An Internationally Recognized Researcher Takes a New Path as Dean

August 1, 2014

Carla Brodley never planned to become a dean. She enjoyed her work as a professor in the Department of Computer Science at Tufts University and the Clinical and Translational Science Institute at Tufts Medical Center, as well as her leadership activities related to machine learning and women in computer science. Her research bridging machine learning and predictive medicine was rewarding. A three-year stint as a department chair hadn’t persuaded her to continue in an administrative post. Yet the opportunity to become dean of Northeastern University’s College of Computer and Information Science (CCIS) was too appealing to resist.

“This is one of the few dean’s jobs that appealed to me.I liked the University’s focus on hiring not only within a discipline, but also across disciplines to create new synergies,” says Brodley, who was intrigued by new interdisciplinary programs at Northeastern such as the PhD programs in personal health informatics and network science and by undergraduate combined majors that pair computer and information science with business, science, game design, and many other areas. “There is an opportunity at Northeastern to build an interdisciplinary college that’s going to grow and excel. That, to me, was particularly exciting.”

The regard was mutual. Northeastern saw an internationally recognized researcher whose interests in applied knowledge matched its own. Brodley uses machine learning to solve problems in other fields and for the past several years has focused on medical applications. Currently, she’s working in collaboration with physicians affiliated with the Partners Multiple Sclerosis Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital to predict progression of the disease, and with the NYU Langone Comprehensive Epilepsy Center to locate lesions on the surface of the brain in patients with treatment-resistant epilepsy.

Brodley has also served on the boards of professional organizations such as the International Machine Learning Society, the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) Council, the Computing Research Association, DARPA’s Information Science and Technology Advisory Board, and the Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research. She has been chair and program chair of several international conferences, including the AAAI Conference on Artificial Intelligence held in Quebec City in July 2014. This year, Brodley was named an AAAI Fellow, honored for her significant and sustained contributions to the field of artificial intelligence.

Officially appointed as CCIS dean on August 1, Brodley succeeds Larry Finkelstein, who stepped down after 21 years in the position. She says, “It’s challenging to follow a long-term and successful dean, but Larry, in his graciousness, has made this an easy transition. I hope I can do as well as dean.”

Asked what she will bring to the college, Brodley replies promptly: Creativity. Drive. Ambition. She notes, “I’d like to see us be world-class leaders in both research and education in our chosen areas of focus.”

Brodley notes, “We have significant strength in programming languages and software engineering, cyber security, and network science, and emerging strength in personal health informatics, and game design. I look forward to building strength in many other core areas of computer and information science.” These included data science, a field in which she’s done research and has numerous professional contacts.

“I see the dean as having three roles: To be the external voice of the college to the university and the outside world. To raise resources from corporations, foundations, and individual donors. And, internally, to enable faculty and staff to be the best they can, which means providing structure, organization, and resources,” explains Brodley, who anticipates splitting her time equally between the external and internal roles.

Her first steps are to complete the faculty hiring already under way, get better acquainted with CCIS faculty, staff and students, and become familiar with alumni and the fundraising side of her position. She also hopes to replicate the success she achieved as a Tufts department chair in increasing the number of women who study computer science.

“My first year will be a success if we have made exceptional hires, and I have engaged CCIS and the broader community in building on the upward momentum of our college and ensured that faculty, students, and staff feel the college is run in a way that supports our mission of stellar research and education,” Brodley says.

At the same time, she considers it important to preserve existing CCIS strengths, including the collegiality among faculty members and success of the co-op program.

Brodley is particularly excited to continue to develop relationships with industry partners to expand the college’s cooperative education program, which is unique in providing in-depth opportunities for students to apply what they learn across the country and world.

Although Brodley realizes her new responsibilities will cut into time for research, remaining active in her field is also important to her.

“Research is incredibly rewarding, and I’ve spent 20 years being highly research active. It’s not clear that this is easy to turn off,” says Brodley, who currently advises two PhD students and plans to continue her work applying machine learning to the treatment of multiple sclerosis and epilepsy patients.

When she someday looks back at her time as CCIS dean, Brodley knows what she hopes to see. She says, “The college moves up to a place in the rankings that reflects its quality, and that quality is on a continuing upward trajectory. We are able to attract and retain top research faculty and students. Our PhD students are getting great research, academic, and industry positions. Our co-op employers are happy. Our undergraduate, professional master’s degree, and PhD students are happy with their experience in the college and remain engaged. And I was able to build our resources by engaging alumni and corporations in our mission.”

For now, she’s simply eager to get started. Brodley says, “This is truly an exciting time to be a part of Northeastern’s College of Computer and Information Science—as a student, as a faculty member, as a graduate, and as a dean. I’m certainly looking forward to all that we can accomplish in the years ahead.”