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CHAMPAIGN — An award-winning computer scientist who has directed academic departments and federal research centers will be the new dean of the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois.

Professor Eunice Santos, chair of the computer-science department at Chicago’s Illinois Institute of Technology, was announced Friday as dean effective Aug. 16, pending approval by UI trustees. She will be paid $414,167 a year.

Santos is a renowned scholar in computational social systems, including social networks analysis and sociocultural modeling, and her work has led to significant insights on community resilience, response to disasters, and how belief and opinion change, the UI said.

Provost Andreas Cangellaris recommended the appointment to Chancellor Robert Jones after a yearlong national search.

The provost said he was impressed by Santos’ “amazing scholarship” and her experience building programs at other universities “in ways that they not only thrive but also stand out.”

“She is a very busy, active, engaged, leading scholar,” Cangellaris said.

In a phone interview, Santos called her move a “no-brainer,” citing the reputation of Illinois and the iSchool, as it’s known.

“It’s basically one of the best universities not only in the Midwest but also in the United States and the world,” she said. “The iSchool is fantastic. It’s incredibly well-known.”

She particularly likes the school’s focus on multidisciplinary work, which she has emphasized in her own research on diabetes treatment and other areas.

“The problems that are very important in the world are those that are inherently multidisciplinary,” she said. “It requires people coming to the table and to be able to work effectively together to come up with new approaches and new solutions.”

An Ohio native, Santos started college at age 13 and earned two bachelor’s degrees, in math and computer science, from Youngstown State University by the time she was 17.

Her parents were both Youngstown State professors — her dad a mathematician who became a computer-science professor, and her mom an electrical engineer who taught applied math courses. Her brother also became a computer engineering professor.

“I was really good at math, let me put it that way,” she said with a laugh.

She lived at home during college and said it wasn’t easy attending classes alongside students five years older or more.

“You’re kind of out of sync with the people you’re going to school with. But you know, you catch up after awhile,” she said.

Santos attended graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, where she earned dual master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in computer science.

She knew early on that she wanted a career in academia. She said she loves working with great students and scholars.

“It’s one of the most satisfying careers you can have,” she said. “The reason you’re there is you really want to have an impact, whether it’s in education or research or both.”

She worked as a professor at Lehigh University, Virginia Tech and then the University of Texas-El Paso, where she served as the founding director of the Institute of Defense & Security and chair of the department of computer sciences. She was also senior research fellow at the Department of Defense’s Center for Technology and National Security Policy.

Santos joined the Illinois Institute of Technology in 2015 and led the computer-science department in creating or expanding programs in data science, cybersecurity, bioinformatics, human-computer interaction, artificial intelligence, design tech and decision sciences. She also doubled the department’s space and raised $10 million for student scholarships, faculty chairs and research facilities.

The UI's School of Information Sciences — which includes the No. 1-ranked master's program in library and information science as well as information sciences, bioinformatics and information management — is a key part of the UI’s push for a 21st-century “digital transformation,” in cooperation with the math, statistics and computer-science programs, Cangellaris said.

The school is adding an undergraduate major for the first time and expanding its graduate programs, and it will help meet the growing demand for data-science education across campus, he said. Its strength is the ability to process information and apply data analytics to society’s critical questions, he said.

Outgoing Dean Allen Renear, who is stepping down to return to the faculty, called Santos “an exceptionally creative and entrepreneurial academic leader; there is no one better prepared to lead our rapidly growing school and ensure that we engage the challenges that face our society.”

As part of her research on health disparities in diabetes, Santos has worked with the medical community to model how decisions are made by specialists, general practitioners, insurance companies, the federal government and others about what drugs should be described, treatment options or what will be covered, for example. The goal is to improve education, health policies and community engagement to improve patient care, she said.

She works on similar issues involving pandemics, trying to understand, for example, how to deal with epidemics along a porous border between two countries.

“How each country tackles this will have an effect on the other side,” she said.

Santos won the National Science Foundation’s CAREER award and the Big Data Security Woman of Achievement award. In 2018 she was also was named to Crain’s “Tech 50” list of “names you should know” in Chicago’s technology community.

Reporter/Columnist

Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).