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After a Momentous Era in Computer Science, a Rutgers Professor has a New Mission

Thu Nguyen is SAS dean of mathematical and physical sciences 

Thu Nguyen

Thu Nguyen has grown accustomed to working on the cusp of change. As a professor and chair in the Department of Computer Science, Nguyen helped the department respond to record enrollment surges brought on by the worldwide tech boom. As he worked  to make sure teaching and research remained on the leading edge, he took steps aimed at increasing the number of women and people of color entering the field. In 2019, Nguyen was named Dean of the Division of Mathematical and Physical Sciences in the School of Arts and Sciences, a key role that oversees some of the university’s largest departments. In the interview below he discusses the rapid advances of the last decade and what's in store for the future.  

Thu NguyenQ: You handled various leadership roles in the Department of Computer Science during the 2010s—a time of rapid, global technological change. What was the impact on the department? 

A: In 2010, we awarded less than 100 bachelor’s degrees in computer science. Last year we awarded 640. That’s just an astronomical increase, and it’s reflected in course enrollments too. In 2010 we had roughly 300 students a year taking introductory computer science. We are now at 2,000.

Q: What was that experience like and how did it prepare you for your role as Dean of MPS?

A: There was a whole learning curve of managing the curriculum, making sure it’s up to date and relevant, and then getting enough staffing. We grew from 2 to 12 teaching professors during the seven years I was associate chair and chair.

But there is also the larger picture of computer science and its connections across the academic spectrum, from humanities to engineering. As chair I needed to work with other departments and schools to figure out their needs and how we can collaborate. It was invaluable for what I am doing now.

Q: During all that time, you were making diversity in computer science a priority for the department. Did that commitment to inclusion come from your own life experience?

A: Yes. My family and I were refugees from the Vietnam War, and we became immigrants to the United States when I was 11. The opportunities I’ve had, that got me to Rutgers, have been an incredible blessing, and it’s important for me that everyone can have the same experience.

Q: What led you to focus on diversity within the world of computer science?

A: I came to the realization that computer science is just poor in diversity. Early on, I was focused on establishing my teaching and research. But over time, one can’t help but notice when lecturing to students that there were very few women students and fewer students of color.

Q: One of the ways you’ve responded is through collaboration with the Graduate School of Education on programs that bring the focus to New Jersey school districts. What is the overall goal?

A: We recognize that students, particularly those with socio economic disadvantages, enter college with different levels of knowledge and experience. How do we help even things up so they can succeed? That led to collaboration with high school teachers and administrators, with the goal of increasing their capacity for teaching computer science. The most recent program seeks to bring that focus to the middle school level, and I think that’s particularly critical. If we want to attract a more diverse student body to computer science, it needs to start at middle school and possibly even earlier.

Q: You became MPS Dean in 2019.  What do you see as the specific strengths in this division that position Rutgers as a top teaching and research university?

A: Our departments are highly ranked, and the main reason for those rankings is that we have a large, talented faculty with expertise across many fields. We’re able to offer a very broad program for undergraduates with exposure to many research areas. We are strong in many important emerging areas: artificial intelligence, data science, and quantum computing just to name a few.  We have been a longtime leading light and continue to break new ground in high energy physics and materials science.

Q: The National Science Foundation has recently stressed the importance of convergence: solving societal problems through interdisciplinary research. Can you give me some examples of convergence going on at Rutgers?

A: Physics is exploring collaborations with biology, looking at extending the use of state-of-the-art instrumentation for novel uses in the field of biology and healthcare. We have statistics people working with the medical school looking at the application of statistics to healthcare. Machine learning and data science are being applied in many different disciplines. Convergence is a natural evolution that reflects how much we’ve learned from the traditional disciplines. As you make advances you see how research in different disciplines are interrelated. For example, in a faculty search last year, it was fascinating for me to speak with mathematicians working with physicists to explain black holes in space.

Q: Departments from Rutgers MPS were involved in the battle against Covid19. What is your take on how the MPS fields stepped up to the global health crisis and how might they contribute to public health in the future?

A: It is incredible the number of sciences that converged to help with the development of vaccines. Obviously, there is the biology and the medicine, but I am proud to say that many of the disciplines within MPS had a fundamental role to play.

In chemistry and chemical biology, we’ve long had researchers working on mRNA, and that was the technology behind the vaccines. Statistics is prominent given the amount of data to be gathered, and the technique needed to draw conclusions. Computing has become one of the fundamental technologies because of the need to simulate many scenarios to explore a problem.  

And, if we are talking public health, there are the crises related to our climate and to the earth in general. Our Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences is hard at work researching these issues.

Finally, we can’t forget mathematics, which is the underlying framework for many of the important on-going research directions.

All told, MPS is amazingly well-positioned for an exciting future!