Director's Message to UMIACS

As we wrap up 2020, a year that I suspect will be remembered for generations to come, I want to reflect on the challenges we’ve faced, while also highlighting our accomplishments.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has affected all of our lives, both personally and professionally. It’s upended research activities, forced us to adapt in our teaching and mentoring roles, and altered our home life—that for many of us—now includes work, family, education and entertainment all under one roof.

As if this weren’t enough, the past year has also seen our nation consumed by a sharply divided political climate, as well as an uptick in social and racial inequities that have resulted in outrage and protests on a scale not seen since the tumultuous 1960s.

Yet through all of this, our research community has remained resolute in our core mission: the use of powerful computing tools to advance new scientific discoveries that have a positive impact on society.

Much of our work is directly focused on the challenges I’ve described above. Many of our faculty are active in COVID-19 research and innovation—from developing new algorithms to improve contact tracing, to sequencing SARS-CoV-2 genomic data, to using data science to improve the supply chain of critical PPE medical gear.

We’re also active in addressing social and racial injustices. Our work includes new visualization tools to help identify implicit bias in policing, machine learning algorithms that can make organ donor exchanges more equitable and efficient, and multiple efforts to remove biases in machine learning and artificial intelligence applications.

There is also vibrant activity in UMIACS to address gender inequality in research and academia.

Some of this is visible—like our support for the Maryland Center for Women in Computing, the Iribe Initiative for Inclusion and Diversity, and the annual Technica hackathon.

Other efforts are less visible, yet vitally important. There are several faculty members in UMIACS (they prefer not to be named) who are champions for improving diversity and inclusion across-the-board in science and academia.

Their efforts, and the efforts of others, have resulted in real change—from academic promotions, to more equitable representation in professional societies and academies, to leadership roles on multiple levels for women in technology.

When I look at the success we’ve had this past year—a quick scroll through our news feed can affirm this—I can’t help but reflect on the power that diversity in gender, thought, and academic backgrounds has had in our accomplishments.

I want to increase our activity in this area, particularly as we move into the hiring season for new faculty. It is vitally important that we take advantage of new hiring opportunities to improve the diversity of the institute.

To that end, I will leave you with a short quote from Charles Isbell, the Dean of Computing at Georgia Tech. I look forward to working with all of you in the coming new year.

“It is one thing to be in front of someone and not be seen. It is quite another to not be in front of someone and not to have your absence noticed. I think we underestimate the role of the second kind of invisibility in perpetuating inequity.”

Mihai Pop, UMIACS Director