Our state has a huge workforce gap in computing, which we are addressing: In 2010 we granted 277 degrees and last spring there were 600, which is very exciting.

exterior of the Gates Center

The Bill & Melinda Gates Center for Computer Science & Engineering opened on campus in 2019.

What are the Allen School’s top priorities moving forward?

Number one is computer science and engineering for the greater good. That’s what focuses our innovation. And we must continue to maintain a strong foundation in fundamental technology. We also need to continue to educate as many students as possible while keeping the quality of that education high. We must ensure computer science is accessible to all; while we’ve made strides in diversifying our community, we need to do more. I’m fortunate for the groundwork laid by my predecessors Ed Lazowska and Hank Levy. Their vision transformed our teaching and research directions and has set us on a solid path. We have a great community, excellent partners, a terrific dean and president. It’s exciting to be innovating and carry this work forward.

Thanks to major gifts during the Be Boundless campaign, the Allen School is a research and innovation leader. What impact does this have on the regional economy?

The Allen School produces amazing graduates, and most stay and work in the Seattle area. The need for computer scientists extends across many industries; thanks to campaign contributions we are producing even more talent to broadly fuel local industry. Campaign investments have allowed us to deepen the school’s industry research partnerships. Industry has more access to cutting-edge academic research, while faculty and students draw from their industry experience to inform their work. Through our speaker series and conferences, we host events that bring the top minds in academia together with industry leaders in ways that companies can’t. And entrepreneurship is thriving; Madrona Venture Group alone has funded 15 Allen School startups.

You’re still settling into your first year as Allen School director. What have you learned so far?

Since January we’ve all been operating against a backdrop of continuous change and challenges. Every day I’m inspired by our community’s resilience, flexibility, kindness and dedication. For example, when our faculty learned they would need to shift to online teaching, and had only two weeks to adjust, their concern wasn’t simply how to do it — they set out to do it in the best way possible for the students and the course content. That meant creative solutions: revising teaching strategies, redesigning classes and implementing new tools. I’ve always been proud to be a part of the Allen School, but never more than now. We will get through these challenging times, and we will do so together.

Originally published September 23, 2020