Look Who's Talking!
Assistant Professor Computer Science Department
Starting with background information, where are you
My father is from Crete (an island in south Greece) and I lived there
for most of my life. I was born in Nicosia – capital of Cyprus.
Where did you attend High-School? What about bachelors
I went to school in Egion, Greece. For college, I attended Computer Engineering
at the University of Patra. I did my masters in databases at Chania, my
hometown in Crete.
I got my PHD from Wisconsin-Madison. The thesis was on database systems
and their interaction with the underlying hardware.
How did you get interested in Computer Engineering/Computer
After high school, I had to decide what to study, rank different fields
on par with what I had learned in school and turn in my prioritized list
for application purposes. Engineering schools in Europe involve five years
of studies, are really hard to get into and have no majors/minors. You
must decide from the beginning what you want to do. If you want to switch,
you must wait for a year and compete again with the next bunch of prospective
Patra was basically an engineering school that was new and really very
hard to get into. At that time, I did not even know what a computer was
– I applied just because it was a challenge to get in. I actually
wanted to become a pilot but couldn’t because there were only military
schools in Greece, and these only took men, or a chemical engineer. But,
then I heard that there is this new computer engineering school that is
really hard to get into and that accepts only very few people. So I put
that as #1 on my list and when I got in I had to go to my #1. This is
how I got into Computer Engineering.
I immediately liked the engineering behind Computer Science. While doing
my masters at Crete, I was teaching two classes at the newly formed computer
engineering school. I did the underground building and engineering for
a network needed by the newly built university campus of the technical
university of Crete. I had done networks as part of my undergraduate diploma
thesis, so it worked really well. It was interesting and I had very nice
times. I also got a chance to work in a lot of European union funded projects
that involved traveling all over Europe for technical meetings with teams,
companies and universities. That was a lot of fun.
What made you come to USA for Computer Science?
After a while (about four years), the European Union project that I was
working on --and also coordinating at the same time-- ended. Then I wanted
to do something else. Something that would help me learn at a faster rate.
My life in Crete was amazing, but I was missing learning. So I thought
of getting a job somewhere else in Europe. But nothing was met my expectations.
A friend then suggested going to the USA for a PHD. Initially I thought
that it would be too far, but realized that it was going to be a new experience.
It will be really cool going there because I will be learning a lot as
a student. I was thinking that if I did not like it, I could always go
back to Greece because the university would still happily hire me back.
I was applying really late and could only apply to Rochester, NY, where
I was admitted. Rochester was great, but I was doing computer architecture
there while I really wanted to do databases. So I reapplied and moved
to Wisconsin in May 1996.
I graduated with a PhD from Wisconsin doing something I really, really
liked: Interdisciplinary research on database systems behavior, workload
characterization, and optimizing the interaction between database and
I believe that every place I went gave me something unique and then
everything came together in my PhD. I learned networks at Patra, databases
in Crete and Wisconsin, computer architecture in Rochester and Wisconsin,
and then the Ph.D. taught me how to put everything together and essentially
learn how to learn more.
What about women peers and faculty? Being a faculty
member yourself, have you had previous interactions with other female
faculty members in your career?
As an undergraduate, I never had a lot of women peers. In Patra
there were 9 women in a class of 140. In Crete, in the technical university
(for masters), there were no women faculty. In Rochester, there were a
couple of female faculty. There are a few more here but definitely a minority.
What are your views on being a Faculty as a female?
It is a big commitment to become faculty. I wanted a family and I felt
I may or may not be able to do it but I could give it a shot. My PhD co-advisor
(Mark Hill) told me, "if you want to try academia, go for it, and if you
don't make it, just go make a difference somewhere else in an industrial
site or in another country. You'll still be happy." And so I tried and
I now know that I couldn't possibly be doing anything else. It's a great
job, it's very fulfilling and sometimes it doesn't even feel like a job.
It's very rewarding because I get to talk and work and be with people
like you guys, with students who are resourceful and inspirational. I
want to make a change for the better and I feel that it will happen through
you, the students. That is what we all are trying here. So it is amazing
and I am happy I made this work. A lot of people ask me about juggling
family and work. I had my first child not when it was directed by my studies
and my work but when I found the right guy – I like to keep my personal
life separate from my professional life. When I became pregnant, I was
really stressed and felt that I will be making a professional dent in
my career. So I worked very hard and the result was that the one semester
when I did not teach, and minimized meetings, became unnoticeable. I had
Niki in 2003, and 2003 and 2004 have been my most profitable years in
terms of professional growth. Of course, systems work requires a long
I think that the secret to happiness is the right prioritization: Put
the big stones in the jar first (i.e., give time to what matters to you
most) and then the smaller stones and then the pebbles and then the sand
and then there’s always space left to pour some water and fill the
How did you decide to come to Carnegie Mellon?
Babak and I interviewed together in 2000. It was a good market and we
had offers from almost everywhere we interviewed. We realized that Carnegie
Mellon was the place because we both felt at home here. I never thought
that I would come and live in Pittsburgh. Everyone had told me horrible
things about this place but now that I live here, I don’t think
they are true. You come here and then you experience Carnegie Mellon and
then there is simply no comparison. For us Carnegie Mellon is not only
a top notch place in terms of research, but also a top notch place in
terms of people and environment and collegial feeling, and above all it
is very collaborative.
How would you compare the level of Computer Science
in Greece with the level in the US?
I don’t think that there such a thing as a “comparison of
levels.” Computer Science is a wonderfully diverse field that can
be exercised in so many diverse and blossoming ways that you just have
to go where you feel you will be able to grow in the way you want to.
In Greece there is a strong focus on education and the research is very
tied to applications (EU funding influences research directions). Here
the funding is more diverse and there is a lot of freedom on what kind
of research one will do.
What are your current roles and responsibilities as
an Assistant Professor and as the co-founder of the CMU databases group?
I find that I do mostly four things (Teaching and Advising, Research and
Meetings, Research Grants and Community Work.) First is to teach or advise
which to me is an amazing and endless joy - especially when I teach undergraduates
- because it's so rewarding. I have great graduate students and love advising
them. It's a very interesting journey from the beginning when they start,
to the time they become independent professionals and I'm going to be
happy to see some of my students graduate but sad to see them leave at
the end of next year.
I do research with my students, and as a systems person I like to be
hands-on. Unfortunately my time does not allow sitting alone and staring
at a blank sheet of paper for a while and then scribbling stuff and developing
systems and trying experiments. But I am enjoying myself – I believe
in the high impact of collaborative research, so I do research with a
lot of interesting people. I write grants to pay for my students and for
I also like doing community duty in the department and in my research
community, e.g organizing the immigration course, hiring committees, hosting
candidates, and reviewing tons and tons of papers for tons and tons of
top level conferences, and organizing parts of conferences. These are
really useful experiences.
What do you think about the CS curriculum at Carnegie
I think it works really well. People enjoy courses that are both focused
and that have large breadth and at Carnegie Mellon there are a broad range
of topics they can take. There are interdisciplinary courses especially
at the graduate level. I like this and have seen it work both by teaching
people the connection between databases and other fields and also by focusing
on how we can make a difference by letting the results of our science
out. Carnegie Mellon is one of the pioneers in interdisciplinary education.
I really enjoy seeing interdisciplinary education creep into our curriculum
and getting into courses (either in the form of special lectures or as
an invited speaker).
How do you like teaching graduate courses and how
was your experience teaching the first undergraduate databases class in
Teaching 15-415 for the first time was not too hard because this class
was originally designed by Christos Faloutsos, a very special person,
an amazing scientist. He gave me his blessing to change everything I wanted
in the course and play -- that’s what it’s all about, we play
and gain experiences. I introduced a couple of different projects, changed
the textbook . Then I started teaching and when you teach something you
love, you are happy. So I was very happy.
Will you continue teaching undergraduate classes? What
other courses do you teach?
For the moment, I only teach 15-415 at the undergraduate level. At graduate
level, I teach a course I introduced: 15-721 (entry level graduate course).
This course brings people up to date with the latest and greatest in systems
and also starts from a very early history of how systems evolved. It is
a great database course about data management systems, programs, and applications.
I also teach a graduate level seminar course. This is shaped into a modular
course that covers very hot areas in recent database conferences (e.g.
peer-to-peer databases, databases and comp architecture, sensor databases).
What roles and attributes do you feel women bring to
the SCS community?
Engineering thinking. I really think women are amazing
engineers. They are full of fundamentally innovative ideas and are very
resourceful when it comes to solving a hard problem. Most of the times
when I have been lucky to work with a woman, I have been faced with an
excellent source of ideas, perseverance and commitment. I don’t
want to say that it’s better or worse than what it was before women
actually became a significant presence in CS. However, they have definitely
complemented the field in a very unique way and I really think that computer
science is going to go much further if there are more women involved and
the more of these women go to grad school and get educated, the more of
a difference they can make. I, for one, am not the same person I was before
I did my PhD. Learning at the higher and higher level and understanding
how to learn and disseminate knowledge changes you forever.
What is your favorite zone/place in Pittsburgh?
The Allegany county airport where I learned to fly. I wanted to fly since
I was 10 and I got to do it in Pittsburgh. I really like flying above
the Cathedral of Learning and overlooking beautiful downtown Pittsburgh
by night. So that would be my favorite place – right up there.
I like other places in Pittsburgh: the south side used book shops where
I can go at 11 pm and find editions of books that I have only heard of
in Europe. I also like the dance clubs where one can dance to 80s music.
What is the next big thing in Computer Science?
Expanding the way we think about computing. Computing in
very different ways - without pushing any buttons or having the equipment
that we are used to thinking about when we think about the word “computer.”
In movies we see signs that people have started to think about what it
would mean to compute everywhere - when you need it and in the way you
need it. We will be able to break out of these physical restrictions and
create easy ways for people to compute, and then we will be able to bring
people in the world closer to each other and extend Computer Science in
the real world in a very practical manner. For example, enable CS to contribute
in medicine in a practical way, not just for the few with networked access
to computer archives but for everybody. Imagine a doctor at P-score to
be able to very quickly find out whether what they see has happened or
has been seen before. It will take some pretty crazy and exciting ideas
to do that.
What inspires you the most?
My inspiration comes from the students. It emerges through their faces
as they understand and explore and come up with ways to interpret experimental
results and ask research questions on them. I remember the faces of students
in my last class today where I was teaching ARIES -- a very hard to digest
recovery system that even I have to read every time before I teach the
class. I saw the faces of students as they understood this difficult piece
of software art and that motivates me more than anything. I see my graduate
students' faces when they publish their first paper after having worked
like crazy on their ideas – when they go to a conference and get
everybody’s compliments. This is my reward, this is what I live