Robotics expert to be first woman to lead UI computer-science department

Robotics expert to be first woman to lead UI computer-science department

URBANA — Nancy Amato, a computer-science professor and robotics expert from Texas A&M, has been chosen to lead the highly ranked University of Illinois Department of Computer Science — the first woman to hold that position.

Amato, who holds a Ph.D. in computer science from the UI, will take over in January pending approval by UI trustees. She will be the Abel Bliss Professor of Engineering and head and professor of computer science, with an appointment in the Coordinated Science Laboratory. Her salary will be $255,000 annually.

“It’s kind of like coming home,” said Amato, whose husband, Texas A&M computer-science Professor Lawrence Rauchwerger, also earned a Ph.D. from the UI. She said they loved the collegial and interdisciplinary atmosphere there.

“It’s an awesome place to do research, it’s a top-five CS program. The stars don’t align this way too often for people. I’m really honored and humbled, honestly,” Amato said Thursday.

Amato will oversee a fast-growing department that has 80 faculty members and more than 2,400 students, plus 700 online, and is ranked fifth in the nation by U.S. News and World Report. The previous department head, Professor Rob Rutenbar, left a year ago to take a new job as senior vice chancellor for research at the University of Pittsburgh.

The UI joins two other top-10 computer-science programs with a female department head — top-ranked Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cornell.

Computer-science Professor Vikram Adve will continue to serve as interim department head of the UI department until January.

“We are thrilled to bring in someone with the esteem of Nancy Amato to lead our Department of Computer Science. Her global research reputation, the quality of her teaching, and her impact through an array of leadership positions will be a terrific asset for the department and the college,” said Tamer Basar, interim dean of the College of Engineering.

Amato joined Texas A&M directly after receiving her Ph.D. from the UI in 1995, a master’s degree in computer science from the Cal Berkeley in 1988, and bachelor’s degrees in mathematical sciences and economics from Stanford in 1986. She grew up in the Pacific Northwest.

Her research focuses on motion planning in robotics, parallel algorithms and bio-informatics, areas where she has made profound contributions during her 25-year career, Basar said, calling her a “world-renowned authority.”

She was also interim department head at Texas A&M for one year and has been senior director for the honors program in the College of Engineering since September 2014.

“I think she’s absolutely fantastic,” Adve said Thursday, citing her research and leadership experience.

Amato impressed UI officials with her preparation for her on-campus interviews, spending hours on the phone talking with people in the department, Adve said.

“All of the final candidates were strong, he said, but her vision for the department was “head and shoulders above everyone else.”

“Computer science is really exploding right now. The demand for students is growing incredibly fast. A lot of companies are growing very fast,” Adve said. “Having someone with real vision for how to grow a department at a time like this is crucial.”

Amato said the challenge for the UI, as a land-grant institution, is to continue doing cutting-edge research while providing access to a top computer science education to all students, “not just the select few that we can get into the department and major. Every student who comes to the U of I should leave being computer literate and they should have the opportunity to really receive the training that they want and need for their careers.”

The department is leading the way with the joint “CS+X” majors, which allow students to earn degrees in CS and another major to broaden access, she said.

“I can’t imagine a more exciting time right now,” she said.

Adve said Amato has made strong technical contributions in her field, developing new techniques and some “really cool experimental robots.” She’s been recognized as a fellow in several major professional organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and held leadership roles in the Computing Research Association and the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society.

Amato has also led an influential group within the Computing Research Association that works to bring more women into the field.

“Women in computer science are still quite underrepresented, so having more women in leadership and high-profile positions is one of the most important ways we can inspire more women to come in,” Adve said.

Amato runs an undergraduate summer research program that matches students from underrepresented groups with faculty members, to encourage them to go on to graduate school and a research career. She received the CRA Habermann Award in 2014 for her efforts to involve women and underrepresented minorities in computing research.

Amato said expanding access to all groups “is a strong passion of mine.” She said the UI has made major strides in this area in terms of undergraduate enrollment and she hopes her role leading a program of its size and caliber gives her a “tremendous platform” to continue that work.

The search committee was led by Klara Nahrstedt, professor and director of the Coordinated Science Laboratory, in consultation with the Witt/Kieffer executive search firm.